There are myriad reasons Ryan Wilson could feel like a fish out of water when he competes in the upcoming World Ice Fishing Championships in Kazakhstan.
When he’s placed in a grid with an angler from each of the competing countries, the 30-year-old Dixon native will be navigating a language barrier without his right-hand man, Brandon Newby.
He also won’t get to scout the battle ground. While making a name for themselves in the North American Ice Fishing Championships, he and Newby drive through the night to arrive with plenty of time to know every nuance of each event’s “arena.”
“It’s a crazy amount of effort in very little time,” Wilson says.
There are hard-and-fast restrictions at worlds. Only hand augers are allowed. Competitors must use specific jigs, exclusively live bait, and cannot use any electronic devices, which means bye-bye, Vexilar fish finder.
“I’ll be blind,” Wison says. “That thing is your eyes. It tells you everything you want to know. So it’ll be back to basics.”
But the reason the master fisherman should feel at home is the fundamental goal remains the same – to catch as many fish as possible, as fast as possible.
And if you want to win, you’ve got to be able to work an auger as if lives are at stake.
“You’ve got to be in shape,” says Wilson, who stops on his way home a few days a week to refine the craft. “I’ll drop by and drill holes until I can’t anymore.”
While the Midwest is enjoying an Indian Summer, temperatures will rarely reach the teens in Kazakhstan during the competition. But the cold is nary an issue for Wilson, who works outdoors for a living for Asplundh Tree Expert Co. in Waupaca, Wis., and stays busy over the weekends with his own business, Wilson Tree Service.
“I work outside every day, so it’s just another day in the life for me,” Wilson says.
To say he comes from a fishing family would be a massive understatement.
“I was fishing before I could walk,” he says. “With my family, it was every day. We’d throw the boat in the water when the sun came up and wouldn’t come back until the sun went down. It was that kind of fishing family.”
He took the plunge into ice fishing when he moved to Wisconsin to attend UW-Stevens Point.
“I moved up to Central Wisconsin for school and, well, they’ve got ice up here,” Wilson says. “I had to figure out what to do with my time.”
Wilson and Newby met as dart partners about six years ago. Newby had cut his teeth on a few NAIFC events, and they enjoyed immediate success as a tandem. Last year was their closest brush with a Team of the Year title. They finished third after their last event in South Dakota proved a wash.
“Other teams needed to choke and we needed to show well,” Wilson says. “They choked. But so did we.
“No one could catch any crappies anywhere. We kept thinking, ‘They’re gonna show, they’re gonna show,’ but they never did. If two fish had swam by, it would have made all the difference.”
It’s a labor of love for the duo, as they often drive back through the night from hundreds of miles away before another work week begins.
Speaking of work, there were no issues taking off time with any of his bosses.
“[Asplundh] puts up with my shenanigans,” Wilson says. “My wife [Erika] is excited about me going. She’s not excited about me being away, but she’s happy for me to have the chance to do this.”
They’ve been married for about 3 1/2 years, have a 2-year-old son, Trevor, and are expecting. Trevor is a chip off the old ice block.
“They can’t say ‘fishing pole’ in the house,” Wilson’s mother, Cindy, says. “They have to spell it, or Trevor will lose it.”
“His favorite word is ‘Ish, ‘ish. He’s got so much to learn – he has no idea,” Wilson says. “He’s starting early, that’s for sure.”
Wilson’s performance at an event in Rhinelander earned him one of a dozen spots for the worlds event. He departs Thursday morning and the event kicks off Monday, Feb. 6. The two stages of competition take place on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 10-11.
“With another [child] on the way, there’s always that worry that I might not be able to do this again for awhile, so I’m glad I can do it now,” Wilson says. “A lot of guys who have competed in it say that you can’t get this experience any other way.”
Ryan Wilson file
Resides: Waupaca, Wis.
High School: Dixon High School, 2000
Family: Wife, Erika; son Trevor, 2; they’re expecting another child in three months
Education: Studied urban forestry and business at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. ... Earned bachelor’s degree in 2005.