Upward of 250 fishing tournaments are going forward in Minnesota this season despite significant rule changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jon Hansen, fisheries consultant and tournament policy coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said he will contact tournament organizers soon to remind them that in-person fish weigh-ins aren’t allowed under restrictions that were renewed Thursday by Gov. Tim Walz.
“We have to continue with no weigh-ins,” Hansen said. “It’s a big change and we understand it’s going to be a big challenge for everyone.”
COVID-19 restrictions for outdoor gatherings remain limited to 10 people if social distancing is maintained. But the DNR considers the congregation of anglers and tournament officials at weigh-in stations off-limits even if anglers remain in their boats while judges retrieve their fish and weigh them.
“The executive order says gatherings of 10 or more are prohibited ‘even if social distancing can be maintained,’ ” Hansen said.
The “even if” language indicates that anglers should not convene on a central location even if they take additional and admittedly creative precautions, he said.
As a workaround, the DNR has been encouraging catch-measure-release formats where no fish are brought to a central weigh-in. “This format is becoming quite popular and uses cellphone apps like TourneyX, FishDonkey or iCatch to register fish,” the DNR told tournament organizers in an e-mail earlier this month.
Hansen said some tournaments, including the Student Angler Trail Tournament, have taken it a step further by allowing anglers to fish any local water and register fish online.
Other specific restrictions that remain in place under the governor’s revised executive order say events can’t hold in-person rules meetings or in-person awards ceremonies. Spectators are prohibited, social distancing must be kept throughout the tournament, and competitions must employ staggered starts or use multiple points of departure.
“Generally folks have been very understanding, thus far,” Hansen said. But he repeated that the rule against fish weigh-ins continues to be “a tough one.”
Still, relatively few of the 250 to 300 annual open-water fishing tournaments that apply for permits through the DNR have been canceled.
Jeff Leighton, general manager of KRCQ Radio in Otter Tail County, said the station’s annual Reel Country Classic Fishing Tournament was postponed and reformatted to run this weekend. The two-day walleye tournament draws 120 to 160 anglers in 60 to 70 boats.
For this year’s event, organizers canceled the pretournament rules meeting and a banquet and awards ceremony. In addition, the start was dispersed to four boat launches around Otter Tail Lake instead of one central launch point.
In lieu of a rules meeting, a video announced the parameters and sent a link to contestants. They were required to confirm that they watched the video, Leighton said.
“Definitely the fishermen wanted it to go on,” Leighton said. “There wasn’t one person who said, ‘Let’s stop this for a year.’ ”
As of Wednesday, Leighton said organizers were planning to weigh fish in a way that didn’t violate new norms.
“We’re not being cavalier or careless about this by any means,” he said. “We’re going to be bummed that we all can’t get together … a bunch of guys telling fish stories. But hopefully we’ll be back to the full force next year.”
DNR permit fees for open-water fishing tournaments cost $70 for contests involving 50 or fewer boats while larger contests require a $225 permit. Hansen said the agency is refunding any payments this year in cases of cancellation, but he’s not aware of many.
Frankie Dusenka, owner of Frankie’s Live Bait & Marine in Chisago City, said he is going ahead with his annual series of five Tuesday night bass fishing tournaments.
The first is set for Tuesday on Green Lake, where the top finisher will win $1,200, second $500 and third $300. A DNR permit is required for all five events. Entrants pay an $80 admission.
He said organizers will invest extra time to weigh fish without congregating per the governor’s order. “We’re a smaller tournament,” Dusenka said.
The DNR regulates fishing tournaments to protect fish and fish habitat and to minimize potential conflicts with other lake and river users.