– Noticeably fewer anglers turned out for the opening of Minnesota’s fishing season on Otter Tail Lake, the most tread upon walleye hot spot in Otter Tail County.

The fish were biting, but peoples’ hands were freezing up in the snow, wind and rain. In an unusual sight, boats were lined up in the water to get off the lake as early as 10:30 a.m. They returned to parking lots that featured another Opening Day rarity — empty spaces.

In more ways than one, this was the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener that wasn’t. Gov. Tim Walz canceled the event because of COVID-19 and urged Minnesotans to fish close to home.

“Think of the silver lining,” said Erik Osberg, chairman of Otter Tail County’s local organizing committee for the event. “The weather has to be better next year.”

Just two months ago, community leaders from Fergus Falls to New York Mills were bracing for an onslaught of visitors and boat traffic for the annual celebration of fishing and summer tourism. A picnic at Phelps Mill Park in Underwood was going to draw 3,000 people Friday night. The governor’s entourage would have included about 400 guests and media members. All of that is on hold until next year.

Osberg said the cancellation will allow for more-detailed planning. The extra time also will give organizers a chance to sell all the raffle tickets for a new fishing boat donated by locally based Lund Boat Co. Proceeds go to offset a portion of the organizing committee’s expenses.

It’s impossible to measure Saturday’s total turnout, Osberg said. Otter Tail County is home to 1,048 lakes, more than any other county in Minnesota. If a person fished one new lake in the county each week, it would take them 20 years to hit them all. If anglers were dispersed more than usual on Saturday, he said he wouldn’t be surprised.

Osberg hosts his own outdoors television shows. And because he didn’t have to assemble with the governor’s fishing party this year, he chose to fish for trophy walleyes on a small lake north of Battle Lake. He launched at midnight, started getting bites at 2 a.m. and caught and released three walleyes over 20 inches in length. He also caught and released a 17-incher. He hooked all four of the fish trolling with a crankbait.

The weather overnight was mild, with no wind or precipitation. But by 8 a.m., light rain was falling. An hour later, the rain changed to snow and didn’t let up until after 4 p.m.

Osberg friend, Randin Olson, owner of Lock Jaw Guide Service, fished from a separate boat and struck gold shortly after 6 a.m. The 27-inch-walleye slammed his jig and shiner minnow in six feet of water. Olson, who caught seven walleyes Saturday while fishing for himself, was one of five guides in the running to accompany Walz for this year’s opener.

On Otter Tail Lake, Lee Bergstrom fished from a 20-foot boat with two others. They launched at about 6 a.m. and called it quits around 10:30 with eight keepers. It would have been nice to stay out on the lake to exploit the good walleye bite, he said, but the elements were too harsh.

As a local fisherman who knows Otter Tail Lake well, he nodded in agreement when asked if the turnout was light.

The lackluster attendance was predicted Friday by Nick Adamczyk, who operates a popular bait shop in Perham with his father, Tom, and brother, Ed.

“The opener is never our biggest weekend,” Adamczyk said. “But this is the slowest I’ve ever seen it.”

In normal years, Gene’s Sport Shop would be bursting at the seams with anglers looking for shiner minnows and last-minute fishing tackle. But on Friday, the number of clerks at the store sometimes outnumbered customers.

“Who knows what people are thinking?” Adamczyk said.