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In Towne Marina and the waters of Lake Waconia were quiet early Monday morning, but expect Saturday morning to be buzzing with boats and anglers. (Al Lohman/The Patriot)

The “Fishing Opener” has been a Minnesota tradition officially since 1948 and probably dates back even farther.

The 2020 version is a go for this Saturday, May 9, but without the traditional Governor’s Fishing Opener and opening festivities. And instead of gathering on northern lakes, anglers have been asked to fish close to home this year on their local waters to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Anglers, boaters and water sports enthusiasts also are encouraged to take other precautions as well as we begin a new fishing/boating/swimming season under a whole new set of circumstances posed by COVID-19.

In fact, Cindy and Jim Mase and family have seen lots of fishing openers in the nearly 40 years they have owned In Towne Marina on Lake Waconia, but perhaps never one like their preparations for this year’s opener.

They have experienced plenty of weather over the years, including a scramble last year to get docks and slips in after a fierce winter and late ice-out. They have seen changes in fishing trends, with fewer anglers spending overnight hours on the water and more showing up at 5 a.m. for the walleye opener. And they have been involved in plenty of fishing events, including the 2012 Governor’s Fishing Opener, which Waconia hosted.

But preparing for an unseen virus is even more challenging than luring unseen fish, the Mases note.

Social distancing has become a watchword during the coronavirus pandemic, and marinas and boaters are challenged to sustain it as a condition of having lake access.

“We’re pleased to let anglers across the state know that the 2020 season will open as planned,” said Sarah Strommen, Department of Natural Resources commissioner. “We encourage anglers to start planning for new ways to enjoy the tradition of the Minnesota Fishing Opener close to home and in ways that also protect public health.”

“Our lakes and rivers are a great way to get out of the house and good for our mental health,” adds Lisa Dugan, DNR enforcement and recreation safety outreach coordinator. “But the DNR is asking everyone to do everything recreationally at a safe distance at least six feet apart.”

That could be a particular challenge locally with this fishing opener, because Lake Waconia might see even more boating activity than usual with stay-close-to-home orders.

The lake already attracts hundreds of boaters for the opener, with weather always being the primary factor on turnout. Boat owners from Blaine all the way down to Lakeville moor their boats at the marina, notes Cindy Mase, and she expects more boat traffic this year from local owners who typically head north, and potentially some of the Lake Minnetonka and Twin Cities crowd.

Sons Jimmy and Ben Mase already have seen lots of boating activity on Lake Waconia while installing docks as the crappies have been biting hard, although In Towne Marina doesn’t officially open until this Thursday.

When it does, the sons note, expect to see staged launches and provisions for social distancing in the building, which means unfortunately visitors won’t be able to gather around tables to share fishing stories during this time of COVID-19. Another change is that day launch passes won’t be sold on weekends and holidays to minimize interaction during busy times – season pass use only.

Dugan and the DNR also offer this additional guidance for the upcoming fishing/boating season.

Keep only members of your household in your boat, don’t be sharing rides. And don’t tie together with other boats or rafts for fishing, swimming or sunbathing. And if you’re not feeling well, stay at home, don’t get out on the water. Dugan also encourages boaters to make a checklist of things to take with them, like food, water and other necessities. That helps ensure safe distancing and some places on lakes around the state where boaters normally make purchases might not be open.

As always, be sure to wear a life jacket to avoid a bad situation and a crowd of emergency responders.

Aquatic invasive species inspections are on hold now too due to the coronavirus, so the DNR also is asking boaters and volunteers to be especially diligent in checking their boats for organisms like Eurasian milfoil and zebra mussels before launch and landing.

The Mases aren’t DNR enforcement officers, and they along with Minneapolis Star Tribune outdoor columnist Dennis Anderson talk about the privilege of being able to boat and fish during the pandemic.

“Minnesotans, you are blessed with a hunting and fishing season; don’t mess up,” was the headline in Anderson’s April 20 column. “As hunting and fishing start up during a pandemic, it’s more important than ever to follow the rules,” he wrote.

As we approach the 2020 fishing opener, while there are a lot of questions this season around COVID-19, the most important questions with any fishing outing as always remain: How are the fish biting and did you catch anything?

At In Towne Marina, the focus now is on the fishing opener. Boat slips should be ready by mid to late May, owners say. Contact In Towne at 952-442-2096 for reservations.

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