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Back in business since May 18, Minnesota fishing guides adapt and adjust to navigate pandemic waters

Bookings are down in some cases, and while it’s gone well overall, guiding during a pandemic isn’t exactly business as usual, say Minnesota fishing guides interviewed for this story. They’re disinfecting everything from rods and reels to landing nets and boat handles at the end of every trip and requiring clients to travel in separate vehicles to the boat landings.

Pandemic-weary anglers are looking for a respite from the past few months, and Minnesota fishing guides say they're booking clients and working to keep people safe on the water with measures such as disinfecting boats and equipment after every trip, keeping hand sanitizer in the boat and asking clients how they feel before leaving the dock. Guides in Minnesota were able to resume business May 18 under Gov. Tim Walz's Stay Safe Minnesota guidelines, which are gradually loosening. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

It wasn’t a pretty scene, Jonny Petrowske recalls, the morning a fishing client showed up for a day on Upper Red Lake not feeling well and displaying symptoms that were consistent with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has resulted in a global pandemic.

A longtime fishing guide on Upper Red who runs Outdoors with Jonny P Outfitter and Guide Service, Petrowske told the client he would have to reschedule the trip and turned him away.

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Jonny Petrowske of Outdoors with Jonny P Outfitter and Guide Service on Upper Red Lake said he's turned away one customer who showed up hacking and coughing before the start of a fishing trip. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

“He’s quite upset,” Petrowske, of Waskish, Minn., said. “He was coughing – just a terrible hacking cough – and didn’t look good and said he didn’t feel good. I just told him I’m sorry, we’re going to have to reschedule the trip. And he had a meltdown.”


The incident is an extreme case, perhaps, but it illustrates the kinds of things Minnesota fishing guides have to think about since being allowed to resume business May 18 under Gov. Tim Walz’s Stay Safe Minnesota guidelines for outdoor recreation.

Whether the angler got tested for COVID-19 isn’t known, Petrowske says, but he wasn’t about to take any chances.

“I can’t risk it,” said Petrowske, who lives with his 87-year-old grandfather. “One, I can’t pass it to clients, and of course I do live with and take care of my grandfather, so I’ve got to really think about that, too.”

Not business as usual

Petrowske and three other northern Minnesota fishing guides – Curt Quesnell of NCOR Fishing Guide Service on Lake of the Woods; Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids-based Minnesota Fishing Connections; and Toby Kvalevog, a Brainerd fishing guide and partner in Leisure Outdoor Adventures guide service – recently shared their thoughts and observations on the guiding season to date.

Bookings are down in some cases, and while it’s gone well overall, guiding during a pandemic isn’t exactly business as usual, the guides say. They’re disinfecting everything from rods and reels to landing nets and boat handles at the end of every trip and requiring clients to travel in separate vehicles to the boat landings.

Then, of course, there’s the social distancing recommendation that people keep at least 6 feet apart to minimize the potential risk of spreading the coronavirus. Fishing guides in Minnesota had been limited to two clients per boat, a policy that was set to increase to three on Wednesday, June 10, as long as social distancing could be accommodated. Charter boats, such as the launches that resorts operate on Lake of the Woods, can take up to six passengers.

Neustrom says he won’t take more than two clients in his boat this summer regardless of the guidelines, but bookings have been steady.

“Our regulars are calling us back that we had to cancel early on,” said Neustrom, a member of the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame who guides on numerous lakes near Grand Rapids and the surrounding area. The continued closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel also has boosted business, Neustrom says. The closure is in effect until Sunday, June 21, and could be extended until late July, Reuters news service reported Wednesday, citing unnamed sources.


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Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame angler and fishing guide Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids said the continued closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel has increased business for northern Minnesota fishing guides. (Forum News Service file photo)
Forum News Service

In the meantime, anglers who had planned trips to Canada still want to go fishing, Neustrom said.

“Guides in the northern part of the state have been getting a lot of calls,” he said. “So I think that’s something that can be stated – no question about that.”

