Joe Kruchowski reflected on all the Minnesota fishing openers he has seen as a bait shop owner over the past 32 years.
He envisioned past blowouts at his Northwoods Bait & Tackle store in Cook, Minn., where customers lined up 14-deep at the cash register to buy thousands of minnows, crawlers and jumbo leeches. Similar scenes of frenzy across the state are part of a touchstone tradition that sends half a million anglers fanning out across the state from Albert Lea to the Gunflint Trail, and generates millions of dollars for the state’s economy.
This year, with COVID-19 infection rates worsened by travel and gathering, Kruchowski can’t imagine what Opening Day will look like May 9. Resort owners, fishing families, guides, marinas and tourism officials are in the same boat. Most are expecting a smaller, less-festive fishing opener this year while others foresee a potential collapse.
“This is unbelievably up in the air,’’ Kruchowski said. “Let’s see what happens.’’
Ben Wogsland. governmental affairs director for Hospitality Minnesota, a trade group for resorts and campgrounds, said the fishing opener doubles as the unofficial launch of summer tourism in the North Star state. Participation will be closely watched, he said.
“It’s a huge open question for the state right now,’’ Woglsand said. “If that piece of the economy is going to be hobbled, that’s a big deal.’’
Unlike Washington, where recreational fishing has been canceled this spring, Minnesota has continued to encourage it as outdoor recreation. Even though the celebratory Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener is canceled, the walleye and northern pike season will open as planned for the 1.4 million people who buy fishing licenses each year.
Gov. Tim Walz said the state’s vast array of lakes allows people to “get out there, get some distance and enjoy the great outdoors.”
But Walz has yet to discuss what sort of behavioral and business restrictions will extend beyond May 1. For now, the Department of Natural Resources is suggesting that anglers avoid gatherings and stay “close to home.’’
Bill Dougherty of Rainy Lake Houseboats in International Falls, said everyone would love an unmitigated fishing opener, but only if it doesn’t add to the pandemic. In Koochiching County in particular, he said, residents have been strident about protecting the area’s sizable elderly populations from the spread of the coronavirus by visitors.
“We have to listen to what our health people say,’’ said Dougherty, a veteran fishing guide. “We’ll take it a day at a time, and I don’t think we can ever say enough prayers.’’
In pure fishing terms, Dougherty said, conditions suggest reliably early ice-outs as far north as the Canadian border — normally a plus for trip planning.
Barry Woods, owner of Woody’s Fairly Reliable Guide Service on Rainy Lake, said he’ll wait for more direction from the state Department of Health and error on the side of caution. But bookings have been slow.
He’s tentatively scheduled customers from outside the region who like to fish early in the walleye season, but he won’t accept down payments until health officials give more guidance for travel and activity in May.
“If something comes out that’s sure-fire … then we’re going fishing,’’ Woods said. “But when they are putting up medical tents in Central Park in New York City, the fishing thing isn’t going to be all that important.’’
Jay Schelde, owner of Pike Bay Lodge on Lake Vermilion, said resort owners in his area are planning to be open unless they are told to close. At his own place, all but two cabins are reserved for opening weekend.
“People really want to get the hell out of Dodge and go fish,’’ Schelde said. “Unless there’s a travel ban, we’re going to be going full guns.’’
But Schelde said the winds of the pandemic could shift for the worse and put a chill on fishing well into June. People just don’t know what conditions will be like five weeks from now, he said.
“We’re going to go with the flow and see what happens, but it has to be safety first,’’ he said. “I don’t want people hauling this [virus] all around, either.’’
Minnesota is the third most-popular inland fishing destination in the country, selling 1.4 million licenses a year. Resident fishing participation is second only to the state of Alaska. Fishing-related activities generate up to $300 million in state tax revenue.
Explore Minnesota Director John Erdman said resorts across the state haven’t experienced heavy cancellations and are working on how to maintain social distancing when customers start to arrive.
He foresees a muted opener with nervousness about the pandemic, less travel, fewer large gatherings, more local fishing and shorter trips.
But especially if the weather is nice, he said, the fishing opener could trigger a surge of outdoor activity.
“After being cooped up at home … they are going to want to get out,’’ he said.
Kruchowski of Northwoods Bait & Tackle said he’ll be guessing this year when he orders minnows and leeches from area trappers. A part of him fears that the state will change course and shut down the opener. But he also has a nagging feeling that he’ll grossly underestimate the turnout and run out of bait.
“People are praying … but we don’t know what will happen between now and then,’’ he said.