Inside the Outdoors: Thinking the Unthinkable: COVID-19 and our Fishing Opener

Anglers on Gull Lake during a walleye and northern pike fishing opener.

The past week brought news that the 2020 Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener event in May has been scrapped, a response to the dangers of close per-to-person contact posed by the worldwide coronavirus—COVID-19—pandemic. The official term was “postponed until 2021,” but the only thing really salvaged is Ottertail County’s right to host the same event next year, when it is expected to be safe to do so. The truth is, the absence of this annual event is a cancellation, just given a more palatable name.

Cancelled, too, is the ritual kick-off of the 2020 tourism season, and missing for this year will be the visibility that the Governor’s Fishing Opener annually brings to the chosen region and host community. Beyond the absence of this kick-off, it’s unclear whether there will be anything that resembles a 2020 tourism season in Minnesota. There is still hope that by summer’s arrival there will be a return to something approaching normalcy, and that some of Minnesota summer lifestyle can be salvaged.

For the present, the state’s most heard theme is not “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but “Stay Home Minnesota.” This, just when winter is losing its grip, sap is beginning to flow in our forests, snowmelt is swelling the flow in our creeks and rivers, small ponds and lakes are losing their ice, and we wait expectantly for leaf buds on trees to swell and burst open. Just when we were getting over the late winter doldrums as ice fishing, skiing and snowmobiling conditions have deteriorated, being told to “Stay home Minnesota” feels like a punch to the gut.

Unfortunately, its meaning is a little imprecise. Much information is assembled at the official web site for the state’s COVID-19 response; and—without doubt—it’s helpful. But in addition to providing answers, it also raises some questions.

The web site lists what it calls “permissible activities during the stay-at-home order.” These are above and beyond the work activities of those who still have jobs—including those who are considered essential workers—as the economy absorbs one of the biggest blows that has been seen by anyone now living.


Among the activities one would expect to be given the green light are getting groceries, fuel or take-out food, or obtaining medical services or supplies, or caring for someone in another household. Among the outdoor activities identified as permissible are walking pets, hiking, running, biking, hunting or fishing. The breadth of good reasons to leave one’s house is encouraging, but it also opens the door for some hard questions.

The main objective of Stay Home Minnesota is to limit the sharing of the virus and spreading it to other individuals and other parts of the state where there are few, or no, cases of COVID-19. These areas are generally outstate counties that have much lower population density than the Twin City metro area or the greater Rochester community in the Southeast, for example.

Most of the green-lighted activities are things that can be done close to one’s home. The wild cards, however, are hunting and fishing. It’s true that Minnesota’s lakes, of which there are more than 10,000, are fairly well distributed from border to border, though certainly Central and Northern Minnesota have them in greater numbers.

Most Minnesotans could probably fish within a short drive of their home. The reality, however—if you discount sprawling Lake Minnetonka, just west of Minneapolis and its suburbs—is that the best lakes are 100 miles or more from the densely populated Twin Cities area. There’s ample evidence that many people continue to travel this distance and more on weekends to cabins and vacation homes.

This is already occurring while ice still covers all, or most, of the major lakes in the northern half of the state, and relatively little fishing is being done. When the general fishing opener arrives on the second weekend in May, it takes no crystal ball to predict that the migration to distant fishing destinations could rival the spring migration of songbirds and waterfowl.

There is likely to be little danger of anglers passing the coronavirus to one another while on the water. The “social distancing” guidelines to stay at last six feet from others will be easily met, at least on a boat-to-boat basis. If there is risk of spreading COVID-19 by an angler migration, it would likely lie in increased traffic in the establishments that have remained open and staffed by local employees. Among these—for example—are grocery stores, gas station-convenience stores, establishments that sell fishing tackle and the like.

At present, there are no defined guidelines on what—if anything—is an acceptable distance to travel for any of the approved activities. There have been citations for violating the Governor’s stay-at-home order, generating protest by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) because some of the citations seemed to be prompted by other alleged violations.

Governor Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order is set to expire this week on April 10th. It would not be a huge surprise if the order is extended if there is no evidence that the coronavirus spread in Minnesota has been contained. On a national level, hopes for an early end to the spike in confirmed cases and deaths—and the many shelter-in-place restrictions on travel—have not been met.


The April 1 announcement of no 2020 Governor’s Fishing Opener was accompanied by a suggestion that Minnesota anglers consider fishing close to home, and be aware of the need to protect public health. It was also announced then that there were no plans to delay the May 9th general season opener.

Those who know the passion of Minnesota anglers would probably agree that postponing this big event could be political suicide. On the other hand, we’ve seen the suspension of all school attendance and sports, as well as the shutdown of all major league sports for the foreseeable future. Given that, it is an unwanted—but not so far-fetched—idea that business-as-usual for Minnesota anglers is not 100% guaranteed.

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