Just after dawn Saturday on the calm shores of Lake Winnibigoshish, Faron Jackson Sr., delicately placed a small offering of tobacco in the water.
Jackson, the president of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, quietly asked the creator for safety and to share fish with them as the 74th Governor’s Fishing Opener began.
“Ogaa ombe omaa noogom”, he said, which means “Walleye come to us today”.
That must have helped, Jackson said later. He and Governor Tim Walz caught walleye for two hours on Lake Winnie, starting around 6:30 a.m.
The two-day event was the first time in the event’s history that a tribal nation has partnered with the governor’s office to host the opening.
“I’m going to say this is the most traditional fishing opening we’ve had,” said Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the state’s first Native elected official. during the event. “I think it’s a testament to the work we’ve tried to do during our administration and our partnership with our sovereign nations that share geography with Minnesota.”
In a return to normal after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the opening weekend of fishing featured a community gathering at the Cedar Lakes Casino and Hotel in Cass Lake, a group of boats gathering at East Seelye Bay on Lake Winnie and a celebratory lunch ashore.
For Walz and Flanagan, it was all about fishing — and a developing rivalry.
“The last three years I ended up catching a little perch and she caught a walleye,” Walz said. This year he had expert fishing guide Tom Neustrom with him in the boat.
“Here’s the deal,” Flanagan said Friday night. “I am an Ojibwe woman on Ojibwe land. I have to win.”
But on Saturday morning, it was Walz who caught a 21-inch walleye. Flanagan was not so lucky, although another fisherman in his boat caught a northern pike which they let the lieutenant governor bring back.
The fishery opening is usually a partnership between Explore Minnesota, the state Department of Natural Resources and the governor’s office, and a host city or community. The idea is to celebrate the importance of tourism, fishing and outdoor recreation.
In previous years, planning began more than a year in advance when communities submitted offers to host. The pandemic has put a damper on recent openings. Otter Tail County, which was slated to host in 2020, instead held a streamlined event in 2021 that revealed tensions over the state’s pandemic policy and mask mandates, which were issued by Walz’s office.
The strain on local government resources brought on by the pandemic has left this year’s opener in question. Planning was difficult, said Lauren Bennett McGinty, director of tourism at Explore Minnesota.
This year’s opening was late. The partnership with the Leech Lake Band was announced two months ago.
“I was thrilled the governor chose Leech Lake,” Jackson said.
Instead of highlighting a city or community, this year’s opening celebrates the Chippewa National Forest, Cass Lake, and Leech Lake Band lands in north-central Minnesota. Sprawling forests and deep blue lakes dot the reserve.
Trina Staples, 20, from Cass Lake, said townspeople were thrilled. She had planned to go fishing with her boyfriend.
“Everyone is looking forward to it,” Staples said.
Walz said this year’s opening highlights steps his administration has taken to mend the state’s historically strained relationship with tribal nations.
“I think recognizing them as part of what makes the state so great really makes me feel good — and they’re great partners,” he said. “And, like I said, they’ve been on this earth longer than anyone else.”
Bennett McGinty said this year’s event could serve as a model for future openers, with several small communities teaming up to host the annual event.
In previous years, the state announced next year’s host community at the opening. Not this year, but the state has put out a request for proposals. Bennett McGinty said there was great interest.
“We are excited to announce soon,” she said.