By Dave Boehler
for The Beacon
Losing a fishing tournament by one pound, I would think, is as heartbreaking as giving up a walk-off home run or last-second touchdown.
Not so, says Sheboygan’s Aaron Berg.
“That’s kind of how it is every year for the championship,” he said.
Berg, a 2008 North graduate, teamed up with Matt Thayer (Howards Grove, ’06), to take second place and win $4,000 at the 47-team North American Ice Fishing Circuit Championship in mid-December in Naytahwaush, Minn.
Catch a fatter fish, and the two would have collected between $8-10,000 and a pair of $3,500 rings for their second championship in four years.
“It’s such a hard tournament to win, you walk away just evaluating yourself and not really evaluating what other people did,” Berg said. “We didn’t have any regret walking away from that tournament. We fished as good as we possibly could have and we just didn’t get the bites to win. We fished seven championships and we’ve taken four top-fives, so we’re not going to complain.”
They did complain about the weather, however, although who wouldn’t have? Looking at the picture of the two of them, I would’ve quit and went inside.
“Most people were,” Berg said. “I feel like that’s one of the reasons we do well. You just have to have a high level of grit to fish these kinds of things. Because yeah, when it’s -30, most people aren’t outside. We’ll just go, grind away. We’re not going to be out there sunup to sundown, but that definitely kept a lot of people off the ice.”
That frigid temperature in northern Minnesota did not include the wind chill or the fact there was almost a foot of snow on top of 7-9 inches of ice on the lakes.
That meant any time Berg and Thayer drilled holes through the ice, the snow would get wet and that created slush pockets all over the place.
“Even at -30, it’s not close enough to freeze them, so you end up going through these with ATVs and stuff, and it just turns your machines into giant ice balls,” Berg said. “It makes it almost impossible to get around.”
That did not stop Berg-Thayer from catching the two-day tournament-limit of 32 fish – 16 crappies and 16 bluegill – that weighed 25½ pounds.
“We were out there earlier than most other teams in the morning, working on our machines making sure that everything was going before we had to leave,” Thayer said. “We left ourselves some room to address any problems that would come up.”
The tournament began at 8 a.m. and ended at 2 p.m. each day, but teams had to be ready earlier for pre-fishing inspections so no one cheated.
“So you sit there frozen to death for an hour before they even let you go,” Berg said.
Once that’s done, I’m picturing something similar to a start of a marathon: 94 people waiting for a gun to go off and then sprinting to the lake to get their favorite fishing spot.
That’s not the case though.
Eight qualifying tournaments are held throughout the year and how teams finished in those were their seed, so to speak.
So Berg-Thayer were fourth in line to take the ice, and each team has to be 15 feet away from one another once they start fishing.
And yes, folks keep an eye on each other to see how well they’re doing.
“There are teams that will look for ‘bent rods’ is what we call them,” Berg said. “They see somebody catching fish and they’re going to run over and get 15 feet away from you, and try to sniper fish away from guys. That’s not really what we like to do. Most of the top teams you don’t really see that from. The first few fish out of a school are normally your biggest, most aggressive ones. So you kind of try to avoid other people as much as possible in tournaments, if you can.”
Berg and Thayer, who met when they worked at Dumper Dan’s Sportfishing Charters, made the 10½-hour drive a week ahead of the tournament to pre-fish the two lakes the event was held on.
One of the highlights off the ice was when a team from Nebraska found a buck on the side of the road after getting hit one morning.
Since the two teams are friends and staying together, they went to get a salvage tag from the DNR and butchered the deer at their resort.
“A couple of days we had fresh venison for dinner instead of kind-of-bad chili that we all normally make,” said Berg, who runs Iceberg Guide Service and is also in real estate. “It was a nice treat.”
They then probably returned to joking about who the better fisherman is a short time later.
“As buddies, 80% of the conversation we have is berating the other,” said Thayer, a nurse at St. Nicholas Hospital. “I motivate Berg through telling him how bad he is and vice versa.”