EAU CLAIRE — A year ago Wisconsin’s fishing season opened at a time of swirling uncertainty regarding the safety of anything other than staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even the state Department of Natural Resources, normally a huge cheerleader for fishing, officials were talking more about social distancing and hand sanitizer than walleyes and bass.
But a funny thing happened when the fishing season arrived: People headed to Wisconsin’s boat landings and shorelines in droves, eager for a way to have some seemingly safe fun at an otherwise scary time.
Wisconsin fishing license sales rose by 8% in 2020, with the DNR reporting that the number of first-time license buyers more than doubled, as new and experienced anglers sought refuge from the pandemic storm on the state’s lakes, rivers and streams.
“People had more time off and more desire to recreate outdoors, and anglers found they could pretty easily socially distance as long as they weren’t in the same boat,” said Joseph Gerbyshak, a DNR fisheries biologist in the Eau Claire area. “Hopefully, more people discovered or rediscovered an enjoyable hobby and will continue that in the future.”
With the pandemic persisting and so many more people wetting a line last year, the fishing boom shows no sign of letting up as Saturday’s fishing opener approaches.
Just ask Gary Oemig, owner of Oemig’s Sport Shop in Stanley.
Oemig, whose family has operated the shop for 51 years, said he’s never seen anything like last year’s mad rush of anglers — and the corresponding nationwide shortage of rods, reels and related equipment.
“It was absolutely insane,” Oemig said. “I still don’t have life jackets from last year, and when I place an order I’m not sure if we’re going to get it.”
The demand for fishing gear was reflected by the pressure on area fishing holes such as Otter Lake in Chippewa County, he said.
“A Wednesday looked like a weekend,” Oemig said. “The lakes just got pounded.”
As for this year, Oemig expects the enthusiasm to continue — starting Saturday — even if many other traditional summer activities such as youth sports, weddings and family reunions are slowly returning.
“The outlook looks good, especially considering how many people went fishing last year with the way the world is,” he said. “I expect to be busy. Getting things to fill the shelves is still really tough.”
The story is similar for Mike Buroker, owner of Buroker’s Taxidermy, Bait & Tackle in Eau Claire.
“My business has been absolutely nuts,” said Buroker, who described similar difficulties obtaining inventory but also a surge in requests for taxidermy as more people fished and hunted and found success.
“COVID just wreaked havoc on the world, and the only thing people felt they could do safely was be outdoors,” Buroker said.
In many ways, the rush to experience the great outdoors — whether through fishing, hunting, biking, kayaking or hiking — helped to salvage an otherwise miserable year for the state’s tourism industry, said Julie Fox, northwest regional tourism specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
“Taken as a whole, it was a rough year, but what we’re doing is focusing on the recovery and on those strengths like outdoor recreation,” Fox said. “We’re trying to elevate what we in Wisconsin already know — that our state is a fantastic place for outdoor recreational opportunities.”
And sport fishing is one of the state’s biggest catches among those activities, supporting 22,000 jobs, generating $2.3 billion in spending annually and attracting 330,000 nonresident anglers a year to Wisconsin, Gerbyshak said.
That means it’s good news that the game fish season, which always begins on the first Saturday of May, will have the earliest possible start this year.
“Big fish are big business for Wisconsin, which sells the third largest number of out-of-state fishing licenses of any state (behind only Florida and Michigan),” said Anne Sayers, acting state tourism secretary. “Home to countless fishing competitions and leisure fishing trips, Wisconsin’s more than 15,000 freshwater lakes and 43,000 miles of rivers draw in experienced and novice anglers.”
So what might anglers expect when they hit the water this weekend?
An early warm spell that caused the ice cover to leave Chippewa Valley lakes a week or two ahead of normal this spring should have been good for early season fishing, but it was counteracted by below-normal temperatures in April that have left water temperatures a little below normal. That could slow action somewhat, although a forecast calling for highs in the low 80s Saturday could help significantly, Gerbyshak said.
“It looks like a beautiful weekend for the opener,” Gerbyshak said. “The warmer the water is, the more fish gotta eat.”
Fish populations should be plentiful in regional rivers and lakes, he said, noting that a recent fish survey on Lake Altoona indicated that several years of strong natural reproduction have yielded about eight adult walleyes per acre, or about double the average rate on lakes in the northern half of the state.
For anglers who might wonder why that doesn’t translate into catching walleyes on nearly every cast, Gerbyshak explained the lake also has a big population of perch, which might make a more convenient and tasty meal than a passing lure.
Gerbyshak also extolled the diversity of fish species in the Chippewa River — from the Dells Dam in Eau Claire to the Mississippi River.
“That’s what makes the lower Chip neat,” he said. “You can put a half a night crawler on the bottom and there are about 60 different species you could catch from a couple inches long to 80 pounds.”
Eau Claire fisherman Marcel Welch said Thursday he wasn’t yet sure where he will fish Saturday, but left no doubt that he would be on the water somewhere in the Chippewa Valley.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” said Welch, who traditionally fishes with two or three of his best buddies on opening day. “It’s always a fun weekend to get out and see what everybody is catching.”
The group typically tries multiple spots and targets everything from panfish to smallmouth bass.
Depending on their luck, Welch and his pals might turn their adventure into a video for their Crew Outdoorsman YouTube channel.
“We’ll have to see what happens,” Welch said, echoing the attitude of anglers across the state eagerly anticipating the start of a new season.