It remains to be seen how fishing and hunting in the outdoors of Minnesota will be affected by the spread of COVID-19, but the outbreak is already disrupting sports shows and spoiling the spring banquet season critical to fundraising by conservation groups.

Even before the Minnesota Department of Health on Friday called on event organizers to cancel or postpone gatherings with 250 or more people, the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo canceled its annual three-day show at Hamline University Walker Fieldhouse. Another sports show, the Outdoor News Deer and Turkey Classic, opened Friday as planned at Canterbury Park in Shakopee but then closed for Saturday and Sunday.

Eric Meyer, show manager, said vendors for the three-day show started setting up on Thursday, before the Department of Health toughened its guidelines on large gatherings.

"We're going to continue on," Meyer said on Thursday before the show opened. "We've got a lot of money into it."

When organizers canceled the show for Saturday and Sunday, a note went up on the event's website: "Outdoor News staff have decided to take this regrettable step.''

A much larger outdoors convention — the Northwest Sportshow at the Minneapolis Convention Center — was canceled Friday afternoon after Gov. Tim Walz announced the new health guidelines. It was scheduled to open April 2 for its 88th anniversary and was expected to draw 35,000 attendees. The show's 500 exhibitors normally occupy three of the convention center's four domes.

"While we remained hopeful that the show would proceed, we agree with Governor Walz's decision and believe this is the most prudent course of action to help protect our staff, members, exhibitors and attendees," said the Sportshow's Jennifer Thompson.

As recently as late Thursday afternoon, Sportshow Manager Darren Envall had been keeping his fingers crossed that the show would go on.

"We're following it very closely and we're waiting to see the developments," he said.

In Isanti, the Rum River Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society canceled its 25th anniversary banquet scheduled for March 20. The annual gatherings are cornerstone events for raising donations and renewing memberships. Similar cancellations were posted on the society's national website Friday for chapters in Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Washington.

"Withdrawing events from March through May [our peak fundraising season] will be a big hit," Ruffed Grouse Society President Ben Jones wrote to members.

Regional director Betsy Dullum said other Minnesota banquets will be decided on a case-by-case basis. The new health department guidelines ask organizers of small events (those with fewer than 250 people) not to gather in settings that don't allow social distancing of 6 feet per person.

In a letter to the Rum River Chapter, Dullum wrote: "Disappointing though it may be, we have built a reputation on adhering to science-based approaches. We must follow these tenets with the threat of coronavirus looming and follow guidance from our state's medical experts."

Jared Wiklund, a spokesman for Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever, said Friday that 70% of the national organization's chapters hold their annual banquets between February and April. Twenty-one banquets were scheduled in Minnesota this year, but a significant number of those could be canceled.

"It's a fluid situation," Wiklund said.

He said the banquets usually provide "the one big source of funding" each year for chapters to accomplish core-mission habitat improvements for upland birds. The meetings also deliver critical membership renewals to bolster the national organization.

"Members are our lifeblood," Wiklund said. "We want to protect the health and well-being of our membership while encouraging each individual to stay active."

At the Department of Natural Resources, spokesman Chris Niskanen said Thursday that it was "business as usual'' at the agency except for the ban on out-of-state travel for state employees.

No changes have been announced for the Governor's Fishing Opener, scheduled May 7-10 in Otter Tail County.

Looking ahead to June, Alexandria is scheduled to host thousands of high school trap shooters and their family members for an annual shooting championship over nine days at Alexandria Shooting Park.

John Nelson of the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League said trap shooting has the advantage of being outdoors with ample social distancing. But he said the league will be watching the coronavirus outbreak closely. The current season may have its own disruptions ordered by schools, he said.

"We suspect there will be an impact, there's no doubt about it,'' Nelson said.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213