Reel Fun Ice Fishing Tournament and Festivus Feb. 22-23

Courtesy Photo Anglers charge out onto the ice to pick their fishing spots from the 1,200 holes available.

Here’s a good use for a lawn chair in February, if you enjoy sitting outside in the cold with 999 other people for a chance at some valuable prizes.

The 11th Annual Reel Fun Ice Fishing Tournament will be from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, on Grand Lake. Gates open at 9 a.m. It’s a catch-and-release tournament.

“We pre-drill 1,200 holes Friday,” said Roger Witherbee, chairman of the Thunder Bay River Center Board of Directors. “If you want to move around, there are a couple hundred holes you can move to. It’s fenced in,” he said of the ice area designated for the tournament.

Proceeds will benefit the proposed Thunder Bay River Center, which will cost about $4 million to build.

Organizers credit the Thunder Bay Walleye Club of Alpena for making the tournament happen.

Courtesy Photo Anglers charge out onto the ice to pick their fishing spots from the 1,200 holes available.

“They drill the 1,200 holes, and they run the tournament once it hits the ice,” said Judy Kalmanek, secretary of the Thunder Bay River Center board of directors.

“Without those guys, we couldn’t do this,” Witherbee added. He said on Friday that the ice was about 18 inches thick.

As with prior years, organizers are expecting to sell all 1,000 tickets available for the fishing tournament.

The entry fee for the tournament is $25 per hole. The winner of the tournament will receive a Honda Pioneer Side-by-Side 500 off-road vehicle valued at more than $8,000.

“Almost half of the money we generate goes back into prizes,” Witherbee said. “We struggle with that a little bit as a committee, but that money, between $8,000 and $10,000, goes into the operational expense fund for the river center.”

Top O’ Michigan Insurance of Alpena is the top sponsor of the event. Frank’s Great Outdoors in Linwood is the second top sponsor for the tournament, which attracts many anglers from all over Michigan and the surrounding states.

“We get people from Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio,” Witherbee said. “It’s fairly well-attended. A lot of the the local people will wait until they know what the weather will be. We get a flurry of them, but we always sell out.”

For more information or to register for the tournament, visit

Festivus on Friday

A Festivus dinner will precede the tournament from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, at the APlex. Tickets to the dinner are $20 per person. A cash bar will be available starting at 6 p.m., with dinner from 7 to 8:30 p.m., featuring a pasta bar catered by The Fresh Palate. This event will feature a live auction, silent auction, raffles, and a 50/50 raffle. There are only 200 tickets available for Festivus.

At Friday’s event, some of the nearly 50 auction items are valued at hundreds of dollars, including a plane ride around the area valued at $600 (donated by Dr. Robert Courier), an overnight stay at Turtle Creek Casino and Resort, a La-Z-Boy recliner, a gas grill and meat certificate package, sets of 16 hand-painted fishing lures, several nature photo print sets, and much more.

River Center Progress

This is the main fundraiser for the river center, “a watershed and aquatics studies center focused on the 1,250 square miles of the Thunder Bay River Watershed,” as stated in the Reel Fun tournament brochure.

“What the Reel Fun does for us, and the Festivus, it gives us an operational fund, so it helps us with matching funds,” said Kalmanek.

The river center has two funds — one is a building fund, and the other is for operational costs — both housed at the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan.

“Judy (Kalmanek) does a lot of work with grant writing, and we’re in the process of doing that,” Witherbee said. “And we’ve had some people step forward and give some fairly substantial donations, so that helps out a lot.”

Plans have been progressing over the past 10 years, but more money still needs to be raised for the operational fund.

“We have been at this quite awhile… We’ve been a little more proactive and aggressive, and we’re getting some younger board members on that are going to be a big help,” said Witherbee. “We’ve increased our pledge amount this past year, and we had one lady come and give us $40,000 this past year…”

That $40,000 came in 2017 from the Margot Dorn Dutcher Trust.

“We need to let the general public know that we’re moving forward,” Witherbee said.

“Thunder Bay River Center’s programs will interpret the watershed’s natural resources for schools, the local communities and tourists,” the Reel Fun brochure notes.

Kalmanek said applying for grants is the most important aspect of the process at this point.

“Once we hear back from the Carls Foundation, if we do, then we can proceed and do something really worthwhile,” said Kalmanek. “We’re asking them for $100,000, which we would then use as seed money to go after some bigger grants.”

“We’re at the point where, architecturally, we’re ready for construction,” Witherbee noted.

“So the architectural plans are finished,” Kalmanek explained, showing renderings of the proposed center, which will include five in-wall aquariums with the 81 species of fish that are native to the Thunder Bay River. The proposed center will also feature a 30- to 40-foot diorama of the river itself.

“It is an expensive venture,” Witherbee said. “But we need to get some matching money.”

The center will be located at the Duck Park, on the corner of U.S.-23 and Long Rapids Road in Alpena.

To find out more about the river center plans, visit

Contact Darby Hinkley at, or 989-358-5691.

Ticket Sales

Tournament and Festivus tickets are available at:

∫ Top O’ Michigan Insurance, 514 N. Ripley Blvd., Alpena, 989-356-6133 ext. 4004, or 1-800-686-8664.

∫ Buck’s Bait & Tackle, 8501 U.S.-23 North, Alpena, 989-595-2121.

∫ Clem’s Bait & Tackle, 304 N. Ninth Ave., Alpena, 989-354-2070.

∫ Adrian’s Sport Shop, 335 N. Bradley Hwy., Rogers City, 989-734-2303.

Retailers selling only Festivus tickets are:

∫ Alpena Chamber of Commerce, 235 W. Chisholm St., Alpena, 989-354-4181,

∫ Jimmy Garant’s Party Store, 1226 W. Chisholm St., Alpena, 989-354-4366.

∫ Neiman’s Family Market, 2205 S. U.S.-23 South, Alpena, 989-356-4720.

Thunder Bay River Center Update

∫ 2014 — A temporary exhibit costing $14,500 was created in donated space at NOAA’s Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, using funds from the Reel Fun Ice Fishing Tournament.

∫ 2015 — A feasability study was conducted using the following funding: $15,000 from USDA Rural Development, $14,100 from the Reel Fun tournament, and $2,500 from the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan.

∫ 2016 — Architect Bruce Johnson began initial design for the center, funded by $45,000 from USDA Rural Development, $12,000 from Giving Tuesday and the Reel Fun tournament, and $1,000 from the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan.

∫ 2016 — In October, the Alpena City Council donated the site for the center to the Thunder Bay River Center Board, with an assessed value of $157,000.

∫ 2017 — $40,000 was donated from the Margot Dorn Dutcher Trust, $13,500 was raised through the fishing tournament, and a promotional video was made, using $3,500 in local donations.