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Brice Prarie derby a hardwater tradition
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Brice Prarie derby a hardwater tradition

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Brice Prarie derby a hardwater tradition
Leif Marking, left, president of the Brice Prairie Conservation Association and Joe Kawatski, both longtime members of the group, outside the cabin they helped build on land donated by the late Alvin Blackdeer. The two are getting ready for the BPCA’s 45th annual fishing derby.
Photo by Paul Sloth

Forty gallons of ox tail stew, frozen. Leif Marking will never forget his first ice fishing derby on Lake Onalaska, 43 years ago.

It was 1962, the year Marking joined the Brice Prairie Conservation Association, three years after the group started hosting its annual fishing derby.

The BPCA will host the 45th annual Ice Fishing Derby Saturday, Feb. 5, at the Red Sails Resort on Lake Onalaska.

The derby has become the group's main source of funds, which it uses for projects ranging from building and monitoring wood duck houses to raising native swamp white oak saplings.

The derby has moved around through the years. In 1962, the group held the derby out in the main part of the lake between the upper and lower landings.

The county plowed a road out to the area where the group set up the tent the day before the event.

Don Verthein was in charge of cooking the ox tail stew in a 55 gallon drum, protected inside the tent. He prepared the stew the day before the derby and set it to simmering through the wee hours. That night, the wind roared in and blew the tent down. The stew froze.

The snowstorm that followed forced the group to postpone the event for two weeks because of the weather. But also thanks to the cold weather, the frozen stew had not thawed in two weeks and was still good when the derby could finally be held.

The BPCA hasn't postponed the derby since then. "We had some nasty weather," Marking said. "We've held it despite the cold weather."

In January 2004 the BPCA celebrated 50 years of conservation work. Things have changed since the group started. But as it moves into its second half century, one thing that hasn't changed is the group's commitment to conserving the Black River bottoms and Lake Onalaska.

The group hopes to attract new members whenever it hosts an event like the ice fishing derby. Many of the group's 60 members are getting older, and conserving a unique and vital ecosystem like the one around Brice Prairie takes a lot of work.

"One of the problems is a lot of people out there are young but they don't get too involved in conservation, they're too busy," said BPCA member Joe Kawatski.

A retired Viterbo University biology professor, Kawatski joined the BPCA when he moved to Brice Prairie in the early 1970s. He lived on Brice Prairie for 12 years. He now lives north of Holmen.

He has been active in helping to organize the ice fishing derby for nearly 30 years. It's an important event for him and the other members of the BPCA.

"The fishing derby is our only money-making event," Kawatski said. "Every dollar we earn goes back into the community."

Since it began, the BPCA has undertaken several projects to conserve and improve the habitat around Lake Onalaska.

For 20 years, the BPCA has been involved in building, installing and monitoring wood duck houses around Lake Onalaska.

Increasingly, there are fewer natural cavities for these birds to build homes in, and the group has found unique ways to build homes that last for years and are not vulnerable to predators, Kawatski said. "It's one of our signature efforts."

Every year the group puts together a report from the observations of the wood duck and hooded merganser populations, all done by group members.

The money the BPCA makes during the ice fishing derby helps to fund the wood duck project. If the event doesn't bring in new members, it at least helps the group financially.

"There's not a lot of people out there who want to trudge through the marsh checking on duck houses," Marking said. "People have to be interested in the program and the projects."

The BPCA Ice Fishing Derby isn't really about the competition. There are other ice fishing tournaments around the state that offer bigger and better prizes, and in the grand scheme of things that isn't what makes this event special.

And it is special. The derby has become as important to the group as the group has become to Brice Prairie.

And while both Marking and Kawatski realize this, it hasn't brought them out of ice fishing retirement.

Kawatski used to ice fish. But his interests have since turned to other pursuits, including hunting elk.

"The idea of sitting over one little hole waiting for a fish doesn't excite me anymore," Kawatski said. "I just wait until spring."

As BPCA members, neither Marking nor Kawatski ever had a chance to do much ice fishing during the derby anyways. They were too busy helping organize the event.

That's quite all right for Marking, who also doesn't ice fish anymore.

He said he used to ice fish quite a bit. Now that he's getting older, he saves himself for other things like the blue bird project. "I sort of hibernate during the winter," said Marking, who spends winters with his wife in their Brice Prairie home.

But that doesn't mean that both men don't appreciate what the lake offers to willing anglers.

"Lets face it, Lake Onalaska is one of the best pan fishing areas on the whole upper Mississippi," Marking said.

It's taken some time to find just the right spot to hold an ice fishing derby.

"Some winters we didn't get good ice," Marking said. "Some years, it was pretty precarious."

After moving the event around, Marking thinks the BPCA has found a good location for the derby.

For the past 10 years the group has held the derby at the Red Sails Resort.

"It's given us a real nice opportunity," Marking said. "We've had some pretty good derbies."

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