ON LAKE MILLE LACS – Unable to book paying clients when Minnesota’s summer fishing began May 9, Tony Roach was on this big lake that day nonetheless, casting a jig and retrieving it while boating one walleye after another.
Like other Minnesota fishing guides from Winona to Warroad, Roach’s business (roachsguideservice.com) had been sidelined by a COVID-19 directive issued by Gov. Tim Walz.
The governor’s order has since been changed, and starting Monday, Minnesota guides can again be on the water with clients under certain conditions.
Still, for the first time in recent memory, Roach was faced on the season opener with fishing without a client. In response, he picked a first-day partner who, though short on cash, was long on enthusiasm: his 12-year-old son, Robbie.
“The Mille Lacs opener started out nice, with a calm wind,” Tony said. “Then it began to sleet and snow. When we had an inch or two of snow in the boat, I was thinking we should head to shore. I wanted to make sure Robbie had a good experience. But he never complained.”
That the younger Roach hung in there during what he will discover, over time, is typical Minnesota opening-day fishing weather speaks as much to his lineage as his fortitude.
His grandpa, Mark — Tony’s dad — was a tournament walleye fisherman, and a good one, and his great, great uncle, the octogenarian fishing legend Gary Roach, is known in Minnesota and beyond as Mr. Walleye.
But these days it’s Tony who is Minnesota’s hardest-working walleye angler named Roach. A popular guide, fishing-industry promoter and angling instructor, Tony is on the water — and ice — with clients more than 200 days a year.
And when he’s not fishing for pay, he’s fishing for fun.
“I just love fishing and I always have,” he said.
As Tony spoke, he tossed a shiner-baited jig into 10 feet of water. This was on Tuesday and, while he controlled a bow-mounted trolling motor with one foot, he watched a sonar unit intently, alert for indications that walleyes lurked below.
Tony’s fascination with fishing was nurtured as a young boy when he was taken each spring by his dad to the Northwest Sportshow in Minneapolis.
While his dad worked in booths promoting Lund boats or other fishing-product manufacturers, Gary gave fishing seminars to rapt crowds.
Like a kid in a candy store, Tony scampered around the show for days, playing with fishing gear and bugging big-name pros such as Al Lindner for fishing tips and techniques.
“Thankfully,” Tony said, “the anglers I met at the show were cool about talking to me.”
Sweeping his jig across the Mille Lacs lake bottom before letting it fall back, Tony soon felt the tap-tap-tap of a walleye picking up his bait, and as quickly, set the hook.
In seconds, a brilliant green-gold-sided sample of Mille Lacs’ abundant 2013 year-class of walleyes — a specimen about 17 inches long — was in the boat, and as quickly released.
Until a few months ago, Tony and other Minnesota fishing guides had expected to be on the water with clients during the state’s first week of open-water fishing. When the pandemic hit, Walz listed guides among those who weren’t allowed to work. The concern was that guides’ interaction with clients could further the coronavirus spread.
Then last week the governor said guides could go back to work beginning Monday, limited so long as they take no more than two clients on the water at a time and otherwise follow safe distancing and other protocols.
“I believe guides can operate safely,” Tony said as he re-baited his jig and cast it overboard. “I was all on board with the stay-at-home orders. My wife works in health care and as a family we take the virus threat seriously.
“But I think guiding can be done just as safely as other types of fishing. If the general public can fish, and other outdoor activities are allowed such as golfing and landscaping, guiding should be allowed and can be done safely, too.”
Like other independent contractors and self-employed workers, fishing guides have adjusted in anticipation of returning to work. Hand sanitizer is now a staple in guides’ boats, which will be regularly wiped down with sanitizer, and changes will be made in the handling of rods, lures, baits and other tools of the trade.
Clients also have the option of using their own gear or wearing masks — whatever makes them comfortable.
“The fact that we’re outdoors also reduces the chance the virus will spread,” Tony said.
With Memorial Day weekend only days away, Tony anticipates a busy summer. His clientele and that of other Minnesota guides have changed in recent years, and now in addition to hosting anglers who want to be led to walleye hot spots, they regularly share boats with anglers from as far south as Texas who want to catch bass.
Reeling in another walleye, and another, Tony said, “I’m ready to go back to work.”