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As opener nears, a look back at how fishing has changed over time

This Saturday at midnight, there will be anglers backing their boats into waters aross the region, and landings on some of the most popular lakes in the area will likely still be filled.

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Al Skaar, left, of Alexandria and Dick Dyke were all smiles with a stringer of walleyes they caught on Lake Chippewa near Brandon during the Minnesota opener in 1975. (COURTESY PHOTO)

This Saturday at midnight, there will be anglers backing their boats into waters aross the region, and landings on some of the most popular lakes in the area will likely still be filled.

There are those who live for Minnesota’s fishing opener. The Department of Natural Resources states that Minnesota is ranked first nationally in the sale of fishing licenses per capita. Numbers released by the DNR before the 2015 opener stated that fishing contributes $2.4 billion to the economy in direct retail sales.

Plenty of anglers still live to be on the water, but are they coming to Alexandria as much as they used to?

“I remember one time on Lake Mary in 1977, I was working in the barber shop at that time so I went to work until noon, but in the morning I counted 124 boats out my window,” Alexandria’s Chuck Bokinskie said of how he recalls opening weekend almost four decades ago. “It’s completely different now. Now you might hear there were 100 boats on Mary, but if you actually go out and counted them there might be 50. Maybe. That’s just opening weekend.”

A changed industry 

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Things have changed dramatically in the world of fishing since the mid-1970s.

Lakes fluctuate over time due to weather conditions. The differences in technology available to anglers is night and day, and industries that may have relied on fishing have also conformed. There were a lot more lake resorts around the area in the 1970s. Today, those that remain don’t necessarily count on filling up their rentals with fishermen.

” I do know our local resorts tell me that the opener does not generate the same type of lodging interest it did 20 years ago,” Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Coni McKay said. “I don’t believe that is a situation exclusive to Alexandria. Some of it is thought to be generational. The boomers and greatest generations were and are a group that love to fish, but the younger generations are not as likely to be a fishing-opener enthusiast.”

Joe and Terri Martin, who have owned Big Foot Resort on Lake Mary since 1998, have 77 seasonal RV sites and five short-stay sites, along with 10 cabins for rent. Three of the cabins and two of the RV sites were available for opening weekend as of May 5.

“Our first years we sold out, but not anymore,” Joe said.

Martin bought Big Foot Resort knowing he couldn’t rely on fishing to be his primary way of filling beds. It’s part of the draw, but many local resorts have made the updates necessary to appeal to a wide range of interests for families.

“We’ve changed the resort quite a bit since we bought it so there’s more reason for people to be here,” Martin said.

Andrew Brinkman of Christopherson Bait in Alexandria says the amount of people they see come through their doors the week of opener can depend a lot on weather situations. Early springs like this year can mean anglers get ready for opener earlier. A sunny forecast can also lead to more people on the water on Saturday.

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“It can be very busy here,” Brinkman said on Monday. “The days leading up are usually more busy than an average day in the middle of summer.”

The need for walleyes

Advancements in technology have opened up an entirely new underwater world for anglers.

The ability to learn a lake has never been easier with today’s depth finders.

When the bite is on, anglers can more easily follow to wherever the lake might be and have confidence.

“Part of it is fishermen are a lot more mobile,” Alexandria’s LeRoy Ras said. “They hear about something and that’s where they go. I think of those lakes in Northeast South Dakota, I know a lot of guys who live in Alexandria that have cabins over there now just to fish walleyes. Everyone has depth finders, everyone has a GPS. All of that stuff just allows them to be that much more mobile.”

The need for Minnesota’s favorite game fish, the walleye, is at a fever pitch.

Ras, who was inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame in 2015, took his first paid guiding job in 1967. He targets walleyes through the middle of June before switching to bass, but he knows what drives the industry year around.

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“The majority of people want walleyes, and it’s very difficult to take a walleye fisherman and turn him into a bass fisherman,” Ras said. “The walleye fishing here, let’s face it, if you go way back there were walleyes only on a few lakes. The Chippewa Chain and Minnewaska and so forth had them. Most of the rest of them are artificially made into walleye lakes. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, I’m just saying that’s what’s happened.”

