WILLMAR — Bob Fechtinger plunked down $12 for three containers of leeches Friday afternoon at 71 Bait & Sports north of Willmar, thinking he was stocking up for Saturday’s walleye/northern fishing opener.
In truth, the Willmar angler’s cash was starting a chain reaction.
He spent the money at Brad Foshaug’s small sporting goods shop that, in turn, pumps money into the economy of Kandiyohi County where tourism — including fishing — is the second-largest industry. The county pulled in $90,227,213 in gross tourism dollars, according to 2015 figures from Explore Minnesota. That segment of the economy accounted for 1,748 jobs and the industry paid $5,895,741 in state sales tax.
Those dollars at Kandiyohi County are a small part of the state’s fishing industry, which accounts for about $4 billion of economic impact. Nationally, fishing accounts for $46.1 billion.
Farming is the top economic driver in Kandiyohi County, said Beth Fischer, executive director of the Willmar Lakes Convention and Visitors Bureau and head of the 2018 Governor’s Fishing Opener, which was centered around the Willmar area during the weekend.
The county doesn’t have mega-resorts such as Breezy Point or Craguns near Brainerd, she said. Instead, it has smaller mom-and-pop ones that have been in families for generations.
The county has fewer resorts now than decades ago but the remaining ones have expanded what they offer, providing more things for children and non-anglers.
“They take care of their visitors,” Fischer said.
One of the best known Willmar area resorts is Dickerson’s Lake Florida Resort, which has been in the family for nearly a century, said Connie Dickerson. It began more as a fishing resort but has expanded into something for everyone, she said.
“We’re all about families relaxing and having time together,” Dickerson said.
Until the 1980s, the resort tended to advertise more locally. But a depression in the farming industry forced them to turn more to the Twin Cities area for clients, she said.
Foshaug also said the fishing industry is changing and that could change how well the chain reaction works.
It’s harder for him to make a go of the shop he bought 17 years ago, he said. Anglers still have to buy live bait but more businesses, such as convenience stores, are selling leeches and nightcrawlers, he said. As for fishing lures, rods and reels, line, bows and arrows, more and more people are going to big-box stores or are buying online, he said. “It has totally changed my archery and tackle,” he said.
“It’s been a good week but it’s not like it used to be,” he said.
John Edman sees the same thing but from the other end of the chain. He’s director of Explore Minnesota Tourism and sees the picture from high up.
“We are definitely losing a lot of (small) resorts in Minnesota,” he said. It’s very “difficult to get to be healthy” because if they depend on anglers, they have to make most of their money in a few months, he said. Many resorts that have been in families for generations are finding the youngest member of the family doesn’t want to put in the hard hours or don’t want to put up with regulations and taxes, he said. They are selling out so individuals can use the land for large lake homes, he said.
That will mean fewer places for anglers to stay for a week at a lake, though the state is also seeing private homeowners rent out their places, he said.
Tourism overall has grown for eight straight years and is now a $15 billion industry in Minnesota, with fishing making up a substantial part of that, he said.
Edman believes fishing will stay strong because it’s something the whole family can do, it’s a primary way to get people into the outdoors.
“Fishing is here to stay, “he said. “Whether it grows as much as it has, I don’t know.”