GRANBY — Around here, catching "the big one" means more than landing a lunker.
Sure, it means that too. But for the past 25 years, the big one might just as easily refer to the annual Three Lakes Ice Fishing Contest, the largest and longest-running fishing tournament in Grand County.
"It's huge for us," said Laurie Findley, executive director of the Greater Granby Area Chamber of Commerce, which held the 25th annual tournament last weekend. "It's one of our biggest weekends of the winter. Last year we had about 1,200 competitors over the three days."
Clearly, Coloradans love their fishing. But there's something about tournament fishing on ice that casts a particularly intoxicating spell over anglers. According to wildlife officers monitoring the Three Lakes contest, more than 1,000 fishermen showed up Saturday, erecting an impromptu tent city lined with snowmobiles as they augured through the ice of Lake Granby, Shadow Mountain Reservoir and Grand Lake.
"They just have a ball out there," Findley said. "It doesn't matter if it's blowing 50 mph or whatever, they just sit out there and have a great time. They look forward to it every year."
Part of the attraction, of course, was a roughly $6,000 daily payout to the anglers landing the biggest fish in four categories: mackinaw, rainbow trout, brown trout and the combined grand slam that includes kokanee salmon. The daily top prize of $600 per fish ($750 for the slam) is enough to finance a good portion of a winter fishing addiction. And if dancing a jig through a hole in the ice is already your idea of entertainment, dropping another $15 a day into the bucket is a little like entering the lottery — albeit a weighted one.
"I don't know how many I've won. A bunch," said Randy Zamora of Arvada, a 23-year competitor in the event. "Last year I took home almost $900 from the contest. I had a first and a second place, and my buddy placed first all three days. So we did pretty good."
This year, Zamora did even better, collecting more than $1,300 with two first-place trout and a third place. His secret? He doesn't actually fish through the ice. The tactic is perfectly legitimate in the Three Lakes contest, which includes open-water fishing in the Granby Pump Canal and the Colorado River just below the Shadow Mountain Dam.
"We went out last Saturday and did real well on the ice. You get a big (mackinaw) on, and you've got a 30-minute fight on your hands. There's nothing better," Zamora said. "It's better than catching these 'bows and browns. But during the tournament, I fish the canal, because that's where I usually can take the dollar."
By rule, all mackinaw must measure shorter than 19 inches. Because there's no length restriction on other trout, there's potential for heftier fish.
"That's one thing about this tournament is that almost anyone can fish it," noted Jesse Moreland of Highlands Ranch, who landed the largest rainbow trout Saturday and finished just behind Zamora's 2.9-pound brown Sunday. "It's not just ice fishing, so even a fly-fisherman could come in and win first place, because there's open water, too. There's so many different strategies you can do."
Moreland, who enters about 12 tournaments a year, tends to split his time between the ice and open water. And while he and Zamora have fine-tuned their tournament strategies through the years, others are in it just for the ice.
"Ice is a great equalizer," said Bernie Keefe, a professional angler and 40-year ice fisherman from Granby. "You don't need a boat. You can walk out on the ice. The conditions are the same for everybody. Mainly, it's just that everybody can do it, including kids. Kids are a driving force for a lot of these tournaments. It's something where the dad can compete at his level and the kid can compete at the kid's level (free of charge)."
The camaraderie among contestants is another big draw to the tournament, with just about everyone sharing their stats and hauling home fresh fish for dinner. But the raw appeal of competition can't be overlooked, either.
"I guess it's just trying to prove that you're better than everyone else and that you've put in the time to deserve winning," Moreland said. "I fish every day. I do my homework and everything like that, so to actually win just gives me that pat on the back that all the time I put into it is worth it."
At the end of the day, though, competitors all echoed the same sentiment.
"I love fishing," said Jordan Kramer of Hudson. "It's just fun."