Three weeks from today, on the eve of the Fishing Opener, Minnesota resort owners near and far from the Twin Cities will swing open their cabin doors and hope people show up.
Already many of these small-business operators have developed new ways to clean their cabins, sell bait from their shops and keep anglers safe distances from one another while launching boats — all because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now they need customers. Or some won’t survive.
“A lot of resorts are getting by now only on their deposits from last year,” said Clint Mueller, president of the 126-member Community of Minnesota Resorts. “If Gov. Walz keeps the state shut down until July, as many as 150 resorts might go bankrupt.”
In a typical year, Minnesota licenses more than 1 million anglers, more than half of whom launch boats or cast from shore on the fishing season’s first weekend.
From Alexandria to Brainerd, Detroit Lakes to Bemidji. Baudette to Ely, and Grand Rapids to International Falls, anglers drown worms, troll crankbaits and impale minnows.
Most are from the Twin Cities. All spend money.
Estimates suggest anglers pony up as much as $2 billion a year to catch some 20 million pounds of Minnesota panfish, walleyes and northern pike — exclusive of the state’s other 150 finned species.
But in the past month, some public officials Up North have said Twin Cities residents aren’t welcome in their backyards. They’re worried, they say, that their first responders and medical facilities can’t handle influxes of visitors who might get sick while fishing or otherwise vacationing.
They’re also concerned, they say, that metro vacationers might tote the virus with them as they tool north on Interstates 94 and 35 and other highways.
Walz’s stay-at-home order and missives from his Department of Natural Resources, confuse the issue further. The governor says — without restriction — it’s OK to hunt and fish and “drive for pleasure.” But the DNR, which at last check employs fish biologists, not public-health authorities, advises anglers to fish “close to home.”
“We’re pleased to let anglers across the state know that the 2020 season will open as planned,” DNR boss Sarah Strommen decreed from the agency’s St. Paul command center. “We encourage anglers to start planning for new ways to enjoy the tradition of the Minnesota Fishing Opener close to home and in ways that also protect public health.”
Hanging in the balance, meanwhile, are the real people with real bills to pay who own and operate Minnesota resorts.
“At our resort, as at most other resorts across the state, we’ve already developed best operating practices that apply to the specific needs of these times,” said Jim Wherley, who with his wife, Kristin, owns Sunset Bay Resort on Dead Lake near Richville.
Wherley points out that by their nature resort cabins are “socially distanced” from one another. Rather than connected by a common hallway, like motel and hotel rooms, resort cabins are divided by green grass and clean air.
On a Zoom conference last week attended by about 100 Minnesota resort owners and operators the single topic was coronavirus.
“We had bankers talking about government loans, an attorney who talked about the shutdown, our lobbyist talking about what the governor might do, and we also talked about cabin cleaning and sanitation,” Mueller said.
Anglers who book resort cabins this summer beginning with the Fishing Opener might find operations slightly altered because of coronavirus concerns.
Some resorts will ask guests to bring their own towels and bedding. Others might provide large plastic bags and ask guests to seal the resort’s bedding and towels before they leave. Everyone will expand cleaning and disinfecting protocols.
“We have no doubt we can offer a safe environment for our guests,” said Mary Smerling, who with her husband, Wade, owns Paradise Resort on Moose Lake, northeast of Bemidji. “Our restaurant probably won’t be allowed to be open. But we can offer takeout. We will make other adjustments as well, as needed. But our guests, we believe, will have the same quality vacations they always have.”
Resort owners’ biggest problem is uncertainty. Walz and the DNR are expected to issue further guidance Friday for outdoor recreation of all types, including fishing. Expectations are Walz will more pointedly free people up to fish wherever they want on the opener, provided they do so safely.
Yet confusion to date among anglers and other vacationers has resulted in reservation cancellations.
“Customers of ours from other states hear about the governor’s stay-at-home order and they call to cancel, even for trips they booked in July,” Smerling said. “We try to tell them everything could change by then, or that they could roll their deposit into a 2021 visit. For all of us, right now especially when we’re closed, returning deposits is our worst-case scenario.”
Lobbyist Joel Carlson represents the Community of Minnesota Resorts at the Capitol in St. Paul.
“Our members have been brainstorming all kinds of best practices to operate safely during the pandemic,” Carlson said. “Washing down rental boats. New rules for fish-cleaning houses. How to sell bait. Having guests report directly to cabins rather than to a lodge. All of these things are being considered. We’re confident our resorts can do this safely.”
No one is downplaying the threat coronavirus represents to individuals, the state, nation or world.
But public health experts agree that outdoor activities, undertaken safely, represent a welcome counterbalance to the pandemic burden everyone is bearing.
As the great angling writer John Gierach, author of “Sex, Death and Fly Fishing,” among other memorable tomes, once said:
“The solution to any problem — work, love, money, whatever — is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be.”
Coming Sunday: How to fish at a safe distance.