It was easy to think weeks ago that the COVID-19 pandemic would certainly dwindle the number of people coming to the Alexandria area for the May 9 walleye and pike opener with the uncertainty of everything.
Maybe that will be the case. The area will soon find out.
Opening weekend is key business for bait shops all over Minnesota, and that is certainly the case around Douglas County. The Friday before opener is a busy time as shops extend hours and anglers come through to stock up on bait and tackle before hitting the lakes.
Will anglers show up at the same level in the midst of the pandemic? Could it maybe even lead to more traffic because people are so eager for something to do?
Early indications after some great weather and a good panfish bite already seem to be that people are getting on the water, and local shops are preparing for anything.
“I think it’s going to be pretty typical for an opener,” Andrew Brinkman of Christopherson’s Bait and Tackle in Alexandria said. “The Friday before is always really busy. The main thing we’re seeing is the older people coming in are wearing a mask, and others might not be bringing their kids in. Maybe the overall numbers are going to be down a little, but I don’t know that it’s going to affect sales a whole bunch.”
That was a message echoed from multiple bait and tackle shops from around the area as local businesses get ready to welcome anglers under the unusual circumstances surrounding the pandemic.
Fishing, while doing so responsibly by social distancing, is one of the activities still encouraged through a stay-at-home order that was extended through May 18 on April 30. One caveat to that is that Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota DNR are encouraging anglers to fish close to home when they do get out.
“We’ve had a lot of people out fishing already,” Gregg Anderson of the General Store in Osakis said. “We’ve got a good crappie lake here, and I’ve had lots of traffic just crappie fishing. It’s an odd year, but everybody has time. We sell a lot of ammunition and guns for turkey hunting. I think I’ve had more people buy licenses and turkey things this year than I have the whole three previous years before this. People have time right now.”
Anecdotally, anglers have been out on the water in crappie bays near Alexandria, and license sales around the state back that up. Two weeks before the regular game-fish opener, those angling license sales were up 41% in Minnesota from the same time last year.
“With the good weather and the tremendous sunfish and crappie bite we have going on, I think there might even be more interest and more people coming around,” Larry Jensen of Minnewaska Bait and Tackle in Starbuck said. “The people we’ve noticed are just so excited to get out of the house, excited to get out in this nice weather and excited to catch a few fish. I think that’s going to carry over into our game-fish opener.”
Brinkman, Anderson and Jensen all said business has been pretty steady already with lakes opening up in a timely manner this year. Shops are preparing for what opener might bring as best they can with workers being cognizant of their own hygiene in terms of hand washing and by taking some added safety measures around the store.
“If there’s a large group of people, you definitely need to remind them to keep their distance, take your turn in an aisle,” Brinkman said. “We’ve got a schedule where we’re cleaning four times a day, wiping down the counters and commonly-touched surfaces and items. It’s been different that way. It’s a lot of guidelines, and we’re trying to do everything we can to make sure the place is clean, reminding people to use common sense when they’re in here.”
Live bait such as a variety of minnows will continue to come in ahead of opener.
Some species, such as the popular spottail shiners, will be hard to find. That’s been the case in recent years with the spawn for shiners so dependent on specific water temperatures and minnow trappers who supply the bait fish to shops being limited in the waters they can take minnows from to systems that do not have aquatic invasive species.
“That doesn’t really get affected a whole lot (by the pandemic),” Brinkman said. “Live bait has been that way for the last four, five years at least, if not more.”
In the midst of uncertain times, shops are preparing as much as they can for an influx of customers heading into this weekend.
“I think we’re going to be OK, and just judging by our panfish activity now, that’s given us a boost,” Jensen said. “I think the people are going to be ready to go. It kind of all just depends on the weather and if the fish are biting or not. I’m excited. I always have been. We’ve been here 35 years now, so this isn’t our first rodeo.”