Like Petrowske, Neustrom said he’s turned away one client who appeared ill, but the fisherman took it in stride.

‘How are you feeling?’

“How are you feeling?” has become a standard question in the guides’ daily routines. All of the guides, who run boats at least 20 feet long, say they leave it up to their clients whether they wear masks on the water.

“You’re out in the fresh air, and I think you have more of that tendency not to be spreading anything when you’re out in the fresh air,” Neustrom said. “And if they’re safe and they’re healthy, I don’t want to put any unneeded additional pressure on them.”

Petrowske and Kvalevog say they wear “sun buffs,” the popular sun protection headwear that also can be used as a mask.


“The mask does change things because you can’t see the facial expressions of people,” Petrowske said. “You’re trying to make sure people are having a good time and having fun, but you can’t see the smiles, and it takes a lot away from (the experience).”

None of the guides say they worry about the potential risk of being in the boat with clients of differing backgrounds from differing parts of the country, as long as they appear healthy.

“My wife’s a registered nurse, so I’m more worried about getting it from her,” said Kvalevog, who teaches physical education in Brainerd but spends most of the summer living in Walker, Minn., and guiding on Leech Lake. “She works in the ER in Brainerd and she’s putting her hands on it every single day.

“The fact of the matter is, I keep my hands clean, and I have a better chance of getting cellulitis from rock bass slime than COVID.”

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Toby Kvalevog, a Brainerd school teacher who guides in the summer as a partner in Leisure Outdoor Adventures guide service, said the guide service is taking numerous precautions to minimize the risks resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Not a big worry

Quesnell, whose NCOR Fishing Guide Service is named for the “North Country Outdoors Radio” show he hosted during a 37-year radio career in Thief River Falls, said COVID hasn’t been a topic of conversation in his boat.

Quesnell and his wife, Deb, became Lake of the Woods locals in 2017.


“No one’s been talking about it hardly at all,” Quesnell said. “My wife was worried enough for both of us. I’m disinfecting, I’ve got hand sanitizer in the boat all the time, and I use it and I encourage people to do that, too.

“It’s been, surprisingly, not a big worry to people that have come to fish.”

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Curt Quesnell of NCOR Fishing Guide Service on Lake of the Woods said COVID-19 hasn't been a big concern or topic of conversation among the customers he's taken fishing. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

The additional time it takes to disinfect the boat and all of the equipment at the end of every trip is perhaps the biggest change in the routine.

“Between trips when I have a different group, I’m taking an hour to clean and wash my handles – boat handles, fishing rod handles and reels,” Kvalevog said. “I have hand sanitizer I keep in the boat, and people are told right away where everything is.”

Kvalevog, best known in Grand Forks as a goalie on the UND hockey team that won a national title in 1997, said Leisure Outdoor Adventures and its nine guides have lost much of their corporate business this summer because of COVID-19 but the family bookings are holding steady. The difference, though, is that groups such as a grandfather, son and grandson might only have the younger two members this year.

“We've had people that didn’t come because they were worried about it, elderly or whatnot,” Kvalevog said. “A lot of times, Grandpa is missing and just not taking the risk.”


In the meantime, the guides say they’ll continue to be flexible and follow the guidelines in place to minimize the risks and help ensure clients have a safe, enjoyable experience on the water.

People might be apprehensive about getting in a boat and getting on with life as restrictions ease, but Neustrom, for one, says he believes the “fear factor” eventually will decrease.

“Maybe our lives will change forever, and they probably will, but I think right now, people are starting to feel a little bit more comfortable, and I know the (COVID) numbers are going down, and we need that,” Neustrom said. “We need people to have faith in each other. I really believe that.”

  • On the Web:

Minnesota Fishing Connections: mnfishingconnections.com.

Leisure Outdoor Adventures: leisureoutdooradventures.com.

Outdoors with Jonny P: outdoorswithjonnyp.com.

NCOR Fishing Guide Service: facebook.com and search for “NCOR Fishing Guide Service.”

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

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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