To celebrate opening day of the spring steelhead run on Wisconsin’s Brule River, Scott Thorpe throws a party that kicks off at 2:30 a.m.
Gathered on shore with his wife, brother, other family members, friends and a few dogs, they revel in darkness at the edge of Maytag Pool, where the Thorpes have hosted their “Brule Opener” since 1970. At dawn, they slide into the frigid water, secure their footing on the rocky bottom and make their first casts. The bite isn’t always good, but the thrill never dies.
Whether it’s the Brule this weekend, steelhead fishing north of Duluth in the coming weeks or early spring walleye and sturgeon fishing on the Rainy River, thousands of anglers across Minnesota and Wisconsin are having to decide whether to travel or stay home. In the far north and along the North Shore, elected officials, residents and even some resort owners are telling anglers that they’re not welcome to visit right now.
“People can still go out and fish, but I would hope they don’t come up here from out of the area,’’ said Ed Arnesen, a commissioner for Lake of the Woods County who owns a fishing resort west of Baudette. “There is certainly local concern of the virus coming up from other areas.’’
Arnesen took part last week in a string of local decisions that shut down fishing ramps to the Rainy River to thwart the always-crowded walleye and sturgeon seasons that accompany ice-out. Kevin Adee, chairman of the Koochiching County Board, said the Department of Natural Resources is monitoring the situation but hasn’t yet shut down a pair of Rainy River boat ramps in International Falls.
Residents of the area fear that anglers will spread coronavirus while using local gas stations, bait shops, liquor stores, lodging facilities and grocery stores.
“Health is more important than catching a couple of fish,’’ Adee said.
In Grand Marais last week, similar-minded Cook County commissioners adopted a travel advisory that went as far as urging seasonal homeowners to “please stay at your primary residence at this time.’’ Rena Rogers, interim county administrator, said people who love the region would serve it best by staying away or self-quarantining for 14 days upon arrival.
“It seems like a safe place right now,” Rogers said, “but if we have people come up here to shelter and bring the virus ... people are worried about that.’’
Thorpe, a fly-fishing guide who relishes the steelhead season, said a similar travel advisory by Bayfield County got him thinking about canceling his party on the Brule. After reflecting on the stay-at-home orders from both states, he disinvited his guests. He’s staying home in south Minneapolis for the whole season.
“If you live a mile from the Brule, go fishing, good luck, have fun,’’ Thorpe said. “But this is not going to be a steelhead season for me. It’s not in the spirit of staying in place.’’
As part of the written COVID-19 stay-at-home order, Minnesotans have an exemption for outdoor recreation at a safe social distance while “walking, hiking, running, biking, driving for pleasure, hunting, or fishing.’’ The DNR says the exempted activity should be “close to home.’’
Brian Spanovich, an electrician from Lakeville who fishes inland waters in central Minnesota, said people should make their own decisions about where to fish on state waters during the public health crisis. He said any angler who travels within reason and separates from other people shouldn’t be judged as “not a good person.’’
He said the virus will hit remote communities regardless of fishing activity. Moreover, visiting anglers won’t be utilizing hospital beds, Spanovich said.
“I just think it’s misguided to say, ‘Stay away from here,’ ’’ he said. “Some of this is going overboard.’’