Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



The outdoors in 2020 – a look back: COVID-19 pandemic drove people outdoors in record numbers

People needed an escape, and through it all, the outdoors became a refuge and a link to sanity during a very dark time. Life changed in 2020, but the outdoors became more important than ever. Here’s a look back on the year, as seen on the pages of the Herald’s Northland Outdoors section.

122620.O.GFH.OUTYEAR-Walleye spawn 4.jpg
Where there's a will, there's a way, as the old saying goes, and fisheries crews for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department were able to collect pike and walleye eggs last spring with a bit of improvising to minimize the risks resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

Ugh, what a year. …

The train wreck we’ll look back on as 2020 started normal enough, with the usual concerns of too much snow in places, its potential impact on deer and other wildlife and the difficulty it created for ice anglers looking to access their favorite lake.

The deep snow issues were especially prevalent in northern Minnesota. It was a different story in parts of North Dakota, where winter barely made an appearance.

Then came March and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that changed everything for everyone – and probably forever.

The upside – for lack of a better word – came in the form of a trend that bodes well for the future. People got outdoors in record numbers. Fishing license sales were off the charts, and state parks saw record visitation.


People needed an escape, and through it all, the outdoors became a refuge and a link to sanity during a very dark time.

Life changed in 2020, but the outdoors became more important than ever. Here’s a look back on the year, as seen on the pages of the Herald’s Northland Outdoors section.


The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources added 13 new conservation officers, including Marc Johnson, who filled a vacancy in Warroad, Minn., and Aaron Larson, who filled a previously vacant station in Baudette, Minn.

The DNR was planning a series of workshops across northwest Minnesota to provide opportunities for deer hunters to assist with setting deer population goals.

The Badlands Conservation Alliance named Liz Loos as its new executive director. Previously research director for Delta Waterfowl’s national headquarters in Bismarck, Loos replaced Jan Swenson of Bismarck, who retired from the BCA post in March 2019.

122620.O.GFH.OUTYEAR-January Elizabeth Loos mugshot.jpg
Elizabeth Loos, executive director, Badlands Conservation Alliance. (BCA photo)

Anglers logged 552,459 hours of fishing pressure on Devils Lake in 2019 and kept 256,779 pounds of walleyes, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department said, based on results from a summer creel survey on the big lake.



Wardens for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department issued more than 2,300 citations in 2019 for various hunting, fishing and boating violations, the agency reported. Licensing violations topped the list, with 496 citations.

Deep snow in parts of northeast and northern Minnesota was beginning to concern DNR wildlife managers, who worried the conditions could have a negative impact on deer herds.

Resorts in some parts of northern Minnesota from Bemidji east said they needed help from the Minnesota Legislature to survive poor winter business resulting from deep snow and slush conditions that hampered ice fishing activity.

The DNR said hunters in northwest Minnesota shot 15 elk out of 27 permits for a success rate of 55% during the 2019 season, down from a success rate of 75% in 2018. Hunters in 2018 shot 17 elk out of 22 licenses issued. The DNR attributed the decline to bad weather and extreme wet conditions during the fall of 2019.


The North Dakota Game and Fish Department said it was putting on hold plans to remove a struggling bighorn sheep herd in the southern Badlands and replace it with healthy sheep from Montana. The potential disease impact from nearby domestic sheep herds prompted the decision, department officials said.

County commissioners in Koochiching County of northern Minnesota voted to close the boat ramps they own along the Rainy River because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city of Baudette, Minn., followed suit and also closed its ramps. Lake of the Woods County doesn’t own any ramps along the Rainy, but the county board approved restricting rights-of-way to accesses within the county. The closures were set to be revisited April 14, the last day of the walleye season on Minnesota-Ontario border waters.


The North Dakota Game and Fish Department canceled the paddlefish harvest season to alleviate the crowds that converge near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. The move was made because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The North Dakota Game and Fish Department canceled this year's paddlefish snagging harvest season to minimize the potential for overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

The DNR said it wouldn’t conduct spring electrofishing on the Rainy River or prescribed burns to enhance wildlife habitat because of the pandemic.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department was proceeding with its annual spring take of walleye and pike eggs for state stocking programs despite the pandemic. To be safe, fisheries workers wore homemade masks, and personnel who stripped milt and eggs from the fish while working in close quarters sat behind a shield on makeshift “spawning benches” and wore face shields while doing their work.

