The Koochiching County Board in northern Minnesota voted Tuesday morning to close its four county-owned boat ramps on the Rainy River until further notice in an effort to discourage anglers from flocking to the border river during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rainy River flows about 70 miles along the Ontario-Minnesota border from Rainy Lake to Lake of the Woods.

Tuesday’s action occurred during a teleconference with Lake of the Woods County commissioners as part of an effort to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19. Thousands of anglers flock to the border river every spring to catch walleyes that swim upstream from Lake of the Woods to spawn.

The four ramps closed by the action are the Vidas, Frontier and Nelson Park accesses and the Upper Sault landing at Franz Jevne State Park, which sits on county-owned land. Lake of the Woods County doesn’t own any of the affected ramps, but board members supported the decision to close the landings.

Lake of the Woods commissioners did vote to close all county-controlled rights-of-way into landings that provide access to the river until further notice and will revisit the policy at its next meeting April 14, Lake of the Woods Tourism reported on its website after the meeting. City officials in Baudette, Minn., voted Monday to close the two landings it owns in city limits at Timberline Park and Peace Park.

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During Tuesday's meeting, Lake of the Woods County commissioner Jon Waibel said limiting the crowds that typically converge on the Rainy River for the spring season isn’t an anti-fishing action. Instead, Waibel said, it’s to encourage people to stay home at a time they’re being asked to stay home and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 as the number of cases continues to grow.

“People are scared and people are mad,” Waibel said. “People have to understand, it’s not that we don’t want them here. We just don’t want an influx here now.”

Although Lake of the Woods County doesn’t own any of the affected ramps, many of the anglers who fish the river in the spring stay in Baudette or resorts in the county. Walleye season on Lake of the Woods, Rainy River and other Minnesota-Canada border waters is open through April 14.

Tuesday’s teleconference also included discussion on writing a letter to Gov. Tim Walz and state lawmakers, encouraging them to close fishing season completely, but commissioners opted not to go that far.

“I think Lake of the Woods County would support the closing accesses if you think that’s the right path, but closing the fishing season, I don’t think we support,” said Ed Arnesen, a Lake of the Woods County commissioner whose family owns Rocky Point Resort.

Taking action to limit boat access and discourage anglers from coming north now is meant to alleviate even more drastic measures down the road, Waibel said.

Walleye fishing on the Rainy River is catch-and-release only from March 1 through April 14 when the season closes.

“There are too many uncertainties to catch a 30-inch walleye and let it go,” given the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state, he said.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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