Ask any angler what it takes to make a fishing opener memorable, and it’s likely that fish-catching success will be part of the answer. Some might wax philosophical about time spent on the water with a friend or with family, or cite seasonably fine weather, or the scenic qualities that make Minnesota such a fine state to call home. But when it’s time for angling true-confessions, the telltale tug on the other end of the line is the surest predictor of etching a fishing opener in memory.
This year’s fishing opener will most certainly be memorable, no matter how many or how few fish are caught. It will be so because of the disruptions to everyday life and activities caused by the coronavirus—COVID-19—pandemic that is still sweeping the country, infecting many thousands, and with more than 68,000 American deaths and still climbing.
To avoid being infected with the virus, and potentially being one of those that becomes quite sick—or dies—requires avoiding contact with the virus spread by someone who is infected. This could be someone who has few symptoms, but can nevertheless pass it on. It is this need to avoid contact with the virus in order to remain healthy that has changed our lives, and has created complications for our fishing opener.
COVID-19 is spread by direct contact with the virus, which can be acquired from an infected person via their sneeze, their cough and—some speculate—even in micro-droplets released when speaking. The virus can live for varying amounts of time on surfaces in our environment; several days, in some cases. Merely handling something with COVID-19 virus on it can infect you unless precautions are taken; precautions like washing hands thoroughly, using hand sanitizer, and avoiding touching eyes, mouth or nose. Or before touching, wiping down potentially contaminated surfaces with bleach wipes.
New terms or expressions enter our vocabulary out of need or circumstance. “Artificial intelligence” (AI) describes sophisticated computer logic; “robotic” is an act performed by a machine without human assistance, like welding components on an automobile assembly line. “Social distancing” is also new, but has been used and heard so much in daily COVID-19 pandemic news briefings and media reports that it hardly seems new anymore. But it’s social distancing—avoiding close contact with others—that is making this fishing opener different.
The common forms of influenza, or flu, will kill substantial numbers of us every year. The toll was 80,000 Americans in the 2017-2018 flu season, the highest in more than 40 years, while less than 50,000 is more typical. Already, COVID-19 has killed more than 68,000 Americans, and has not peaked in most states; 247,000 have died worldwide.
Not for more than a century has the world seen anything like it, the closest comparison being the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million people. How a virus is spread was not as well understood then, and inadequate isolation and social distancing are believed to have led to as many as one-third of the world’s population contracting Spanish flu, though most recovered. Healthcare is better today, but even now viruses must run their course, and as yet there are no proven vaccines to prevent our getting COVID-19 in the first place.
Prevention is the best medicine, and this is where social distancing comes in, but with a price. The Governor’s Fishing Opener event to kick off the tourism season was cancelled. The annual Minnesota DNR spring walleye egg-taking to provide hatchery fry and fingerlings for 2020 stocking was also cancelled, out of concern for spreading COVID-19 among fisheries crews, and from there to others.
More broadly, Minnesotans are being urged not to travel long distances for recreation, including fishing. In a recent Executive Order from Governor Tim Walz, state residents were told that “to protect our neighbors, Minnesotans should stay close to home and are strongly discouraged from unnecessary travel, including long-distance travel to engage in outdoor recreational activities, and travel to and from cabins, commercial lodging, and vacation homes and rentals.”
In other words, the Governor is asking fishermen to “bloom where they’re planted.” Fish waters close to home, rather than make a two or three-hour pilgrimage to your traditional fishing opener lake. Especially if you rely on a lodging establishment, but even if the lodging is your own cabin. Speaking from personal experience, that boat left the dock long ago. Having converted the family cabin to year-round lodging, every weekend evening we see a different “light-scape” as seasonal properties elsewhere on the lake become occupied for the next several days, then will wink-out until the next weekend.
The other side of the coin is that if metro anglers heed the Governor’s advice and fish waters close to home, the boat launches, bait shops, and tackle purveyors there will become high-traffic areas and potential choke-points, too. If I were to make an educated guess, it would be that nothing short of roadblocks will keep most Minnesota anglers from fishing where they traditionally have on opening weekend.
Minnesota anglers who fish in Canada commonly do so later than on the Minnesota opener, but the international border with Ontario is closed to nonessential travel—which includes angling—until May 20 or possibly later. That is beyond the May 16 Ontario walleye opener, which some Minnesota anglers ritually attend.
Minnesota fishing guides have reason to be anxious, too. They may be hosting a client who could be COVID-19-infected. They may be unsure of whether they should provide—if they can—or require that a client wear a face mask. How will the usual social amenities take place? Can you rig a rod for a client, or net his fish, without getting closer than the recommended six-foot distance? These things apply not only to guides, but to angling acquaintances who fish together. If you hand me a beer after we stow our gear and clean our fish, should I wipe it down with a bleach-wipe or slather it with hand sanitizer? Yum!
There have even been some hard-to-imagine events complicating the normal pre-fishing opener routine. One North Central Minnesota installer of docks for year-round and seasonal residents and small resorts had a crew member test positive for COVID-19. This required that the remaining crews be quarantined for 14 days while docks and boat lifts stand silent on shorelines.
Here’s wishing you a safe and satisfying Minnesota fishing opener, and a fillet or several sizzling in an old cast iron frying pan.