State of Fishing: Angling's economic impact, future in focus as Walz addresses first Minnesota Fishing Summit
Leaders from all avenues of the fishing business in Minnesota gathered to talk about the issues, economic impact and future generations of anglers in the state in the first Minnesota Fishing Summit
ROGERS, Minn. – In a place where they undercount 10,000 lakes right on the official license plates, Minnesota should rightfully be known as the State of Fishing. At least that is the opinion of MN-Fish, which started in 2018 to be a “squeaky wheel” at the state Legislature.
With the 2022 walleye fishing opener just days away – despite ice still covering many northern Minnesota lakes – the lobbying and fishing promotion group brought together varied interests from throughout Minnesota on Tuesday for the first State of Minnesota Fishing Summit. What followed was several hours of information and opinion on what is working and what needs work in the world of fishing on Minnesota’s myriad waterways.
“We believe that Minnesota is the State of Fishing, and we want to keep it that way,” said Ron Schara, the longtime outdoors writer and TV host who serves as the MN-Fish president. He made it clear that the group is not fundamentally opponents of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but offered some frank criticism of the DNR for what is perceived as a lack of adequate investment in things like fish hatcheries and public water access points.
While offering no pledges of funding, DNR commissioner Sarah Strommen noted that Minnesota has a historic budget surplus and called this a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to invest in fishing needs in the state. She noted the importance of the outdoors and the skyrocketing popularity of socially distanced activities like fishing, hiking and camping during the COVID pandemic, that allowed countless Minnesotans to get out of the house while staying safe from transmission of the virus.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz showed up for the final 30 minutes and pledged his support for the two MN-Fish bonding proposals, which seek $60 million for fish hatcheries and $37 million for improved public water access. Walz acknowledged the sharp ideological divide currently in Minnesota politics, but said that fishing can and should rise above the dug-in positions on the left and right.
“I think in Minnesota, protection of our outdoor activities – especially fishing – transcends partisan politics,” said Walz, who joked that he has fished his whole life, but remains “crappy” at it.
“In many ways, there are the good old days,” said Brad Parsons, who is in charge of statewide fisheries for the DNR, noting things like the growth of bass fishing and the increasing numbers of young people and people of color getting involved in fishing. There is also growth in new types of fishing – exploring smaller, shallower waterways via kayak or bowfishing – and potential new crowds of anglers to reach.
The dark clouds that challenge the industry come from things like climate change, which is moving the fish reproduction timelines and seasons due to warmer waters, runoff from agricultural operations that can pollute lakes and rivers, and the advancement of fishing electronics, which one speaker noted may eventually change the name of the activity from “fishing” to “catching.”
Tuesday's attendees included resort owners, regional tourism directors, fishing education promoters, DNR conservation officers and officials from several state agencies. It was a free-flowing marketplace of ideas on how to continue to grow fishing in the state, which is part of the Minnesota identity, to be sure. Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove noted that nearly 50 years later, the lasting iconic image of Minnesota for many around the nation is former Gov. Wendell Anderson, smiling while he held a fresh-caught northern pike aloft on the cover of "TIME" magazine in August 1973.
But, Grove noted, fishing is also a $4.4 billion industry encompassing everything from the small-town bait shops, where folks pick up shiner minnows and leeches on their way to the lake, to major high-profile employers like Clam Outdoors, which hosted the meeting at their headquarters just off Interstate 94.
One point of emphasis was finding ways to reach the next generation of anglers in the state. A Clam employee asked for a show of hands among the dozens in the room to see how many were 30 or younger. There was one. It underscored the need for a youth-based effort to reach the “YouTube and TikTok crowd,” get them to try fishing, and stick with fishing as a lifelong activity.
Walz noted the growth in high school sports like clay target shooting and fishing show that the next generation is discovering the outdoors on its own.
“This tradition is alive and well with the number of young people getting involved,” Walz said. “We were worried just a few years ago and wondering what we were going to do. Nobody was getting into hunting, nobody was getting into fishing. We were all getting gray…That is no longer an issue. It’s exploding. They get it, and they love it. And now we need to leave them a legacy where they can actually do it.”