Up North, resorts see revenues going south

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 6, 2013 - 6:30 PM

Ice is likely to take a toll on the earnings of opening weekend.

 Ready or not, Minnesota’s fishing season opens Saturday. And while it’s uncertain whether ice will be gone from many northern lakes, one thing is assured: Resort owners and other businesses will see revenue disappear if the ice doesn’t. Here are reports from four:

Lake Winnie: doubtful

“Is the opener a big deal? Hell, yes,’’ said Mike O’Reilley, owner of Northland Lodge on Lake Winnibigoshish — a top walleye destination and one whose ice-out status is very much uncertain.

“Our cabins are full, the campground is full, we sell a lot of bait,’’ said O’Reilley, who’s owned the resort for 29 years. “It means lots of money for everyone — think of the effect on gas stations, restaurants, bait shops and resorts. Let’s hope it [the lake] opens.’’

If not, anglers will either still come and fish other waters that might be open — including the nearby Mississippi River — or they’ll go elsewhere or stay home. Some resorts can shift reservations to the following weekend, but not O’Reilley’s: That weekend is booked.

“We can’t push them back a week; we’ll just have to call ’em up and say, ‘See you next year,’ ’’ he said.

If that happens, some customers will roll their deposits over to next year; others will get refunds, O’Reilley said.

Meanwhile, there is some open water in the bay near his resort, where the Mississippi leaves Winnie. “It’s full of ducks, lots of ringbills,’’ O’Reilley said. “And yesterday I counted over 40 loons.’’

A tantalizing taste of spring.

Lake Kabetogama: no chance

Tim Snyder owns Idlewild Resort on Lake Kabetogama in Voyageurs National Park south of International Falls. He holds no illusion that ice will be gone there by May 11. Eighteen inches of ice still gripped the lake last week.

“We’ve written off the opener,’’ he said. “Everyone is guessing May 15 to 18 [for ice-out]. We need sun, rain and wind.’’

About half of his 11 cabins had been booked for the opener. That business likely will be lost because he can’t shift those customers to the following weekends. “I’m full,’’ he said.

Which means if the ice isn’t gone by May 18, the 16 or so resorts on Kabetogama would lose a second weekend of business. “Everyone would be screwed,’’ Snyder said.

What about deposits most resorts require for reservations? “There’s a lot of money sitting out there,’’ Snyder said.

At his resort and others, normally if a customer cancels, they lose their deposit unless the resort can fill the vacancy. But in this unusual case, Snyder will give customers the option of using the deposit for a future visit, or getting a refund. Nearly all the resort owners he’s talked to will do the same.

“You’ve got to take care of your customers,’’ he said. But he knows of one resort owner who intends to give no refunds.

Ice-bound in BWCA?

Until recently, John Schiefelbein, owner of Pine Point Lodge on White Iron Lake near Ely, couldn’t even get to all of his cabins to prep them for the coming season. “The snow was too deep,’’ he said. Like other northern Minnesota resort owners, he’ll have a compressed spring to prepare for customers.

“We’ve just started to scramble,’’ he said.

Schiefelbein also is a canoe outfitter, and he has a couple coming from Wyoming on May 11 to begin a four-day canoe trip. Last week, that looked doubtful. “White Iron is maybe 98 percent ice,’’ he said. “I don’t know if it or any of the lakes up here will make it for opening day.’’

But he hasn’t canceled the couple’s reservation. “They really want to do this,’’ he said. And he thinks he may be able to route them on a local river — perhaps the Kawishiwi or Isabella, which normally are early ice-free waters.

But he’s already shifted reservations for a half-dozen other customers, and canceled several others. He’ll either roll over deposits to future dates or issue refunds, depending on what his customers want.

“You hate to lose that income because we’ve been sitting since last September waiting to hear the next ring of the cash register,” he said. “But you have to do what’s right for the customer.’’

On a normal spring, most of his six cabins would be rented and he’d outfit early visitors to the nearby BWCA. “People want to be the first on portages; they find [white-tailed buck antler] sheds. But it’s not happening this year,’’ he said.

“You have to take what Mother Nature dishes out. If I didn’t want to work with nature, I should be in a different business.’’

Northwest Angle: no dice

Flag Island Resort is nestled on a rocky island in the Northwest Angle of Lake of the Woods — one of the northernmost points in Minnesota and the continental U.S. While fellow resort operators to the south hold out hope that ice will disappear by the fishing opener, there’s no such optimism at the Northwest Angle.

“We still have 3 feet of ice out there,’’ said Flag Island Resort manager Dan Schmidt. “It’s not going to be out for the opener, that’s for sure.’’

It probably won’t even be gone by the following weekend, he said. “Everyone’s guessing it will be out right around May 20,’’ Schmidt said. “I’ve never seen it this late, not in the last 25 years anyway.’’

Because of the distance to virtually anywhere, opening weekend doesn’t draw large crowds, Schmidt said. Most anglers wait until Memorial Day weekend, when they have more time. But he’ll lose even more revenue if the lake still is frozen May 18, which also is the Ontario walleye opener.

“About 75 percent of our people fish the Canadian side,’’ he said. “It’s hard to make a living in the resort business in Minnesota.’’

Schmidt said some guests have rescheduled their trips, others have canceled. The resort will refund deposits for those who can’t reschedule trips.

Meanwhile, six seasonal employees are waiting for the ice to melt so they can begin their jobs. Because the ice has deteriorated along shore and in some worn spots, Schmidt pulled his snowmachines from the lake last week. That means he and his staff are marooned on the island until the ice disappears.

“That’s life in the Angle,’’ Schmidt said.

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