Published April 05, 2012, 08:37 AM

Resort owners have mixed feelings about plans for earlier Minnesota fishing opener

Legislators are proposing to move the Minnesota fishing opener a week earlier. While most anglers probably would welcome getting on the water sooner, reaction in the tourism industry is mixed.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

Legislators are proposing to move the Minnesota fishing opener a week earlier because it would look good in moms’ eyes. But the measure might have at least as much to do with walleyes.

A legislative proposal passed in the Minnesota House on Tuesday would move Minnesota’s fishing opener from May 12 to May 5 this year. The proposal is touted by legislators as a way to minimize conflicts between Mother’s Day, May 13 this year, and the opening weekend of fishing. The change would apply only to this year.

While most anglers probably would welcome getting on the water a week earlier, especially after an early ice-out and unseasonably warm weather, reaction in the tourism industry is mixed.

“The only positive I see is that it would give one more week of possible revenue,” said Gail Heig, owner of Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnibigoshish north of Deer River. “The negatives are too numerous to count.”

But some fishing guides and bait dealers would welcome an earlier opener. They say walleye spawning would be finished, and fishing might be better with the earlier opener.

The so-called “mom’s amendment” was sponsored in the House by Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake. Sen. Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he would offer a similar amendment in the Senate. Dill’s amendment was attached to the House Omnibus Game and Fish Bill, a collection of other provisions.

“I was kind of shocked to see the House passed that,” said Jack Shriver of Shriver’s Bait in Walker, near the shores of Leech Lake. “Sometimes you wonder what those legislators are thinking. I’d love to have a jump-start on my business, but I’m hoping that two so-so weekends isn’t worse than one big one.”

Heig attended a meeting of Lake Winnibigoshish resort owners on Tuesday and said all seven resorts represented opposed the idea of an earlier opener, she said.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” Heig said. “It’s a logistical and scheduling nightmare.”

Resort guests often plan their opening weekend vacations well in advance, and many want to stay in the same cabin on that weekend every year. Moving the opener around creates problems for resort owners trying to keep all their customers happy, Heig said.

The Mother’s Day angle doesn’t play well, either, she said. Mother’s Day, which falls on the Sunday of opening weekend about half the time, isn’t a major issue in most families, Heig said.

“We have a lot of mothers that fish,” she said. “I fish. I don’t mind spending the opener with 200 men. And a lot of women don’t mind that their husbands go fishing that weekend.”

Ed Tausk of Vermilion Dam Lodge on Lake Vermilion said opening weekend isn’t a big draw for most resorts on that lake.

“We’ll take the business,” Tausk said. “We’ll take any additional business. But we aren’t anticipating much of a change.”

Linda Fryer, executive director of the Ely Chamber of Commerce, wonders what a change in the opener would mean for future years.

“I’d hate to see it changed every year based on the weather,” Fryer said.

The idea of moving the opener up a week was floated a few years ago in the Legislature but died for lack of support. At that time, it was proposed as a way to give resorters an extra weekend of revenue, although many resort owners opposed the idea.

“Moving it earlier in May is harder for us, getting the water turned on and getting the cabins cleaned,” Heig said.

The Governor’s Fishing Opener, an annual event aimed at increasing tourism in communities around the state, already is scheduled for May 10-12 in Waconia, Minn. Those dates will not change.

Wisconsin’s fishing opener is May 5. John Chalstrom of Chalstrom’s Bait and Tackle north of Duluth says the earlier opener would mean more revenue for him.

“If they’re going to give the residents of Minnesota one extra week to fish, that’s just business for me,” Chalstrom said. “I’m all for it on the condition they make up their mind real fast. … If they spring it on us three or four days before it happens, all that would do is cause chaos.”

Plenty of bait should be available if the season opens early, he said.

“Usually the bait trappers can start as soon as the ice is off those little ponds,” he said. “Bait shouldn’t be a problem for the opener.”

Lake Vermilion fishing guide Phil Bakken said fishing probably would be better with an earlier opener.

“I remember the last time when the ice went out early, in 2010, we had a normal opener and the fishing was real tough,” Bakken said. “I think the fishing would be a little better if they opened it earlier.”

Ely fishing guide Jim Orcutt also remembered tough fishing in 2010, when the ice went out early, and he thinks moving the opener to a weekend other than Mother’s Day makes sense. But it shouldn’t be just a one-year thing, he said.

“If they’re going to do it, they should just do it and get it done with,” Orcutt said. “That way it’s not a guessing game every year.”

Opening the fishing season earlier shouldn’t have an adverse effect on walleyes this year, said Chris Kavanaugh, Department of Natural Resources area fisheries supervisor at Grand Rapids.

“But it’s the precedent that it sets,” Kavanaugh said. “In other years, it would be a big deal, and there would be concentrations of spawning fish. It would cause us to have to look at closing areas to fishing.”

Even if the Legislature passes a measure containing provisions for the earlier opener, the bill couldn’t become law without Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature.

The last time the Minnesota fishing opener was changed was in 1989, when the Legislature moved it to its current schedule, which is always two weeks before the Memorial Day weekend. Before that, it was the Saturday nearest May 15, which was sometimes just a week before Memorial Day weekend. The change guaranteed that the resort industry would always have three fishing weekends in May.