WAUSAU, Wis. — The ice fishermen spent a week on the frozen lake, and on the last day, after emptying perch and bluegill from their buckets and scrubbing bait from their hands, several winners of the World Ice Fishing Championship were ushered into their rooms in the Plaza Hotel.
There, an official from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency ordered them to provide urine samples for a surprise test to detect steroids and growth hormones drugs not normally associated with the quiet solitude of ice fishing.
“We do not test for beer, because then everybody would fail,” said Joel McDearmon, chairman of the U.S. Freshwater Fishing Federation.
With doping a rampant problem throughout sports, drug testing has arrived at the most unlikely places, including the chilly Big Eau Pleine Reservoir, where competitors hide fish in their pockets and prize patience over power.
An Olympic gold?
The leaders of the sport of ice fishing have started a long-shot bid to take their lonely pursuit to the Olympics. A berth in the Winter Games would come with many obvious advantages, but first there are hurdles to clear. Once the anglers shuffled off the ice and put down their rods, they had to submit to the same examinations as world-class sprinters and weight lifters.
In sports like ice fishing, where speed and strength are not necessarily at a premium, an agent from an international antidoping federation can seem like, well, a fish out of water.
After all, ice fishing is not a particularly physical sport. Most days are spent crouched low around the ice hole in snow pants, kneepads and improvised shin guards made out of foam. The hardest part is staying warm – most anglers forgo gloves in order to better feel fish tugging on the rods.
Fishing officials puzzled over whether doping would even help anglers jigging for panfish, roughfish and crappie.
“We kind of joked about that,” McDearmon said. “You’re obviously not going to have anybody out there oxygen doping or something like that.”
Bill Whiteside, a previous gold medal winner from Eau Claire, Wis., said that physical strength often had little to do with fishing success.
“It’s not the best athlete that usually wins the events,” he said. “A lot of times it’s the experienced older guys.”
Ice fishing is not the only fringe sport that has embraced drug testing. Competitors in darts, miniature golf, chess and tug of war were all tested in recent years, according to the sports’ organizers and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Some of those sports are gearing up for long-shot Olympic bids of their own. Others are aiming to ensure that no competitor, no matter the scale of the competition, has an unfair advantage.
“Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of the sport,” reads the World Minigolf Sport Federation’s rule book.
That doesn’t stop some people from trying.
Two minigolfers tested positive for banned substances, out of 76 tested in 2011, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency. That year, one chess player also tested positive, as did two bowlers, eight roller sport athletes and one tug-of-war competitor.
To some of the lifelong fishermen who huddled together in subzero temperatures for the annual event last month, the tests served as a reminder of the distance between Wausau, Wis., and Lausanne, Switzerland, headquarters of the International Olympics Committee.
After five days of scouting the ice to get a feel for the lake, fishermen representing 11 countries took part in the two-day tournament, including, for the first time, some from Mongolia and Japan. Anglers pay out of their own pockets to attend the international competition, and the only opening ceremony consisted of a reception at the Fillmor, a pub.
Some anglers said they were astonished, and already drinking cocktails after the competition, when the surprise drug tests were announced.
“I wasn’t drinking out there, but when I got in I had one,” said Myron Gilbert of Brooklyn, Mich., a member of the United States team and a previous gold medal winner. When he learned of the tests, he said he thought to himself, “I’ve got booze in my system!”
The sport’s rules are simple. Fishermen have three hours to catch as many fish as they can; the angler with the heaviest haul wins. They drill holes into the 20-inch-thick ice – there’s no limit to how many – and they are not allowed to leave their rods unattended.
The sport is in many ways a game of strategy. Many European and Asian anglers aim for a huge volume of perch and other small fish; American teams are known for loading up on heavier fish, like crappies.
Hiding the honey holes
Secrecy is key. Many anglers keep fanny packs around their waist, where they stash their fish with the furtiveness of a shoplifter in order to keep rivals from noticing and encroaching on a fruitful hole in the ice. As the competition unfolded last week, Big Eau Pleine Reservoir became a perforated chessboard as anglers drilled hole after hole, using subterfuge and misdirection to ward off rivals.
With temperatures dropping throughout the week, the larger fish became less active – a major blow to the Americans.
“Only small fish are biting, and our guys were prepared for the crappies,” said Greg Wilczynski, a former coach who led the United States team to a gold medal in 2010.
At the end, the Americans finished fourth, thanks largely to Chad Schaub, 30, of Greenville, Mich., one of only two competitors to catch 25 fish, Wisconsin’s legal limit.
The Russians were the clear winners, with a four-and-a-half-pound haul.
When the final results were announced inside a hotel ballroom, the Russian fishermen leapt from their seats and exchanged hugs in a scrum.
As the dancing and cheering quieted down, four of the anglers were asked to come forward and take the elevator to their rooms – a private place where they could concentrate on providing urine samples.