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2,200 anglers, zero fish at Alexandria fishing tournament

The organizers of this year's Alexandria Ice Fishing Challenge never saw this coming when they made the decision to switch locations from Lake L'Homme Dieu to Lake Agnes.

The group did so with the intentions of increasing traffic to local downtown businesses and with the hopes of catching some bigger fish at the new location. Instead, the committee and nearly 2,200 anglers and 400 spectators and volunteers were left trying to figure out how not a single fish was brought through the ice during Saturday's tournament.

"I know a lot of people who fish this lake in the summer and winter," this year's co-chair Eddie Reif said. "They have pulled out 23-inch bass, 42-inch northerns, so there are large fish in this lake, but today we were just not lucky. We have a good-sized concourse, but this is a good-sized lake. We weren't covering the whole thing, so there are still fish out there that we just weren't attracting."

Reif and everyone else were left wondering why that was. The weather was beautiful for anglers who were out in temperatures in the upper-30 degree range. That weather shifted from only two days earlier when temperatures were in the single digits. Some noise disturbance from the close to 2,600 people who packed the ice might have also had something to do with it. Or it might be because that's the way fishing goes.

No matter what the reasons were, Reif said he understands the disappointment that many of the anglers felt as they left the ice.

"It's a mixed bag," he said of the mood on Saturday. "We have the hard core fishermen, the professionals that might be out here. They're out here to win money, and they're solely looking for that, and they're disappointed. But there's a lot of people who are out here that say $35 isn't a bad ticket for a good time, for a preplanned gathering on the ice in the middle of winter to have some fun."

Mike Luna and Tyler Vik of Alexandria had mixed feelings. Both were fishing in the challenge for the first time and had a hard time believing what happened.

"It's kind of the way it goes," Luna said. "But in a way, it's kind of upsetting that nobody caught a fish. I've fished in other tournaments around and people always caught fish. This is the first one I've been to where nobody's caught a fish, especially with the number of people who came."

Vik echoed that sentiment but felt it also added to the intrigue coming down to the final half-hour.

"Even though the fish weren't biting, it kind of made me a little more excited," he said. "Just because nobody had a fish, so I figured if I can catch one small, two-inch perch, it would be a $10,000 fish."

Reif said nobody was more disappointed than the organizers who decided on switching to Lake Agnes. None of the volunteers or anyone associated with the Viking Sportsmen or the Alexandria Sertoma Club, the two local sponsors, receives any money for working on this event. All the proceeds go toward charitable organizations in the area. Since 2004, the group has donated more than $86,000 within the community.

"We are all volunteers," Reif said. "No one is receiving any compensation for helping put on this tournament. We do it because we love this community and want to see it thrive."

The group did hand out $21,800 in the raffle drawings. Mike Dolan of Alexandria won the largest payout of $10,000. David Gregory Jr. of Byron won the $5,000 drawing, while Alexandria's Justin Taves brought home $2,500.

The organizers were quick to make a decision on what to do with all the prize money that did not get handed out. The total fishing payout was supposed to be $40,200. All of that money will be added to the pot for next year, making it the most lucrative event in tournament history.

Not surprisingly, the 2012 challenge will be held at a different location. That information will be posted on when the decision is made.

Luna and Vik both said they would be back when the event is moved. Reif said he and the rest of the committee are doing everything to make sure thousands of others do the same.

"We're taking this very seriously," he said. "And we're going to add [the money] to next year's pot. Hopefully next year we'll have an even bigger tournament. We'll definitely have more cash prizes, so plan on coming next year at a new location."