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Kenmare native lives the ice fishing dream

Justin Potter caught the fishing bug when he was a young child tagging along with his dad Jim.

12/16/14 (Tue)

Catching rainbows... 
Justin Potter pulled this rainbow trout out of Hegben Lake, Montana during an ice fishing tournament there in 2013. Potter is going into his third year of professional ice fishing.

By Marvin Baker

Justin Potter caught the fishing bug when he was a young child tagging along with his dad Jim.

As he grew up, he became most fond of ice fishing and was often the first one on the lake and the last one to leave.

That love for nature has vaulted Potter and his wife Nicky into the national spotlight on ice fishing where they are about to embark on their third season of professional competition.

The Potters, who live in landlocked Souris, will be competing in the NAIFC championship series derby in Mille Lacs, Minn., on Dec. 20 and 21.

Ninety-five teams are expected to be competing for a prize of $21,000. That’s one of up to eight tournaments the Potters may compete in including the Jan. 11 tournament on Lake Metigoshe.

That’s the only NAIFC tournament held in North Dakota and although it has the same, $21,000 payout as Mille Lacs, 150 teams will be competing so the competition will be stiffer for the same amount of prize money, according to Potter.

Last year the Potters finished third in the Lake Metigoshe tournament.

“We set our goal to be in the top 10, and we took third in our first one,” Potter said. “That was our first one... Then what’s the goal?”

But he recalls a bitterly cold day. Sometimes it hurts to breathe when it’s dangerously cold, let alone earning ice fishing accolades.

“That was Jan. 5 at Lake Metigoshe and it was 32 below zero,” Potter said. “It was cold, it was brutal. I will never forget it.”

Overall the Potters  competed in eight tournaments last year, finishing 13th in NAIFC, which qualified them to be on the 2014-15 leader board. More than 200 teams competed on the circuit.

“A lot of people have come out of this circuit to fish in world competition,” Potter said. “We’ve met a lot of different people. There are a lot of tough fishermen on this circuit.”

The Potters have also fished at Hebgen Lake, Montana, which is at West Yellowstone, Chisago Lake, Minnesota, Mitchell Lake, South Dakota, Lake Menomin, Wisconsin, Croton Dam Pond, Michigan and Lake Maxinkukee, Indiana.

Potter said West Yellowstone was the prettiest place the duo has ever fished.

“We’ll do the national championship, then Metigoshe and West Yellowstone, then Mitchell Lake and Chisago Lake. Our last one will be at Menomonie,” Potter said. “The only bad thing about chasing this circuit is we don’t fish a lot in our home state.”

Fishing on the circuit isn’t like doing it for recreation on a local lake. Set up a fish house, drill a hole in the ice, crack open a beer and put your line in the water is how many perceive ice fishing.

For the Potters, it’s a job and they always have to have their game face on.

As an example, there are a number of rules that have to be followed in order to accumulate points.

“There’s all kinds of rules,” Potter said. “We can’t talk to other teams during tournaments, we can set up our fish house but it has to be open until the start time and there’s no alcohol allowed.”

Additionally, the type of fish caught and scored will vary from lake to lake. At Mille Lacs, 16 fish are the maximum and they can be any combination of perch, crappie or sunfish.

At Lake Metigoshe, it’s 16 blue gill, while at Chisago Lake it’s a combination of sunfish and crappie.

West Yellowstone is slightly different in that six rainbow trout are the limit.

The Potters fish as a team and represent Clam Outdoors, an outfitting company that caters to the ice fishing industry with clothing, boots, augers, fishing equipment and fish houses.

“We got to meet the Clam Outdoors pro staff,” Potter said. “That was pretty exciting.”

A total of nine teams from North Dakota, including the Potters, are listed on the latest leader board.

The Potters have also become close friends with Dave Genz of St. Cloud, MN, considered the godfather of modern-day ice fishing.

Genz has designed, developed and promoted equipment, tackle, and methods used by most of today’s successful ice fishermen.

Potter said another highlight from last year was that he and Nicky were invited to a gala that Genz sponsors at a resort in Minnesota.

“You have to be invited to this,” Potter said. “Once you’ve been there, you’re golden, but you have to be invited. It’s a pretty big deal.”

Another big deal, according to Potter, is getting children into fishing just like his dad Jim, and his friends Joe Pierce, Frank Zeltinger and Don Nore did with him when he was young.

The circuit holds ice fishing camps for kids and the Potters volunteer each year to help out.

“Our last trip last year was with Dave Genz and the pro staff and we took the kids fishing and got into jumbo perch,” Potter said. “That’s our motto – as much as we like ice fishing, we want to get kids involved as much as possible. I’d much rather put a fishing pole in a kid’s hand than a Nintendo.”

Potter admits there’s a lot of travel involved in the ice fishing world and it can take up to a week traveling to the site, settting up, fishing, tearing down and traveling back. But with a theoretical payout of $160,000 for eight long weekends on the ice fishing circuit, it all seems worth it.

That also allows the Potters to purchase some of the latest and greatest technology to aid in the ice fishing challenge including plastics.

He said plastic worms, maggots or minnows have become a big thing with ice fishing and believes that 50 percent of ice fishing enthusiasts are now using plastic bait.

Potter said plastic can represent a lot of different creatures swimming around in the water and most are scented to attract the fish.

It’s been quite a ride thus far, according to Potter and although a couple of last year’s tournaments didn’t go so well, the realistic goal is once again to make the leader board to stay qualified on the circuit.

“I’ve been an ice fishing nut since I was a kid when I was in Kenmare,” Potter said. “I was one of or the one on area lakes. If there was 2 inches of ice, I’d be on it. I was always tagging along with my dad. Now my kids are tagging along with me....” Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!