No fish, no problem

COTTONWOOD – The city of Cottonwood was a hub of all kinds of wintry activities, from snowmobiling to building snowmen and warming up with a cup of hot chocolate. Only one thing was missing – in spite of Cottonwood being a lakeshore town, there wasn’t any ice fishing on the schedule.

But then, what else would you expect from a Fishless Derby?

The Fishless Derby, a winter celebration that was once a town tradition, was back for a special cause this past weekend.

“We’re raising money for the Cottonwood 125th anniversary celebrations,” which will be this summer, said Cottonwood resident Joel Dahl. Organizers brought back a variety of activities, including a chili feed at the Cottonwood Community Center, where Dahl and Ray Pedersen were getting ready to call some bingo numbers on Saturday afternoon.

The story of the Fishless Derby goes back to the 1960s, Dahl and Pederson said. Cottonwood residents started having an annual ice fishing derby on the second weekend of February, but the results were less than spectacular.

“For the longest time, nobody could catch anything,” Dahl said. After years without a single catch, the community ran with the joke, dubbing the event a “fishless” derby. “One year, the only fish that qualified was a lutefisk.”

As the event grew, Dahl said, “We got calls from the Twin Cities and the Associated Press, wanting to know about this derby where nobody ever caught a fish. Cottonwood got quite a bit of press.”

The Fishless Derby turned into a winter festival, with a chili feed and snowmobile racing on the frozen lake.

“In the mid to late ’70s there was oval racing, and then it went to drag racing,” said Steve Alm.

Nellie Bjornebo said she and her family used to enjoy taking part in the festivities.

“I was in the powder puff races. I didn’t win, though,” she said.

Alm said events like the chili feed were popular too.

“You’d come up here, and the old Legion Hall would be packed,” he said. Eventually, however, the Fishless Derby was replaced by a summer celebration, Cottonwood’s Coming Home Days.

The snowmobiling part of the festivities was alive and well on Saturday. In a field just west of town, an all-ages crowd braved the cold to watch area snowmobilers participate in drag races.

“You can see better up here!” called young fan Greg Schafer to friends. Schafer had climbed up on a picnic table to get the best view of the drag strip.

The race day came just shy of the weekend’s snowstorm, so race organizers and supporters needed to do a lot of work to prepare.

“They were moving snow for hours,” said Josh Anderson. After enough snow to drive on had been spread over the raceway, he said, trail groomers with the Southwest Ridge Runners snowmobile club came in to help finish up.

Spectators at the races said they even hoped it would form a tradition of its own. There aren’t many snowmobiling events in the area, they said, so it would be nice if at least that part of the Fishless Derby could continue on.