West Central Tribune / Tom Cherveny
SPICER — Governor Mark Dayton led his boatmates by catching three of the eight largemouth bass they landed and released on the fishing opener on Green Lake in Spicer on Saturday morning, but there was not a walleye to be had.
Their guide never wetted a line, but came back with the biggest prize, if it can be counted as a keeper when the legislature goes back to work Monday.
Willmar Lakes Area Host Kelly Morrell won an informal pledge of support from the governor
and his boatmates to fund the Trunk Highway 23 four-lane “gaps” between New London and Paynesville.
Governor Dayton reportedly told his boatmates he would support an earmark in a larger bonding bill for the project to make state Highway 23 a four-lane highway from Willmar to I-94 near St. Cloud. “I’ll take an earmark on 23,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said the governor told his boatmates. Gazelka and Dayton were joined by House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, in the boat.
“I want to talk to you about something,” Morrell told his guests just before starting them on their way back to the landing, according to Daudt.
Morrell told them how the funeral for Highway 23 accident victim Nathaniel Shumaker, 11, of New London, was held about the same time the area received the disappointing news that Commerce of Corridors funding did not include the Highway 23 gap project.
Morrell told the Tribune he pitched the idea of increasing the current bonding proposal from $825 million to $1 billion to include a possible $105 million for the two segments between New London and Paynesville that remain as two-lane highway. Doing the two gaps at the same time represents an estimated $35 million savings over doing them separately.
“It seemed like everyone was in agreement in the boat on it,” Morrell said. “If that gets accomplished it’s a major victory. We won something big for our community.”
Other guests for the 71st annual Governor’s Fishing Opener made it clear the Willmar Lakes Area won something else very big: statewide attention for all the area has to offer, as well as high praise for how well the 400-plus volunteers led by the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau pulled it all off.
There were over 300 guests attending the opener and touring the area as part of the event, with over 100 different media outlets represented, according to Nicole Lalum of Explore Minnesota. She said the media representatives came from all across the state, as well as Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and the neighboring states of Iowa and South Dakota.
She and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources representative Mike Kurre described this year’s opener as among the best ever for how well it went. “They put their hearts and soul into everything,” said Kurre of the local hosts.
And, of course, many used the opportunity to put their fishing lines into the water. Temperatures in the mid-40s and a partly cloudy sky at the day’s start made this a relatively mild opener by way of the weather. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources anticipated 500,000 of the state’s 1.4 million licensed anglers would take to the water on the opening weekend.
Local organizers Dean and Laura Anfinson reported that 88 boats were to take guests on 11 different area lakes, with about half of the number trying Green Lake.
Results on the county’s deepest and largest lake were predictably cool. The governor’s party was followed to the landing near Saulsbury Beach by at least a half dozen other boats reporting no luck on catching walleye, although they all found bass. Some nailed crappies and sunfish. The bass season is not yet open, so it was catch-and-release.
Green Lake gave up its first walleye of the season well before sunrise and the speeches at Saulsbury Beach.
Ben Melges, of Mel’s Sports Shop and Bait located across the street, said they opened the doors at 4 a.m. and that’s when the first eager angler arrived. He returned a couple of hours later for hand warmers, laughed Melges, adding that he also reported catching one walleye and had ideas on where he could find more.
Melges added that business at the store and bait shop was “nice and steady” through the morning.
Reports on area lakes that trickled into the walleye shore lunch offered guests by local organizers at Saulsbury Beach indicated what many had anticipated. The shallow prairie lakes of Kandiyohi County, such as Big Kandiyohi south of Wilmar, were better bets for finding walleye.
Prior to taking to the water, Dayton said he had “fingers and toes crossed” in hopes of catching walleye. He wasn’t the only optimist. House Speaker Daudt said before launching that the governor’s boat would return with fish and an agreement on how to end the legislative session.
No such luck, but Dayton and Daudt both said they all had a great time.
Until Morrell raised the Highway 23 funding proposal, conversation in the governor’s boat never touched on politics, according to the guide. “It was a good time,” said Morrell. He admitted he was disappointed not to have put his guests on walleye. “The key to fishing is the same with buying property,” he said. “Location, location, location. Perhaps I wasn’t on the right property today.”