Hundreds of thousands of anglers will hit Minnesota’s lakes and rivers Saturday for the general fishing opener, but they will be doing it without professional guides or charter captains leading the way.
Fishing guides and charter boats remain closed under the state’s COVID-19 regulations, not considered either essential or exempt from stay-at-home orders even as other businesses are allowed to open.
The closure means guides will miss the usually busy first week of the walleye season and, if the order holds through at least May 18 as expected, a second walleye fishing weekend. If the closure lasts through Memorial Day weekend, some guides say it will be financially devastating for their season.
Supporters have started a petition drive to convince Gov. Tim Walz to relax regulations to let guides go back to work, as he has for several other businesses over the past week. The online effort at Change.org had more than 5,000 signatures as of Thursday. Organizers have forwarded the effort to some state lawmakers and will try to get the attention of the governor’s office before Saturday, hoping for a last-minute reprieve.
AliceKae Wiese, co-owner of Remer-based Wheezy Outdoors with her husband, Justin, said the COVID-19 pandemic started hurting their business in April, when local governments shut down access to the early Rainy River walleye season to keep potentially infected tourists from flocking into the area to fish.
“That’s usually a very busy time for Justin and we lost a lot of trips with that,’’ she said. “Now, we’re going to lose opening weekend and the first week of the season, if not more. … It’s really making a dent in our family income.”
Wiese said customers are calling and anxious to get outdoors, but she’s had to cancel several trips, refund deposits and turn down business because of the uncertainty of when the state will allow them to go to work on the water.
“It doesn’t make sense, or seem fair, that they encourage people to go fishing but then tell people who may not have a boat that they can’t go because guides can’t go,’’ Wiese said. “We know we can sanitize our boats and equipment. We know we can keep socially distanced on the water. We can screen our customers (for potential health issues.) We’ll wear masks if we have to. … I don’t think many other businesses would be as safe as we can be.”
The closure already has meant lost business for Duluth’s fleet of charter boats with the season open for most Lake Superior fish species nearly all year.
“We’d usually be out there in April, depending on when the ice goes out, and definitely in May. But not this year,’’ said Peter Dahl, Duluth’s longest-serving charter captain and co-owner of Happy Hooker Charters. ”People are anxious to do something outdoors. But we still can’t tell them when we can take them.”
Happy Hooker has six boats in its fleet. Dahl has been guiding on the big lake since 1976. He said some corporate charters already have canceled as businesses eliminate in-person events due to COVID-19. But he expects families and groups of friends to book trips as soon as they can, especially as the weather and Lake Superior warm up.
“If this goes into June, that’s going to hurt us pretty bad,’’ said Dahl, who serves as president of the Duluth Charter Fishing Guides Association. He figures there are about 16 charter operations in Duluth and several more in Superior.
Dahl said Happy Hooker has purchased special cleaning machines to disinfect their boats after every trip, and he said big fishing cruisers offer ample space for people to social distance.
The ban on guiding and chartering is frustrating because anglers have been encouraged to fish on their own or with people they know, to social distance and stay close to home. Guides say they can abide by social distancing and health safety precautions the same as all other anglers.
Wiese said the ban on guiding has been especially unfair because most guides are self-employed and aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits from the state.
“We did find out that we may be eligible for some pandemic assistance funds for small businesses. But we haven’t seen anything for sure yet,’’ Wiese said. “We’d rather be able to work.”