Fishermen bide their time before the 6 a.m. start time of the Midwest Hmong Outdoors July 4th Bass Fishing Tournament on Lake Minnetonka on Friday, June 28, 2019. The tournament brought out 98 teams of teams of two or three, each of which had to be at least half Hmong. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

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Before the sun came up, nearly 100 boats were in the water and ready to reel in some bass for the Midwest Hmong Outdoors’ July 4 bass fishing tournament. The event began in 2004 and has since grown into one of the biggest Hmong fishing tournaments in the country. Winners can walk away with a $10,000 prize.

Teams spent the whole day on the water, buzzing from one spot to another when the fish weren’t hitting. Many spent the weeks before the tournament fishing Lake Minnetonka and marking the best bays on their maps.

The lure of nearly $26,000 in total prize money helps fuel the high turnout, but the sense of community draws even more. Many teams have fished in the tournament since its inception, and they know their entry fee is staying in the community. Fees are even waived for teams who travel from out of state.

The tournament ends with a weigh-in. Each team’s six heaviest fish are weighed, and the highest total wins.

But there’s a catch — the fish have to be alive to count. Four hundred and twenty bass were caught, and only two fish died before their release.

Midwest Hmong Outdoors’ mission is the kids. They host a kids’ fishing tournament a few weeks after the July 4 tournament and run workshops to teach Hmong youth about gun safety, deer hunting and other outdoor skills.

“Everyone that comes out and competes, we always tell them that the money you pay for the entry fee here actually goes somewhere else. It goes back to your kids, it goes to your cousin’s kids, your uncle’s kids, any child,” said tournament director Meng Thao.