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Park Rapids shines for fishing opener

Thousands of people came to downtown Park Rapids Friday night for the community picnic. Attendees participated in games, listened to live music and received a free meal. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Superlatives define the 2013 Park Rapids lakes area Governor’s Fishing Opener.

“Amazing and inspiring – and with gratitude,” event chair Dennis Mackedanz said in expressing appreciation for the 400-plus volunteers’ time and talent shared for the event that progressed “with very few hiccups.”

“Passion, expertise and partnership,” Chamber director Katie Magozzi said Monday morning. “Thanks to everyone who set the hook,” she said of the volunteers who headed out on area lakes as fishing hosts, organized the community and celebration dinners and completed the sundry duties involved in hosting media and Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon and staff.

“This is something the community can be proud of for years to come,” Magozzi said.

With Jason Durham as his guide, the governor caught a walleye shortly after midnight from the shores of the Crow Wing River.

“The fish was in the 18-20 inch range,” Durham reports. “He caught it on a Northland Tackle Roach Rig with a large shiner minnow, which surprised me since everyone assumed smaller minnows would work best, given the cold water and adverse conditions.

“We didn’t actually measure the walleye since Gov. Dayton was so eager to get the fish back into the water,” Durham said. “In fact, it was surprising that there was even a good photo taken. The photographer had just a split second to take the photo and the governor turned and released the fish.

“I was quite relieved that he landed the fish, since I missed it with the landing net in my first attempt. He also had another one on that got off and another member of our early morning party had two others on that got away,” Durham said.

“I was really impressed with Governor Dayton,” Durham said Monday. “While watching him on newscasts, you only get a small glimpse of his personality. He is very witty, thoughtful and has a good sense of humor.”

The feeling is mutual.

“Jason’s my new hero,” Gov. Dayton said Saturday morning before heading out from Heartland Park with Sen. Rod Skoe and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple. “He walks on water,” Dayton said. “This fish was bigger than the two fish from the previous openers combined.”

Meanwhile, despite diligence, Prettner Solon came up with an empty net.

“My staff assured me that Dennis could make a mackerel dance,” she said of fishing host Mackedanz.

She said the night before, she dreamed she was at the Red Bridge Inn in 70 degree weather, while Dennis, sipping lemonade, serenaded her on guitar. A 15-pound walleye was lured to her line.

“But it didn’t come to pass,” she said, despite fishing three area rivers, including the Mississippi. “When life gives you lemons, call on Dennis Mackedanz,” she advised the Saturday night reception audience. “I hear he makes great lemonade.”

Prettner Solon saw a large northern just after midnight of opener. “But I couldn’t get the bait on the hook fast enough,” she said. She and Mackedanz were the “last hearty souls” to leave the banks of the river.

“It was great fun,” she said of Mackedanz sharing his research on the latest techniques of fishing. “Minnesota threw us a curve ball. So what?”

“The no ice-out was a blessing in disguise,” Mackedanz said Sunday. Fishing did not take place on a single area lake, but was spread across the entire area.

The biggest walleye was caught on Two Inlets, he said. “Hosts didn’t congregate. Everyone was on a different lake.”

Fish awards were claimed by Eric Cruzen of Big Lake for a 14.5-inch rock bass, Eric Maguson of Inver Grove Heights for a 26-inch northern and Kathi Nogorski Leary of Brainerd, who caught a 28.5 inch walleye.

An informal aerial survey of lakes Saturday morning found varying ice cover on Fish Hook, East and West Crooked, Big and Little Sand, the Bottles and Belle Taine. Long Lake, which had been shelved early on due to its depth, was open.

Leech Lake looked like an encroaching glacier, a giant stretch of white on the horizon.

“Park Rapids took on the tourism Super Bowl,” said Explore Minnesota Tourism director John Edman. “And nailed it.”

Monday, Magozzi was boasting Park Rapids’ “firsts in GFO history.”

Park Rapids had the largest raffle package and at 5:07 p.m. Saturday the last of the 10,000 raffle tickets for the Crestliner boat and Ice Castle fish house was sold.

Nancy Utke won the fish house and was present at Saturday’s reception. But her grin faded when she realized, by looking at the penmanship and phone number, that the winner was the other Nancy (Mrs. Kent) Utke, who she quickly called to congratulate.

Crestliner Boats president Cecil Cohn was able to contact the winner of the Crestliner boat, motor and trailer package Monday. Tom Taylor and wife Jan of Thorntown, Ind., are farmers who have been coming to Park Rapids for 50 years. They purchased their ticket in August during a Second Street Stage event.

Park Rapids is the first to host a three-day event, showcasing the area’s amenities, Magozzi points out.

And Park Rapids was the first to have ice on the opener, “which worked in our favor for media coverage.”

The city, she affirms, “had the best community picnic in GFO history and the largest number of volunteers.”

Molly Luther, a co-chair for Friday’s community picnic, reported 2,460 “dinner guests” arrived for the pulled pork sandwiches, fries, beans and ice cream. “What a great night.”

Family activities lined Main street, with more than 40 booths showcasing facets of the community.

The event was paid for by the sponsorships, donations and the community raffles, Mackedanz said.

The Hubbard County Heartland Express and Paul Bunyan Transit out of Beltrami County worked jointly to provide all of the transportation needed for participants to travel to the various events.

In addition, the Becker County and Wadena County systems had agreed to be on standby should additional resources be needed. In total, on a volunteer basis, the public transit buses provided 1,873 rides over the three day period. Shuttles ran up to Itasca Park, Two Inlets, the community picnic, the DNR Fisheries tour, the Black Swan Cooperage tour, the Character Challenge as well as the Saturday shore lunch at Northern Pines.

The joint effort between the public transit systems worked efficiently to cover a large area.

Next year’s GFO will be held in the Brainerd Lakes Area, based at Grand View Lodge.

While the opener may have been the “slowest ever” in Kevin and Deb Lempola’s 20-year history at Delaney’s Sport Shop, both witnessed friendships being made between the fishing hosts and members of the media arriving for the event.

“I heard from several,” Kevin said of the alliances that formed “for years to come.”

The business, Kevin said, is weather-related. “I thank my lucky stars. It could have been worse” had the GFO not been in Park Rapids this year.

Despite, falling temps and rising wind, spirits were high, Deb said of the fisherfolk dressed as “Eskimos” who “kept their chins up.”

Coming up with bait was also proving to be a challenge this opener. The availability of bait is tougher because, due to invasive species, bait must now be taken from a certified lake, with comes with a $500 to $700 certification fee, Kevin said.

“Last year, the weather was so superb, locals were able to complete their spring chores before the opener. Now they are strapped for time,” he said of lawn work and getting lifts out.

And the weather froze the fatheads and rainbow minnows. “It will be tougher to get bait,” he predicts. “We are in the heart of the bait area; not much will be sent to the Cities.”

But take heart.

Despite the initial “fishing deficiency,” Kevin expects the walleye season will last longer, well into July this year. “And June fishing will be great. The fishing will stay better longer.

“Memorial Day will be wild. I guarantee it.”