OTTER TAIL LAKE, Minn. -- On Saturday morning, the 2021 Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener had nearly everything an angler could wish for -- warm weather, calm winds, abundant sunshine and hundreds of lakes to choose from.

It had everything, except the governor.

By the time a crowd of a few dozen gathered for the event's official opening ceremonies on the west shore of Otter Tail Lake on a picture-perfect morning, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz had caught a perch and was on his way back to St. Paul. Per Minnesota DNR commissioner Sarah Strommen, who delivered the bad news, Walz was called away for the ongoing budget negotiations at the end of the legislative session, which must conclude by Monday at midnight.

In keeping with the 73-year tradition of the event, Walz and local guide Eric Koep did venture out at 5:45 a.m. and fished for a little over two hours. Walz had said on Friday that his goal was to catch a walleye, but he apparently had to settle for a lesser species.

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With a nod to the waning pandemic, it was a Governor’s Fishing Opener unlike many had seen in the past, with no large community gatherings and very few public appearances by the governor himself. After lifting the mask mandate late Thursday, he did appear in person on Friday morning at a golf resort near Ottertail, handing out donuts from a local bakery and sitting for interviews with radio stations from throughout the state. After a trying 15 months filled with pandemic problems and social unrest in the Twin Cities, Walz admitted he was enjoying shaking hands and getting back to a more normal kind of Minnesota life, including getting on the water and away from all the noise..

“I’m more emotional than I thought I’d be. It’s my job and it’s not like it’s ‘woe is me’ and you shouldn’t get patted on the back for doing what you’re supposed to do, but I think about the things I love to do. I like being around people, I like talking to these guides that know fishing and picking their brains,” Walz said between radio interviews. “For many Minnesotans, myself included, we did things to protect us on COVID but there was economic hurt for folks and there was mental hurt. But we know that nothing heals the soul like the outdoors, whether you catch a fish or not.”

Walz also met with local organizers and took a tour of the Lund boat factory in New York Mills. Security was tight, in acknowledgment of the expectation that protesters would greet the governor and his entourage. Koep, who is the superintendent of schools at Bertha-Hewitt, admitted that not long after he got the call saying he could be the governor’s guide, he also heard from community members who weren’t happy about Walz coming to the region.

“You get a few phone calls (asking), ‘why are you doing this, why are you taking him fishing?’ It’s not politics. You’ve got to overcome that,” Koep said, while admitting that as an educator, he did welcome the opportunity to talk one-on-one with the governor about the path to fully reopening Minnesota schools. “This is not a political event. It’s about celebrating the 1,048 lakes in Otter Tail County and having a chance to sit down with someone who makes decisions for Minnesota, having a good conversation for a few hours. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”

For the Otter Tail County organizers, it was a chance to show off the region to a larger audience, and it was a weekend that took an extra year of planning and adjusting. The governor’s opening ceremony no-show was just the latest wrench in the gears of an event originally scheduled for 2020, then postponed for a year due to the pandemic. They made the best of it, taking visitors panfishing, offering tours of Lund and an area state park, and opening up the bars and restaurants of the county’s many small towns to mask-free newcomers.

“It is called the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener, but it isn’t necessarily all about the governor,” said Erik Osberg, the head of the local organizing committee. “There are 100-plus other guests doing other things, and I think that’s all gone really well so far. Are we disappointed? A little bit, but he’s got a job and he’s got to do it. So we roll with the punches.”

After a year of uncertainty, with the sun shining, the winds calm and the lake behind him packed with boats, there was much to celebrate in Otter Tail County, even if the governor’s appearance was limited, and he failed to meet his angling goal.

“I want to catch a walleye this year,” Walz said before going fishing. “My little brother, who I lost a few years ago, was the person in our family who was good at fishing. My thing was pheasant hunting, so I’ve always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder around this. And now Commissioner Strommen out-fishes me, gets a turkey at the opener, so I feel a lot of pressure today. I’m going to catch one!”

Walz did indeed catch a perch. And then he was gone.

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