Russ Kinzler NDGF.png
Russ Kinzler, Missouri River System biologist for the Game and Fish Department in Riverdale, N.D., models a mask fisheries crews will be wearing during this spring's egg takes for pike and walleyes. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

Conservation groups were praising a proposal from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to expand public hunting and fishing access on more than 2.3 million acres on 97 national wildlife refuges and nine national fish hatcheries.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department announced plans to conduct two spring advisory board meetings online instead of eight meetings in person because of the pandemic. The department is mandated to hold the meetings twice a year in each of the state’s eight advisory board districts.

Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show, released a 34-inch walleye on the Missouri River that was a full inch and a half longer than the existing state record fish, a 32½-inch, 15-pound, 13-ounce walleye Neal Leier of Bismarck caught in April 2018.


Jason Mitchell big walleye extended.jpg
Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake had plenty of reason to smile after catching this 34-inch walleye in April on the Missouri River near Hazelton, N.D. The big walleye was a potential state record, Mitchell believes, but he opted to release the fish because he didn't have a scale in his boat. (Photo courtesy of Jason Mitchell)


Minnesota’s fishing opener was expected to be anything but routine because of the pandemic, based on conversations with fisheries managers, tourism officials and others.

The Minnesota DNR and North Dakota Game and Fish Department postponed summer fisheries surveys on the Red River because of the pandemic.

The DNR was offering 44 elk tags in Kittson County of northwest Minnesota – up from 27 in 2019 – as part of an effort to reduce the population and bring it closer to management goals.

Despite the pandemic, fisheries crews for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department collected about 600 quarts of walleye eggs during spring spawning operations, more than enough to meet state stocking goals.

Mule deer numbers in western North Dakota were up 7% from 2019 and 22% above the long-term average, the Game and Fish Department said in reporting results from its annual spring survey.

Organizers of the Cats Incredible Catfish Tournament on the Red River in East Grand Forks canceled the 2020 event because of the pandemic.



A proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would give state and tribal agencies more authority in managing conflicts associated with fish-eating cormorants, which are federally protected.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department announced it would reopen its offices to the public by appointment only and following state guidelines that included COVID-19 screening and wearing a face mask.

About 50,000 North Dakota pheasant hunters shot 258,000 roosters in 2019, down 25% from 2018, when 59,400 hunters bagged 342,600 pheasants, the Game and Fish Department said.

North Dakota’s spring breeding duck survey tallied a duck index of nearly 4 million birds, up from 3.4 million in 2019, the Game and Fish Department said. The survey was the 23rd annual.

More than 6,200 deer gun licenses remained in North Dakota after the lottery, the Game and Fish Department said. The department offered 69,050 deer gun licenses, up from 64,500 in 2019.


Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which provided permanent authorization of $900 million annually for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a pot of money from offshore fossil fuel revenues dedicated to conservation and outdoor recreation projects across the U.S. The legislation also would address maintenance backlogs in national parks and other public lands by providing $1.9 billion annually for fiscal years 2021 through 2025. The president later signed the bill.


The North Dakota Game and Fish Department announced it was offering 1,790 pronghorn tags in 15 units, up from 1,330 licenses and 12 units in 2019.

Grand Forks photographer Dave Bruner was featured in a story about his photo of a sunset in Wind Canyon in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The photo was selected to appear on the new “Welcome to North Dakota: Be Legendary” highway billboard signs.


The new "Welcome to North Dakota: Be Legendary" billboards feature Grand Forks photographer Dave Bruner's photo of Wind Canyon in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. (Photo courtesy of North Dakota Department of Transportation)

Rydell National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Minnesota was among 174 national wildlife refuges and federal fish hatcheries to offer expanded hunting and fishing opportunities under a rule announced by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

Ken Cumber of Jamestown, N.D., was chosen as the 2020 inductee into the North Dakota Fishing Hall of Fame.


The Minnesota DNR announced a series of three online meetings to take input on updating the state’s 20-year-old wolf management plan as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepared to remove the species from federal protection in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

DNR managers predicted an average year for ruffed grouse hunting, based on anecdotal brood sightings and spring drumming count surveys, which were abbreviated because of the pandemic.

