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Backstory: The ice fisherman cometh

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Joe Gobel is sitting in an upholstered chair – an upholstered reclining chair – in the middle of a frozen lake. He's got a small propane heater burning near his feet. A radio pumps out a country song at his elbow.

Even though an Arctic wind has driven the temperatures down near the single digits, Mr. Gobel doesn't seem to care. He's focused on a small bobber dangling in a six-inch-wide borehole in the ice. This is contentment, Minnesota style.

"It's nice," says Gobel, a machinist from nearby Fort Ripley, Minn. "I'm not catching anything, but at least I'm comfortable."

So are the more than 10,000 others doing the same thing in what can only be called the "hajj" of ice fishing. Each year, a local chapter of the Jaycees puts on an ice-fishing event that organizers believe is the largest in the world. So far, no one has come forward to refute them.

The anglers are spread over 250 acres of Gull Lake, a frozen expanse in central Minnesota. For one afternoon in January, they make this the largest city in Crow Wing County. The fishermen, and some women, come from more than a dozen states and seven countries, including Canada, England, and Germany. Three groups are here from Australia.

Beside the hordes of moon-suited anglers, several thousand spectators arrive to gawk at this annual tableau on the tundra. Dozens of tents have been set up where vendors sell everything from ice augers to fur hats. Makeshift restaurants hawk hearty food – bratwurst and turkey drumsticks and hamburgers. A local radio station broadcasts from the ice, allowing the far-flung anglers to monitor their competition.

As fish are caught, the results are posted on a website, along with pictures, in part so Minnesota service members stationed in Iraq can participate electronically in a pastime that, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, is part of the local DNA.

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