While hundreds of the contestants in the Winterfest Ice Fishing Derby made a mini ice-house town over prime fishing areas on Lake Manawa, Rafael and Rachel Torres snuck away from the crowd.
“We like to get away from the noise and all the lines so the fish aren't spooked,” said Rafael Torres, of Lincoln.
Torres is no stranger to competitive fishing. He and Aaron Dillon were the second-place team for the 2012 season in the Nebraska Catfish Anglers Association, and Torres has won several prizes in tournaments at Lake Manawa.
But it was his wife, Rachel, who pulled in the big honors Saturday. She caught the largest catfish of the day, a 19.5-inch channel cat that she reeled in around 9:30 a.m.
“I got it on the ice, and then the hook came out of its mouth,” she said.
Torres dived for the fish to make sure it didn't escape. She received a flat-screen television for winning first place in the adult class.
Rafael Torres scored a hand-held GPS for catching the second-place wiper.
While the Torreses caught nearly 50 small wipers, crappie and the catfish, most contestants had a hard time finding the fish.
Eric Joranson and his 3-year-old white Shepherd, Riker, sat on the ice trying to figure out where the fish were.
It was the first time in 15 years that Joranson could join the fun. The Council Bluffs native now lives in Provincetown, Mass.
“Every time I came back to Iowa,” he said, “there wasn't enough ice to have the tournament.”
There were some concerns that the tournament would be called off this year. Due to spotty ice in places, the committee decided to close half the lake to fishermen for safety reasons.
“They didn't make their decision to have the tournament until last Monday (Jan. 21),” said Vicki Modlin, owner of Woods Sporting Goods. “The cold weather last week really helped us out.”
More than 650 contestants entered the tournament, many staking claim to their spots well before sunrise.
Joranson co-owns Alpha Whale Watch in Massachusetts, and spends most of his time catching fish that can weigh hundreds of pounds or guiding groups sightseeing for whales.
The last time he entered the Manawa tourney, he won an ice house for catching the largest bluegill. But when he brags to his friends and clients, it results in some chuckles.
“When we're out fishing for tuna, my clients laugh about my prize-winning bluegill,” he said.
Despite not having the best luck Saturday, he doesn't regret his decision to hit the ice before dawn.
“I'm glad I came,” he said. “It might be another fifteen years without ice.”
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