The Minnesota fishing opener traditionally is the premier event on the state’s outdoors calendar, but this year’s rite of spring promises to carry a fair bit of apprehension, as well.

COVID-19 – and all of the fears, risks and precautions that surround the pandemic – means this year’s opener definitely won’t be business as usual.

Minnesota’s statewide season for walleyes and northern pike opens at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 9.

“People are champing at the bit to get outside, but again, I think everybody wants to be safe,” said Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism and a voice for the area’s 30-plus resorts. “You’re going to have different perspectives. Some people won’t go at all, some people would have never quit going if they had the chance, and there’s people in the middle that might say, ‘All right, I’m going to go, but I’m really going to take some precautions here.’

“So I think that’s where people are at.”

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Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, said resorts are gearing up for the Minnesota fishing opener with enhanced cleaning and sanitizing procedures because of COVID-19 and are working to make resort visits as safe as possible. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, said resorts are gearing up for the Minnesota fishing opener with enhanced cleaning and sanitizing procedures because of COVID-19 and are working to make resort visits as safe as possible. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz last week loosened some of the state’s stay-at-home restrictions. Resorts and hotels again are open to guests, and bait shops can resume business. But as of late this week, fishing guides and charter boats couldn’t operate, and campgrounds remained closed under the stay-at-home order, which Walz on Thursday said will continue two more weeks.

That will put Minnesota fishing guides and charter boats on the sidelines for opening day, at least the way things stand for now.

“It appears everything is still in place as is until May 18,” said Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids, Minn., a 38-year fishing guide and member of the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame.

His reaction, in a word: “Disappointed.”

Neustrom said he had canceled his bookings for the first two weeks of the season regardless, just to be safe; there’s more at stake than lost revenue, he says.

“I’ll live with it, and I’ll hope other guides do, too,” he said. “A fish isn’t worth your life, and you’ve just got to be smart – that’s all.”

Up at Lake of the Woods, the majority of resorts are “ready to roll” with a variety of safety measures because of the pandemic, Henry said, a checklist that includes special COVID-19 cleaning and disinfecting and remote check-ins for cabin guests.

Fewer anglers will be allowed in fish-cleaning shacks, and social distancing will be the norm, based on the size of the shack, he said; food will be picked up or delivered to cabin doors.

“They’re trying to run a business but also be as safe and responsible as possible,” Henry said.

Still, many groups have canceled their reservations, he said, a trend that’s likely not unique to Lake of the Woods.

“Some people are real scared, but I can also understand why other people want to get moving a little bit and take some next steps to reality again,” Henry said. “It’s a very sensitive topic, and we’re just trying to follow the rules, really taking the governor’s lead so we don’t do any missteps and then, of course, all the precautions that businesses are taking to make sure their employees and also the customers are safe.”

Mixed views on travel

Last week, the MN-FISH Sportfishing Foundation sent a letter to Walz asking the governor to allow statewide travel for anglers and boaters. Such travel isn’t strictly prohibited under the governor’s stay-at-home restrictions, but Walz and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources continue encouraging anglers to fish close to home.

Earlier this week, MN-FISH issued a second letter asking the governor to allow fishing guides and charter boat operators to reopen, while encouraging anglers to buy fishing licenses online and promoting May 9-10 as “Take Mom Fishing Free” weekend.

Neustrom, who serves on the MN-FISH board of directors, said the group’s position supporting statewide travel for anglers and boaters wasn’t shared by everyone.

“There were a few of us that weren’t in favor, but sometimes majority rules,” he said.

Most years, as many as 500,000 anglers hit the water for the Minnesota fishing opener. Even if that number is cut by half or more because of COVID-19, Neustrom says he still could see 200,000 anglers converge on the northern third of the state come opening day.

So far, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in most northern Minnesota counties is low, but many residents remain concerned about an influx of people from areas where the coronavirus is more prevalent, Neustrom says.

“It doesn’t hit home as hard because we don’t have that exposure,” he said. “Now, we’re going to have exposure from out of the area, and hopefully over the next few weeks, we weather the storm and it doesn’t affect us.”

Time will tell whether anglers play it safe and adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“People (hopefully) will try to take care of themselves, but some people just don’t care,” Neustrom said. “The hardest thing for a lot of us up here is if the public doesn’t care, what’s going to happen to us?”

Favorable fishing outlook

Beyond the apprehension, the stage is set for good fishing come opening day, especially for walleyes, the Minnesota state fish. Ice either is or soon will be off most lakes, walleyes should be all or nearly done spawning and walleye numbers remain strong in larger lakes such as Lake of the Woods, Leech Lake, Cass Lake and Upper Red Lake, said Henry Drewes, Northwest Region fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji.

People are hungry for a bit of normalcy, Drewes said, and that’s reflected in fishing license sales to date, which are the second-highest they've been in the past 14 years.

As of Friday, April 27, the DNR had sold 255,516 fishing licenses, up 41% from 194,163 last year at the same time, said Kim Pleticha, assistant communications director for the DNR in St. Paul.

In 2018, the DNR had sold 181,094 licenses as of two weeks before the opener.

“In terms of the residents that are buying licenses, all indications are there’s a lot of people wanting to go fishing,” Drewes said. “And if they heed the advice of fishing close to home, we’re fortunate to have lots of (lakes and rivers). Everybody has those opportunities.”

Tyler Brasel of Bear Paw Guides on Upper Red Lake in Waskish, Minn., said he has clients booked for opening day if guiding can resume, but he’ll be on the water regardless. Satellite imagery Thursday showed Upper Red is ice-free, and water levels are good, Brasel said, both on the lake and in the Tamarack River, which attracts a strong run of spawning walleyes every spring.

Traditionally, walleyes – and boats – are stacked at the mouth of the Tamarack River on opening day.

“I’m kind of interested to see what’s going to happen on the opener,” Brasel said. “Fishing will be spectacular – it always is on opening day – but imagine coming up here and not having bumper boats. Oh my gosh, that would just be a treat.”

Regardless of how many anglers venture out for this year’s COVID-19 version of the Minnesota fishing opener, this will be an opener like no other.

“Our bait shops are open, which is great, but the bait shop owners I’ve talked to have said they’re going to do things completely differently than they have in the past for right now,” said Neustrom, the Grand Rapids fishing guide. “They want to be on the safe side, and there’s going to be no congregating in a bait shop; it might be one or two customers at a time.”

Anglers should buy their licenses online, a process that’s entirely hands-free, rather than put additional burden on bait shops, Neustrom says. Disinfectant sprays or wipes and hand sanitizer – providing anglers can even find the products – should be on every angler’s checklist.

“You should probably put this in there – ‘Tom says this is the new normal,’ ” Neustrom said. “I think it’s an adjustment for all of us, and I hope to God we don’t have to do it for many years to come.

“But right now, we’ve got to think smart. … Be safe, use common sense, and we’ll see you on the water.”