HAGER CITY, WIS. — Here on the banks of the Mississippi, where walleye fishing is allowed year-round, anglers decide for themselves when fishing season begins. For Jake Wallner of St. Paul and Adam Bergstrom of Farmington, that day was Tuesday.
It was then beneath a blue sky the two buddies, both 28, slipped Bergstrom’s shiny new boat into Ol’ Man River at Everts Resort on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi, a few miles upstream from Red Wing, Minn.
“It’s never been in the water,” Bergstrom said of his newly acquired craft. “First time out.”
The pair had company. Notwithstanding the coronavirus threat that has otherwise shut down many parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, on busy days in recent weeks as many as 700 boats have launched at public and private landings in Pool 4 of the Mississippi River, which lies between Alma, Wis., and Hager City.
Beginning in March each year, and even earlier, walleyes swim north from Lake Pepin and gather, generally, to spawn in the stretch of water within a few miles upstream and downstream of Red Wing.
Like Wallner and Bergstrom, most anglers who pursue these fish — some of which can be trophy-size — are from the Twin Cities area. Others hail from Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and beyond.
Said Wallner, noting the allure of open water after a long winter, “People just want to go fishing.”
Boosting angler traffic as well on the Mississippi this spring has been the closure of accesses to the Rainy River on the Minnesota-Ontario border, one of the few places in the state where open-water walleye fishing is allowed before Minnesota’s traditional May opener.
Officials in Baudette and Koochiching County worried visiting anglers might bring coronavirus with them on their trips north. So they closed the landings.
Throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, the impact of the disease compounds daily. Businesses have closed. Workers have been laid off. Airports have gone virtually dark. And death tolls of people who have contracted the virus keep rising.
Yet throughout March, anglers have descended on Everts, a vintage river establishment whose various owners during its nearly century-long existence have seen just about everything.
Except a pandemic.
“We’re allowed to be open, because of the cabins we rent,” said Everts’ co-owner Chris Winchester, 45, who grew up fishing the Mississippi. “But with the rains up north, and the melting snow, the river’s rising fast. We’ll see how long it lasts.”
As Winchester spoke, he and a partner, Randy Schaefer, and an employee, Tanner Tredup, sandbagged the resort’s bait shop, hoping the makeshift wall they were constructing would protect the clapboard building from what could be days or even weeks of flooding.
Because he “ran out of employees” willing to work, citing the coronavirus threat, the shop’s hours have been shortened, Winchester said. Only one customer is allowed in the shop at a time. And bigger-ticket items such as rods and reels aren’t moving as fast as they might have in another year.
Otherwise, thanks to provisions in virus-related orders issued by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers that allow fishing, it’s been pretty much business as usual this spring, Winchester said.
“Some guys do come into the shop grabbing the door with their elbows and being somewhat cautious,” he said. “But in the end, they want to go fishing.”
Signaling the higher waters that are expected to arrive in Pool 4 by this weekend, the river’s faster currents on Tuesday played havoc with fishing success. Anglers who a week ago could readily reach the river bottom with their jig-and-plastic baits or variations called Dubuque Rigs struggled with lure placement in the swifter water.
“They’ve got the roller gates open on the dam and there’s too much current,” said Jordan Kilian of Rochester as he came off the water. A tournament angler who fished the Mississippi with two friends Tuesday morning, he lamented the loss of access to the Rainy River.
“I guide up there in spring, there are 16 captains in our group,” he said. “The closure on the Rainy cost me $10,000.”
Asked if he thought his clients would have stayed home because of the coronavirus threat, had he been able to fish Rainy River, Kilian said no — if they are healthy.
“People know better to go fishing if they’re sick,” he said.
Brothers Tom Kunz of Waverly and Scott Kunz of Albertville agreed. Encouraged by walleye limits they caught a week ago in Pool 4, they returned Tuesday for another go.
Scott Kunz dismissed as unreasonable any notion that Walz might have prohibited fishing in his “stay at home” and business-closing order.
“I wasn’t worried,” he said.
At the wheel of the 17-foot boat the two occupied, Tom Kunz acknowledged making one accommodation to the coronavirus threat.
Nodding toward his brother, he said, “While we fish, I make him sit in the front of the boat.”