MINNEAPOLIS -- 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.