North Dakota pheasant numbers were up 38% from 2019, the Game and Fish Department said in reporting results from its annual summer roadside surveys. Despite the uptick, total pheasants observed per 100 miles were 14% below the 10-year average.

Lacey Lupien of Lancaster, Minn., shot a massive bull elk only 3 miles from her home after drawing a once-in-a-lifetime tag from the DNR. The bull would become the No. 2-scoring typical elk in Minnesota after the mandatory 60-day drying period with a net score of 367 2/8 inches.

122620.O.GFH.OUTYEAR-September Lacey Lupien elk.jpg
Lacey Lupien of Lancaster, Minn., shot this trophy bull elk Sunday, Sept. 6, in Kittson County near Lancaster. (Submitted photo)

All signs pointed to another strong waterfowl season in North Dakota, based on results from spring breeding duck surveys and midsummer production surveys.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied federal protection for moose in Minnesota and neighboring states, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to consider moose in the Midwest as different from moose in other regions and Canada. The decision was welcomed by wildlife officials in North Dakota, where moose populations are doing well, because a federal listing would have lumped North Dakota moose into the same protected category and limited the Game and Fish Department’s ability to manage the species, officials said.


Fewer hunters pursued ruffed grouse in Minnesota in 2019, but those who went afield had better success, the DNR said in reporting results from its annual small game hunter mail survey. Hunters shot an estimated 225,200 ruffed grouse, up 15% from 195,515 in 2018. Hunter numbers fell from 67,765 in 2018 to 61,608 in 2019.

Game and Fish Department biologists were optimistic about pheasant hunting prospects when the season opened Saturday, Oct. 10. A favorable winter and abundant residual cover provided the perfect combination for a production rebound, the department said.

A change in North Dakota’s fishing tournament fees went into effect Oct. 1. With the change, every tournament would have to pay a minimum of 10% of its gross proceeds from entry or participation fees to the Game and Fish Department for conservation projects. Previously, the conservation fee was capped at $5,000.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to remove the gray wolf from federal protection across much of the U.S. and return management of the species to individual states.


Camping at North Dakota state parks hit an all-time high, increasing 35% from 2019, the Parks and Recreation Department reported.

Results from a postcard survey of Greenway residents conducted by UND student Gunnar Patz suggested deer are becoming a problem in parts of the green space along the Red River. Deer feeding was contributing to the issue, respondents said, despite ordinances prohibiting the practice.

DNR fisheries managers said they wouldn’t issue permits for ice fishing tournaments with more than 250 participants this winter because of the risks associated with crowds converging during the COVID-19 pandemic. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department said it would allow tournaments “contingent upon there are no further coronavirus group restrictions.”

A group of Northwest Angle residents, resort owners and others in the tourism industry announced plans to develop a winter road from the south shore of Lake of the Woods to the Northwest Angle. The Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road, which would begin at Springsteel Resort north of Warroad, Minn., would eliminate the need to drive through Manitoba to reach the Angle by road while Canada is closed to nonessential travel because of the pandemic.


Thirteen new DNR conservation officers were set to occupy previously vacant stations after completing several months of classroom and on-the-job training. Ryan Brown was assigned to fill a vacant station in Karlstad, Minn., and Corey Sura was to fill the vacant Baudette No. 2 station in Lake of the Woods County.

Walleye abundance in Lake of the Woods was down slightly from recent years, but sauger abundance was up, the DNR said, based on results from its annual fall fish population survey on the big lake.

Sign up for the Northland Outdoors newseletter

Devils Lake and Upper Red Lake were named the No. 1 and No. 2 ice fishing destinations, respectively, by FishingBooker, an online platform for booking fishing trips.

121220.O.GFH.RECORDRAM-David Suda.jpg
David Suda of Grafton, N.D., with the North Dakota record bighorn ram he shot Friday, Oct. 30, the opening day of North Dakota's bighorn sheep season. Suda was one of five North Dakota hunters to draw one of the sought-after tags. (Photo courtesy of David Suda)

David Suda, 22, of Grafton, N.D., was featured for shooting the new state record North Dakota bighorn sheep. Suda was one of five resident hunters to draw the once-in-a-lifetime tag from nearly 17,000 applicants and shot a bighorn with horns that racked up a green score of 190 inches, easily topping the previous record of 179 inches.

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.
What To Read Next
Get Local