The DNR stocks roughly 900 lakes throughout Minnesota. Glenwood Area Fisheries Manager Dean Beck said in 2015 that they release anywhere from 10,000 to 17,000 pounds of walleyes into local waters, depending on the year. It’s not uncommon to hear of anglers wanting even more.

Bokinskie has been a part of a six-year stocking program through the Alexandria Viking Sportsmen group. He says the effort has helped put close to 1.5 million walleye fingerlings into 21 different area lakes.

“I know it’s working,” Bokinskie said. “It’s doing wonderful things. The only way you’re going to know that is by talking to the fishermen.”

Communites may not have changed much

The majority of the lakes in the area, those small-to-medium sized waters, don’t naturally produce walleyes, but pike, bass and panfish tend to naturally thrive in them.

Beck says he remembers a time when he first came to the area in 1989 that Alexandria proudly claimed itself as a great bass fishing destination. Prior to that, northern pike were more emphasized, he says.

The area still has some prestige among bass enthusiasts with the Alexandria Chain of Lakes being ranked among the top 50 waters nationwide by Bassmaster Magazine in 2015.

“I guess I have some concerns that people have become so specialized,” Beck said. “We have surplus numbers of northern pike and bass in a lot of these lakes that could stand to be harvested and everyone is keying in on the walleyes. I can’t say that the actual fish communities have changed a lot. We definitely get some variability in recruitment and population structure based on climatic conditions, drought versus heavy rainfall periods and the high water levels. But the basic fish communities are not all that changed.”

Beck wonders if the greatest change to local lakes might still be coming with the impact zebra mussels could have.

“The real productivity of a lake occurs as fish are very small,” he said. “At that point, all those fish are scrapping for similar food sources. If I would suggest a primary concern and fear for changes in fish community structure around here it would be following the zebra mussel infestations and losing some of the base primary productivity to zebra mussels. They’re grazing down on the green algae, which is the basis of our whole system productivity.”

Many area lakes feature an incredibly diverse fishery.

Beck says waters like the Alexandria Chain of Lakes easily home 40 fish species, from standard game fish down to non-game minnows. That provides its own set of challenges for producing the kinds of walleye fisheries people might want, but it also creates options for anglers.

“Selective harvest,” Bokinskie said. “If the walleyes aren’t biting, the crappies and sunfish are. That’s an easy switch.”

Area walleye waters

For those in search of walleyes, there are still plenty of options in the Douglas County area. Beck says the best walleye waters tend to be the fertile systems that can grow fish fast and have some level of natural reproduction. These systems often respond well to stocking efforts, too.

A 2014 DNR gillnetting assessment on Lake Reno caught 18.8 walleyes per gillnet with an average size of 17.5 inches. To put that into perspective, the DNR considers Minnesota lakes similar in size to Reno as having better-than-average walleye abundance when catch rates reach nine per gillnet.

Reno has the ingredients to produce a healthy walleye population - strong yellow perch numbers, and a reasonable northern pike population.

Lake Pelican by Ashby, Lake Osakis, Minnewaska, Amelia, Ida, Emily, Andrew, Miltona, Mary and Big Chippewa are other lakes the DNR suggest targeting for opener.

There are fish to be caught this weekend. Times have changed. Tactics have changed, but the general rule of fishing still applies - the fish will need to cooperate to fill a livewell.

Local resorts down

The local resort scene paints perhaps the most dramatic picture of how things have shifted in the fishing and outdoor tourism industry over the decades.

Coni McKay, the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, says she did a research project on the changes in lake resorts in the area almost 10 years ago. Through that, she learned there were approximately 150 small resorts on area lakes in 1975. That had dwindled to less than 50 by the time of her research.

Explore Minnesota Tourism also looked at the subject statewide in the late 2000s. Their research showed that in 1985 between Pope, Douglas and Todd Counties there were more than 80 resorts. In 2014, there were less than 35. The study showed a similar trend statewide with 3,200 resorts on lakes across Minnesota in 1985 falling to 1,200 in 2005.

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