Just after dawn Saturday on the calm shores of East Seelye Bay near Lake Winnibigoshish, Faron Jackson Sr., gently placed a small offering of tobacco in the water.
Jackson, the chair of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, quietly asked the creator for safety and to share fish with them as the 74th Governor's Fishing Opener got underway.
"Ogaa ombe omaa noogom," he said, meaning "Walleye come to us today."
It must have helped, Jackson said later. Both he and Gov. Tim Walz caught walleyes during two hours on the water, starting about 6:30 a.m.
The two-day event was the first time in the event's history that a tribal nation partnered with the governor's office to hold the opener.
"I'm going to say this is the most traditional fishing opener we've had," Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Minnesota's first Native statewide elected official, said at the event. "I think it speaks to the work we've tried to do during our administration and partnering with our sovereign nations who share their geography with Minnesota."
In a return to normalcy after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fishing opener weekend featured a community get-together at Cedar Lakes Casino and Hotel in Cass Lake, a gaggle of boats gathering at East Seelye Bay on Cut Foot Sioux Lake and a celebratory shore lunch.
For Walz and Flanagan, it was all about the fishing — and a developing rivalry.
"The last three years, I ended up catching a little perch and she caught a walleye," Walz said. This year, he had expert fishing guide Tom Neustrom with him in the boat.
"Here's the deal," Flanagan said Friday evening. "I'm an Ojibwe woman on Ojibwe land. I've got to win."
But on Saturday morning, it was Walz who caught a 21-inch walleye. Flanagan wasn't so lucky, though a fellow angler in her boat did catch a northern pike that they let the lieutenant governor reel in.
The fishing opener is typically a partnership among Explore Minnesota, the state Department of Natural Resources and the governor's office, along with a host city or community. The idea is to celebrate the importance of tourism, fishing and outdoor recreation.
In previous years, planning would begin more than a year in advance as communities submitted host bids. The pandemic put a damper on recent openers. Otter Tail County, which was to host in 2020, instead put on a pared-down 2021 event that exposed tensions over the state's pandemic policy and mask mandates, which were issued by Walz's office.
The strain on local government resources driven by the pandemic left this year's opener in question. Planning was difficult, said Lauren Bennett McGinty, tourism director at Explore Minnesota.
This year's opener came together late. The Leech Lake Band partnership was announced two months ago.
"I was ecstatic the governor chose Leech Lake," Jackson said.
Instead of highlighting one city or community, this year's opener celebrates Chippewa National Forest, Cass Lake and the Leech Lake Band lands. Sprawling forests and deep blue lakes dapple the reservation.
Cass Lake native Trina Staples, 20, said city residents were excited . She planned to go fishing with her boyfriend.
"Everyone's looking forward to it," Staples said.
Walz said this year's opener highlights the steps his administration has taken to mend the state's historically fraught relationship with tribal nations.
"I think acknowledging them as part of what makes the state so great really makes me feel good about it — and they're great partners," he said. "And, as I've said, they've been on this land longer than anybody else."
Bennett McGinty said this year's event could serve as a model for future openers, with several smaller communities partnering to host the annual event.
In previous years, the state announced next year's host community at the opener. Not this year, but the state has issued a request for proposals. Bennett McGinty said there's high interest.
"We're excited to announce soon," she said.