An unwritten rule in the fishing world is not to let your boat drift too close to another angler, for fear of getting your lines tangled. It would follow then that in this time of heightened caution due to the coronavirus pandemic, most people passionate about fishing are fine with maintaining some social distance.
In the run up to May 9’s fishing season opener in Minnesota, most bait shops around the state are seeing the normal high business levels they expect in early May. They are also putting things in place in an effort to make sure customers feel safe while they grab those last minute items before heading to the water.
Not far from the Mississippi River in Wabasha, Mike Pierce just finished what he estimates was the busiest April he has experienced in the 13 years he and wife Susie have owned River Valley Outfitters. That record business was accomplished while restricting traffic for safety reasons.
“I’m only allowing one person in the store at a time, so I’m limiting that way. I’ve seen a lot more masks and people are definitely keeping their distance,” Pierce said. “Most people are pretty appreciative of it. You get a few whiners here and there because they can’t get their stuff right away. But people are willing to wait six deep in the parking lot to get what they need.”
Some store owners have worked to get the word out that shopping at off peak times early in the week is wise, and to expect some potential wait times on Thursday and Friday as last minute gearing up for the opener happens. A few weeks ago, Ron Flatten of Willey’s Sports Shop and Spirits north of McGregor near Big Sandy Lake put marks on the floor of his store with neon tape to show a six-foot distance, and installed Plexiglas in front of the cash registers. Located in Aitkin County, which has only had one confirmed case of COVID-19, he has encouraged his staff to wear masks, but is not requiring it, and will take extra precautions this week.
“We will for sure be controlling how many people come in and go out. On a fishing weekend we can get 40 or 50 people in the store at one time. That’s not going to happen this year,” Flatten said, noting that the closure of bars, which means no pull tabs for sale, has increased his scratch-off lottery sales. “We’ll probably allow 20 or 25 and there will be people at the door to allow two people out, two people in. There will be a line and there will be (angry) people, so I’ve tried to let the locals know to get their fishing stuff early and don’t get frustrated if you’re waiting in line.”
It’s a similar story in the Twin Cities, where Josh Stevenson of Blue Ribbon Bait and Tackle described things as “chaotic, but clean” at his store in Oakdale. Shops are starting to see shortages of some fishing gear, as manufacturers have scaled back some operations, and Stevenson was unable to get shiner minnows a week ago for the Wisconsin fishing opener, but will be better stocked with bait this week.
“It's almost like a toilet paper-like run on some basic fishing essentials,” Stevenson said on Wednesday morning, noting that bobbers, hooks and fishing line supplies are reduced. “But I’m getting three gallons of shiners right now, which is like gold.”
The smaller bait shops have an advantage in their limited size which allows them to thoroughly clean things more often. Stevenson said the bigger challenge is finding the right level of precautions to satisfy customers with varying levels of concern about the coronavirus.
“One guy wants all his liberties and freedoms and doesn't want to do anything (protective), and on the other end of the spectrum you have people afraid to get out of their car,” Stevenson said. “I’m trying to find something in the middle of all that. We’re not requiring people to wear masks to come into the store, but at the same time, we’re cleaning every 20 minutes and we have a store that’s small enough to manage and we can watch what people touch. If people touch something, we clean it.”
And amid all of the increased business, the store owners long for a return to some kind of “normal” when the pandemic is in the past.
“I’d rather have a normal world and a crappy April, but I guess we’ll take what we can get,” Flatten said.