Brooks: Fishing opener offers the first big get-together, after year apart

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PERHAM, MINN. - The sun was shining, the walleye were biting and there were more boats on Otter Tail County's many lakes than anyone could remember seeing before.

After a long, grim year off, the Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener was back on Saturday. And Minnesotans were back together — vaxed, relaxed and newly unmasked.

"There's a lot of excitement" about the return of the fishing opener, said Chad Gabrielson, owner of Big McDonald Resort in Dent, where generations of families have rented cozy cabins on the shores of Big McDonald Lake. "It was missed."

The resort is fully booked for the summer already and Gabrielson is sprucing up and sanitizing the cabins, eager to help his guests get back to summer as normal.

No one was happier to see conversation shift from pandemics to pan fish than Gov. Tim Walz, despite the fact that he caught nothing but perch at his own walleye opener.

"I'm going to have to change the name to the perch opener," Walz lamented, after cutting his fishing trip short to head back to budget talks in St. Paul. "Two years in a row, all I caught was perch."

After the Year of Nothing but No — no fishing opener, no State Fair, no hugs, no handshakes, no fun — this was the Weekend of Yes. Yes, you can see your fishing buddies again. Yes, if you're fully vaccinated. Yes, if you want, you can take off your mask.

Yes, the governor of Minnesota could gladhand his way around Union Pizza & Brewing in Fergus Falls on Friday night, then sit down to his first non-takeout meal in more than a year.

"It was pretty amazing. I was pretty emotional about it," said Walz, who lifted the statewide mask mandate last week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was safe for fully vaccinated people to unmask.

"I couldn't believe how much I just enjoyed it," the governor said of his first unmasked night out. "People coming by and just chatting and talking, just joking again, face-to-face. The first time shaking hands and taking photos next to each other."

It was the first great Minnesota get-together of 2021, and Otter Tail County was smiling.

The region's resorts threw open their doors to returning visitors. Little girls set up lemonade stands along the access roads to the lakes. The Lund Boat manufacturing plant in Detroit Lakes is scrambling to fill all the orders pouring in for new fishing boats.

It's not the end of bad times. Another 882 Minnesotans tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, and three more died.

But it felt like the start of better times.

"It was all new again," said Walz, who said he was struck by how much fun it was to do something as ordinary as shake a hand or talk to constituents about their plans for the future, not just their fears about the present.

"This felt like what it was like to be the governor before the pandemic."

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