It wasn’t an April Fool’s Joke when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced the postponement of the 2020 Governor’s Fishing Opener.

The event was scheduled to take place this weekend in Otter Tail County. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Otter Tail's chance to host the annual tradition has been postponed until 2021.

This is the first time in the history of the event that it has been postponed. The first Governor’s Fishing Opener took place in 1948, celebrating Minnesota’s rich fishing tradition. However, while the Governor’s Fishing Opener has been postponed, the actual fishing opener is still taking place with social distancing in place.

The "governor's" part of the opener was by invitation-only and primarily for the media, Otter Tail County Public Information Officer Shannon Terry said last week. The public events, such as the planned picnic, have also been canceled for this year.

The cancellation means that visitors who would have come for the event will not be coming this year.

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“It would be hard to tell what the visit would have generated,” Dan Schroeder, from the Perham Chamber of Commerce, said in an email. "Visitors coming to the area is always a good thing for businesses.”

“The draw is not to make money for the county necessarily at that moment that weekend, but to bring that awareness,” Terry said. In addition to the events of the Governor’s Fishing Opener, the visiting media was going to be sent on a Find Your Inner Otter self-guided tour to highlight Otter Tail County with the hopes that their reporting would attract visitors, Terry said. The tour will now take place in 2021.

Gov. Tim Walz, center, and legislative leaders return to shore after boating on Fountain Lake in Albert Lea at the 2019 Governor's Fishing Opener. The 2020 Governor's Fishing Opener was to be in Otter Tail County this weekend, until COVID-19 forced the event's postponement to 2021. (Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service)
Gov. Tim Walz, center, and legislative leaders return to shore after boating on Fountain Lake in Albert Lea at the 2019 Governor's Fishing Opener. The 2020 Governor's Fishing Opener was to be in Otter Tail County this weekend, until COVID-19 forced the event's postponement to 2021. (Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service)

The public picnic at Phelps Mill Park would have featured booths from local businesses themed around the otter, music, free food, and the DNR I Can Camp and I Can Fish clinic, Terry said. A major part of the funding for the picnic comes from the raffle tickets sold as part of the event.

The Lund Boat raffle has also been postponed to the fishing opener in 2021. “The good news is in 2021, instead of raffling it the day of the fishing opener we’re going to raffle it the weekend before,” Terry said. So whoever is the winner of the Lund Boat will be able to fish from it on opening weekend.

No additional raffle tickets or different tickets will be printed, Terry said, so those who already have tickets should hang onto them until next year. The tickets that have already been sold are still valid, and any tickets that have not been sold will still be available for sale until the raffle in 2021.

Hatchery activities get scrambled

Minnesota DNR area supervisor out of the Fergus Falls Fishery division Jim Wolters said that one big event they had planned during the Governor’s Fishing Opener included tours of the Walker Lake Fish Hatchery. That hatchery has been in place since 1974 and provides walleye fry and fingerlings to Otter Tail County lakes. He said they plan to host the open house during next year’s event. Other than this, he said the DNR does not take a huge role in the annual event, rather just a piece of the pie that’s meant to attract people to tourism opportunities in the county.

The coronavirus pandemic not only put a stop to the open house, it also stopped important hatchery work that would normally be happening right now in Otter Tail County and throughout all of Minnesota.

“The reason we didn’t go through with it is it's pretty tight working. It’s a close operating procedure. With the social distancing, we just couldn’t figure out how to do that,” Wolters said.

The process involves a crew handing fish to each other, processing the fish to obtain the eggs and milt. The crew all has to work in close proximity with each other. Wolters said as long as they only miss this one spawn, it won’t have a huge effect on their work to keep lakes stocked. But they will be assessing lakes to determine the needs.

“I don't think there will be a long-term impact to anglers,” Wolters said. In fact skipping a year can allow the previous year class a leg up with less competition for food. He adds that many lakes in the area have strong natural reproduction so nature can keep up with reproduction in many cases.

The hatchery is on the Dead River, which is an inlet to Walker and Otter Tail lakes. Walleye begin spawning in April as water temperatures approach 45 degrees. Workers collect, then combine the eggs and milt from walleye spawning in the Dead River. Spawning usually ends in three to four weeks. In a typical season, 300-900 quarts of eggs are taken with an average of 135,000 eggs per quart.

Annually, the hatchery produces 25 to 80 million walleye fry. Walleye fry are stocked into area lakes and rearing ponds. Fry that are stocked in rearing ponds are harvested in the fall as fingerlings and stocked into area lakes.

Wolters and a staff of five full-time and six part-time employees manage 250 fishing lakes and 150 miles of major rivers and smaller streams. These waters include popular fishing destinations such as Otter Tail, Big Pine and North Lida lakes. Area staff also manage portions of the Otter Tail, Pelican and Red rivers.