You can take all the steps needed for angling preparedness. You can make sure your reels have fresh line spooled on them. You can restock tackle boxes with items that were in short supply by last season’s end. You can lay in a supply of spot-tail shiners and leeches—maybe some night crawlers, too—so that you’ve got all bases covered for the whims of post-spawn walleyes. You know when the ice went out on the lake you plan to fish, which will influence the “where” and the “how receptive” of the walleyes you’re pursuing.

But one thing that no amount of planning and preparation can assure is the weather. As if to remind us of that fact, the weather on opening day of the general fishing opener last Saturday was “wintry,” to say the least, over much of the state. With temperatures hovering not much above freezing, there were brief periods when the snowfall was so heavy that it was impossible to see the far shore of our lake, or boats that were any distance off. That other item of preparation—proper clothing to remain warm and shed water—was a day saver, as it’s hard to tough it out and stay on the water when you’re cold, wet or both.

Anglers go far afield for opener

Evidence from traffic on the highways and at boat launches suggests that advising Minnesota anglers to fish waters close to home to help avoid the spread of coronavirus—COVD-19—had little effect. Popular lakes in the far north, like Upper Red Lake in Beltrami County, reportedly saw plenty of visitors identified as hailing from places as distant as the Twin City metropolitan area. It’s well known that the best walleye fishing is in the North, and the allure of walleyes to state anglers is as potent as catnip to a tabby.

It’s not yet clear the extent to which businesses that cater to anglers, like bait and tackle enterprises, gas-and-convenience stores, liquor stores and others, experienced more in-store traffic as a result. If so, the up-side was more sales revenue; the downside, the risk of exposure to potential carriers of COVID-19. It should have been evident even before the fishing opener that Minnesotans were making treks like this on a regular basis, based on their conspicuous visits to cabins and seasonal homes that began with ice-out, and before.

Short of traffic stops and license checks, it was probably a pipe dream for Governor Walz to expect compliance with limit-your-travel directives. The only thing Governor Walz could really control was the Governor’s Fishing Opener event, which had been scheduled this year for Ottertail County. Unfortunate for the host resort, and for businesses in that area, the event that draws anglers and major Minnesota media was cancelled due to the event’s incompatibility with the social distancing strategy being employed nationwide to slow the spread of COVID-19. Fortunately for the resort and the wider Ottertail County area, the same location will—barring any untimely resurgence of the pandemic—be the site of the 2021 event.

License sales reveal pent-up demand

As of four days prior to the Saturday opener, state fishing license sales were up 45%—roughly 100,000 more—from the same date-point in 2019. There’s been no scientific survey as to the reason, at least that I’m aware of. But the most logical explanation is that Minnesotans have been eagerly awaiting an outlet as they endured the social distancing and lack of normal everyday pastimes, like athletic events, dining, the arts, and other rewarding distractions.

It’s hard to say where 2020 full season totals will end up compared to 2019, but they may well be higher. One reason is that resident youth fishing licenses, which are purchased by young people ages 16 and 17, had as of that pre-opener Tuesday more than doubled from 2019. These youths—having lost the daily camaraderie of fellow students, and the opportunity to participate in spring sports and other extra-curricular activities—have been more deprived of normalcy than many adults. Fishing may prove to be an important outlet for them, to say nothing of boding well for the future voter base that values quality outdoor recreation opportunities.

License sales drive fisheries programs

These positive angling license sales are also important to Minnesota fisheries management, because they are the primary source of funding for fisheries programs carried out by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The fisheries mission is not funded by the state’s general taxation funding. One of the most high-profile fisheries management programs is walleye management, including the extensive stocking program that supplements walleye numbers in some waters where the species reproduces naturally, and creates a walleye fishery in some lakes where they do not.

This year, unfortunately, Minnesota DNR walleye egg-taking for hatchery rearing and release was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the threat of its spread due to the close contact of fisheries personnel during this egg-taking process. South Dakota also cancelled its walleye egg collection for 2020, and Iowa cut short its process before its completion. Hopefully last year’s stocking effort is producing robust walleye numbers!

A happy big fish ending

A couple of columns ago, I lamented lessons re-learned the hard way in the loss of a good fish; one that—with better fish-playing judgment—might have been landed. I returned to the same trout stream, before the general fishing opener last weekend. I spent a couple of hours catching several run-of-the-mill size brook trout. But they’re beautiful, no matter the size, with their orange belly, and tiny red spots surrounded by a halo of pale blue on a dark background.

With darkness approaching, I started back toward my put-in spot. Crossing to the opposite side of the stream to regain a trail, I thought “Why not one last cast into that fast water?” A fish rapped my minnow imitation, but failed to hook itself. One more cast, the feathered minnow swung in the current, and a hard strike. Then a tussle, as the fish pulled hard trying to reach a tangle of submerged roots. I horsed it in closer, the hook and leader held, and I slipped a large, gun-metal dark brook trout into my net. I laid against the span of the net; it measured a solid 13 inches—large for a stream-bred brookie—before I worked the hook free and watched it swim back into the depths from which I had disturbed it.