There are over 1.4 million fishing licenses issued yearly in Minnesota, a ratio of more than one license for every five residents in this state with a population of five million. So it is not surprising that the opening of the fishing season here is a big day. And it becomes a really big event when the Governor of the state tells a community he not only wants to celebrate the opening fishing weekend at their lake area, but he wants to invite about 400 guests as well.
Sport fishing is of major economic importance to Minnesota. As a means of reinforcing this, the Governor’s Fishing Opener has become a tradition. When one receives a special invitation to join him for this event, it is easy to accept the offer.
While it was a couple of years ago it seems like only yesterday when I, an d about 350 other radio, television, newspaper, and sports magazine writers descended, almost en mass, upon the tiny town of Pequot Lakes. Gov. Tim Pawlenty also invited members of the Minnesota National Guard who served in Iraq.
And while it may seem strange that such a major undertaking would take place in so small a town, Pequot Lakes is part of the Brainerd Lakes tourist region, which attracts thousands of angling enthusiasts annually. It counts on tourism to drive employment and related economic activity.
The town may be small, but its people have big hearts. They work together to stage a huge welcome for the governor and his 400 invitees, with a huge meal inside two massive tents erected especially for the occasion.
Where else would you be able to gather 200 qualified fishing guides to volunteer their time and boats to take two guests in each craft to their secret fishing spots? They do it willingly to demonstrate how good fishing can be in Minnesota, and particularly this region.
While fishing was the highlight of the day, travelling through Brainerd Lakes is like watching a postcard slide show. Sharp escarpments give way to vistas of reflective waters, rolling golf courses dot the roadside while quaint colourful shops invite you to stop and shop in the towns you roll through.
Shortly after the break of opening day, the governor issued a challenge to his lieutenant-governor, Carol Molinau, to try to beat him in catching the biggest walleye. He was confident because his guide is the locally famous Walleye Dan. When the governor is asked what would happen if he didn’t catch any walleye, Dan jumps in quickly saying, “The name is not Perch Dan or Bass Dan or Pike Dan, it’s Walleye Dan, so he don’t have to worry about it.” The gun sounds and the flotilla is underway.
The Brainerd Lakes contain most species of fish serious anglers seek. Since Manitoba and Northwest Ontario offer little opportunity for catching largemouth bass, our guide promises he will make sure we catch and release our fill of them during the day, if he takes us to nearby Gull Lake.
It would seem a promise made is a promise delivered. Our host guide, Broch Paplow, whose living in no small part depends on delivering on this commitment week in and week out during the summer, was very confident.
It is a chilly morning and, as Paplow’s high performance Skeeter Bass Boat races across the water at almost 70 miles per hour, I think my freezing face is peeling off and falling about 50 feet behind the boat in the equally frigid waters. Just as I am wondering whether this is all worth the effort, we pull into a quiet backwater channel off the main lake.
At first I am quite convinced they saved the worst guides for the few Canadians in attendance. But before long my fishing partner, Dennis Maksymetz, formerly of Travel Manitoba and an equally avid fisherman, pulls in the first largemouth. He gets another one and I am beginning to think I am casting off the wrong side of the boat. But then it was my turn, and memories of the last time I went bass fishing in this same region of Minnesota come flooding back.
Largemouth Bass are a fun, fighting fish to catch. Like their smaller relative, the Smallmouth Bass, they are pound-per-pound one of the toughest. And watching them race out of your hands as you gently release them back into the water brings a thrill of a different kind.
At the windup banquet, as they are introduced by Gov. Pawlenty, a standing ovation is given to the Minnesota members of the National Guard who served in the war zone, some of whom were set to return in the next few days. While we don’t often see this overt support for our Canadian troops who serve in similarly dangerous conditions, this uniquely U.S. outpouring is very emotional, and somehow still fits with the otherwise jovial sports-like atmosphere of the fishing crowd.
While Walleye Dan would ensure the governor caught enough to feed his family a walleye shore lunch had he needed to, it was Gov. Pawlenty who would have to eat crow. Jokingly he admitted his lieutenant-governor caught the big ones he was after.
An event this big can only be successful with a tremendous commitment from the dozens of people who do the work behind the scenes without sharing in the glory.
They do it because they genuinely care about the people who choose to come to their lakes to fish, golf, or relax at one of the many resorts. There is no doubt that 350 travel writers and broadcasters, who were framing their stories of the weekend as they drove or flew home, would make all their efforts worthwhile. A major media event like this one seems like an exceptional way to prove that a tourist region, regardless of where it is, has what it takes to not only bring tourists to it, but keep them coming back as well.