Rainy fishing opener doesn't dampen Mankato's hopes to attract more tourists
While people traditionally think of central and northern Minnesota for fishing, Mankato has about 15 lakes nearby that are deep and well-structured, not like shallow prairie lakes.
MADISON LAKE — The sun finally came out around 1 p.m. Saturday at Madison Lake following a morning of brutal fishing weather, on the opening day of the Minnesota inland walleye-northern fishing season, and Ashlee White was all smiles.
Yes, seeing the sun felt good after the morning rain, wind, thunder and lightning at the lake just east of Mankato in south-central Minnesota. Most of all, however, the director of Visit Mankato was just about done with the planning, coordination and execution of the 75th Annual Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener that was Thursday through Saturday in that area, including Madison Lake.
The opener is an annual tradition that, at first, let one area show off what it has for fishing but over the past few decades has evolved into a bigger event for an area to highlight all of its attractions for visitors. This year, the Mankato area showed off its hiking, kayaking, parks, biking, a boat-making business. Events included an arts tour and an event teaching fifth graders to fish.
“I’m 100% happy with how things went despite the weather,” White said. “We had excitement, enthusiasm — just really happy with the turnout.”
While one half of what she sees as the role of the opener was nearly done, however, the second part was just beginning, she said. The opener was not only intended to open eyes to outsiders, but also for local people to realize what they have and to present a challenge to them to improve it, she said.
While people traditionally think of central and northern Minnesota as the places to go for fishing, Mankato has about 15 lakes nearby, said Jessi Greene, who owns Corner Baits in Madison Lake with her husband, Nate Greene. Besides Madison, it has, among other lakes, Tetonka, Washington, Valentine and Francis. “Washington is a huge one,” she said. “Everything is good early in all of them.” By mid-summer, water gets quite warm so she doesn’t recommend walleye fishing then, but it picks up again in fall. “Spring and fall are wonderful,” she said.
In the past winter, some lakes were shallow enough, and snow and ice were thick enough long enough that some winters were deadly, wiping out some or all fish, she said.
The lakes in the area are the last lakes of the more traditional Minnesota type — deeper and with more structure, she said. Further south, lakes tend to be the shallower prairie lakes with little structure, Greene said.
Because they are the last in the state from the north, they are also the first if you’re coming from the south, she said, so the area gets a lot of anglers from Iowa (“Iowa is definitely a big one”), Nebraska, Arizona and even Florida.
White said one problem her group has is that people tend to think of Mankato as a college town with Minnesota State University Mankato. Hosting the opener, which was much more low-key and shorter than past openers, was one way to expand the perception. The opener also helped pull together local towns, such as Madison Lake, North Mankato and Madison Lake, she said.
White's goal is to get people from nearby, such as the Rochester area and the Twin Cities, to come to the Mankato area to fish and recreate. With the improved U.S. Highway 14, it’s about 75 minutes from Rochester. But she is also thinking of the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin. The idea of tourism needs to be expanded beyond fishing and lakes, she said.
Ecotourism is huge, people want to see, and even help, an area’s ecology. Those visitors also like farm-to-table restaurants and more nature-related things. “I think that is a huge priority for us,” White said.
“I would love to see our hotel scene continue to grow as well as the arts and culture,” she said.
Jake Juliot, a public relations specialist with Explore Minnesota, said it was great how many more things than fishing were offered at the event. Not that fishing is small change. “Obviously fishing has to be the center of it,” he said. Unfortunately this time, the weather was rough. This opener was more low-key than past ones that stretched into more days, with more big dinners and lunches; events were lowered because of COVID, he said. “I like like to see them ramp up in the future,” he said.
The second part of White’s goal for the event was also getting local people involved in seeing what the area has to offer for nature-related activities. White said she is still working to develop that idea.
“I think it just raises awareness, just having this event into our community,“ White said. Local people often didn’t know how much work goes into maintaining lakes, such as the Department of Natural Resources’ Waterville fish hatchery. She is looking for ways “for our community to get more involved with the DNR.”
The DNR would welcome that, said Brad Parsons, DNR Fisheries Section manager. “We welcome partnerships” with non-governmental agencies, he said. That could be a city, the Izaak Walton League and the Trust for Public Lands. They are especially important now that tens of millions of dollars are available through the Legacy Amendment, but the DNR can’t access most of that money — it has to go through the NGOs, like the land trust or Trout Unlimited.
Things individuals might do could be small such as keeping debris out of storm drains, establishing rain gardens, or using fewer lawn chemicals, all so unwanted materials don’t wash into lakes and rivers. Many cities are using street sweepers to clean debris out of gutters and streets for the same reason, he said. “Storm water has to go somewhere,” he said.
One of the events for the governor’s opener was teaching more children and teens to fish. Great, he said. Once they get excited about it, it’s up to adults to provide places for them to fish, such as access from shore, he said.
Cooperation with individuals, cities and non-governmental groups is also important because climate change is expected to bring more heavy rains, so it will be important to make sure less debris gets into streams and to keep vegetation along lakes for the fish, he said.
He said having the opener in southern Minnesota is important to point out the lakes in that region, he said. And don’t forget the Minnesota River — what Juliot called “a real gem” because it has about 80 species of fish, though many are too small to catch. The opener, he hopes, opened up local people’s eyes, too, to what that river has to offer, he said.
John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for more than 45 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss.”