The Fishing Opener: A Governor Meets His Match
You’ve just become Minnesota’s newest governor. Many challenges lie ahead – budget battles, appointments, tangles with political opponents, looking out for the welfare of the state. But come spring, you’re faced with an even greater challenge: Will you catch a walleye in the state’s fishing opener?
Governor Mark Dayton and Lt. Governor Yvonne Prettner Solon face that somewhat daunting task this month on Lake Pokegema in Grand Rapids. It’s a challenge neither takes lightly, given the history of the Governor’s Fishing Opener in Minnesota, which dates back to 1948.
Initially, the event was designed to improve Minnesota’s economy through the development and promotion of the state’s recreational opportunities, with a special focus on fishing. Today, it has developed into a rite of passage of sorts. Dayton will be following in the footsteps of 63 years-worth of governors, who may or may not have been familiar with the business end of a fishing rod, hoping for that walleye, perch, northern, or even just a tiny sunfish. That’s a lot of years and a lot of governors sweating it out on cold mornings, hoping not to embarrass themselves in front of hordes of photographers by not landing at least one fish that day.
They do it because we live in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and fishing is what we do here, winter and summer. Minnesota and fishing go hand in hand. Sort of like Bert and Ernie, Frick and Frack, null and void.
Each year, the Governor’s Fishing Opener is held on a different lake than the previous year, and communities vie fiercely for the chance to host the event and the potential increased tourism dollars that go along with it. Over the years, the event organizers have spread the wealth throughout many lakes across the state. Most recently, the opener has taken place on lakes Kabetegoma, White Bear, Pequot and Leech.
This year the opener occurs May 13 and 14, on Lake Pokegema and other lakes near Grand Rapids. This marks the second time Grand Rapids has hosted it since 1999.
“The Grand Rapids area is a great destination to host the opener,” said John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism, the state agency that coordinates the event each year. “The community’s slogan, ‘It’s in Minnesota’s Nature,’ reflects their focus on outdoor recreation, a perfect fit for the governor’s opener.”
To be frank, it’s not all about fishing. We’re talking tourism economics here. Communities that host the opener know they’ll have the media’s focus — hook, line and sinker — at the kickoff of tourist season, and so they cook up other events as well, including tours of local attractions, picnics, dinners, and school events, in an effort to strut their stuff in front of statewide summer travelers looking for close-to-home destinations.
“Of course, the focus will be on the Governor and Lt. Governor, but we also want to highlight the community,” says Carol Altepeter of Explore Minnesota. “It’s about what Grand Rapids can offer for fun, recreation and business opportunities. We want people to come and have fun at the opener, but we also want them to come back again.”
Tourism dollars aside, at the end of the day – actually at the beginning of the day — the media feeding frenzy will be focused on only one thing: the boat, or boats, carrying the Governor and Lt. Governor, as they try to bring in the big catch. How will our new state leaders take to the task?
“Growing up, I fished with my father and brother and sisters on Lake Vermilion,” says Governor Mark Dayton. “I realized later that my father knew little about fishing, which he didn’t admit to us. So I spent most of my childhood not catching any fish!”
That experience didn’t deter him from going out with then-Governor Perpich during the 1978 fishing opener. At that time, Dayton was the commissioner of economic development and the office of tourism, which gave him the chance to pick the lake for the Governor fish on.
“It was late spring and I was concerned the ice wouldn’t be out in time for the opener. Now that’s pressure,” he says. “I was also worried the Governor wouldn’t catch any fish or have a good time. More pressure. Fortunately, he caught several fish and had a blast. Compared to that pressure, this year is easy.”
Prettner Solon misses fishing with her late husband, State Senator Sam Solon, but looks forward to time spent with some of her family that weekend.
“My kids, their spouses, and my grandchild will be at the opener with me,” she says. “I love to fish! I just pray for warm, dry weather.”
Bad weather or not, both Dayton and Prettner Solon understand the fishing opener will not be your typical fishing day. Everyone wants to get into the action and the media will be out in force. They certainly think of landing that walleye, but there’s more to it than that. It’s about doing what other governors have been doing for the past 63 years: promoting a longtime Minnesota pastime.
“It’s a great tradition,” says Dayton. “And one I want to protect and enhance for generations to come.”