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Fishing: Moving up opening weekend undecided; Opposition say date change would cause problems

CASS LAKE - The new website for Cass Lake Lodge Resort & Campground displays a countdown that ticks away the seconds as the Minnesota fishing opener approaches.

But it might be off a week.

Late last month, Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, suggested amending outdoors bills to open the fishing season one week earlier this year. They've dubbed it the "Mom's Amendment," as it proposes moving the opener so it wouldn't coincide with Mother's Day weekend.

So far, a bill has been introduced in the House, but not in the Senate.

"I think it was well-intentioned and I appreciate legislators' efforts in regards to tourism," said Jack Frost, owner of Joe's Lodge and Campground on Lake Andrusia.

But, he continued, it is probably too late as vacations have already been set for this year.

"It really could throw a wrinkle into scheduling and logistics," he said, adding that 75 to 85 percent of his guests return each year, booking their next year's visit during the current fishing opener.

Reactions to the proposal among area resort owners were mixed, leaning more toward opposing the plan.

"If somebody can make some extra money off of it, then I'm all for it," said Jim Eickhorst, the owner of Kohl's Resort on Big Turtle Lake.

In theory, it sounds like a win-win for the tourism industry: another week to book guests.

But it's not that easy, said some resort owners.

"I think it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of," said Clark Heitman, owner of Horseshoe Resort on Cass Lake.

Heitman said many fishermen and women come from out of state and they planned their vacations a year ago.

He conceded that he might get a few additions for an earlier opener but said the cost of operating the resort for a few isn't worth it.

Horseshoe Resort has 17 cabins on three different wells. He said that if the date is changed and someone asks to book, he would have to require them to fill at least three cabins to make it financially worthwhile.

"And they wouldn't have any choice in the cabin," he said. "It would be whichever well I want to turn on."

Cheryl Dockter, owner of Morning Star Resort on Cass Lake, said moving up the opener could have benefitted resort owners - if the decision had been a made a month ago.

"Anything that adds a week of income for us, because we have such limited income, is a good thing, but, you know, it's getting so close now that if they don't make up their minds pretty soon, we'll have to start doing some things," she said.

Currently, the fishing opener for walleye, sauger and northern pike is set for May 12, less than four weeks away.

She said a change now would make it difficult for people to revise bookings or make new plans.

If resorters are waiting for the final decision, they may have to keep waiting a while longer. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the issue may not be settled soon by the Legislature.

"We may not know (the opener's date) until the end of April," Landwehr said.

The driving force in the talk, he said, is simply a reaction to a mild winter.

"From our standpoint, we bring the biological expertise," Landwehr said.

Moving the fishing opener up one week would have very little impact to most fisheries, with the exception of lake trout and the typical late spawn along northern border waters, he said.

One consequence of moving the fishing opener would likely be mid-summer changes on Mille Lacs Lake. Landwehr said changes could include reduced slot limits or harvests, moves the DNR generally doesn't like to do mid-season.

"My sense is the resorters are evenly split," Landwehr said.

The Bemidji area business community is pretty split on the matter, too, as evidenced by an email survey conducted by the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce.

Lori Paris, president of the Chamber, on Monday sent out a three-question survey, to which she received 110 responses.

Forty-one percent of respondents said they fully supported an earlier date for the fishing opener; 36 percent were opposed.

On the second question - does the fishing opener impact your business - 20 percent said yes, 36 percent said somewhat, and the rest said it has no impact at all.

The third question, on an unrelated issue, asked if businesses supported a proposal to have a wolf-hunting season opening on the same date as the deer-hunting opener. Fifty-one percent said yes and 28 percent said no.

Paris said she conducted the survey in response to inquiries from local senators.

Sens. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, and Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, initially supported the idea of the earlier fishing opener, but they've since backed off the idea.

"At first blush, I thought it was a good idea," Skoe said.

However, the senators said they've heard enough feedback in opposition. Skoe said he also has heard the proposal may provide leverage to split Minnesota's opening weekend, a move he opposes because it would give southern lakes an advantage over northern lakes.

Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, said the Senate will likely take up the outdoors bill Monday or Tuesday, and he plans to lobby against changing the fishing opener.

"You can't say two weeks before the opener that you're moving it up a week," Carlson said. "It just causes mayhem."

While the House amendment is well intended, he said changing the fishing opener would create scheduling issues for businesses and anglers. And no one could predict an early ice out.

"I've had the luxury of talking to businesses," Carlson said. "Of all the businesses I talked to, only one person has been in favor."

Cass Lake Lodge owner Jim Ball, who is opposed to an earlier date, pointed out, too, that the new date would conflict with the fishing opener in Wisconsin.

"Some people like to do both," he said.

Randy Ruttger, the owner of Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge on Lake Bemidji, said the change wouldn't affect him as the resort is already booked for what could become the new opener date.

The earlier date would fall on the same weekend of Bemidji State University graduation.

"We're so close to Bemidji that we're full for that weekend," he said.

Pioneer Editor Steve Wagner contributed to this report.