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Minnesota fishing licenses down nearly 30 percent at start of season

Daniel Slocum, 10, of Fredenberg Township, makes a cast while fishing for northern pike Saturday morning on Fish Lake during the Minnesota fishing opener. (Sam Cook /

Sales of Minnesota fishing licenses were down nearly 30 percent from last year on the eve of Saturday's Minnesota fishing opener. License sales for that period were the lowest they have been in the past 12 years, according to Department of Natural Resources figures.

Sources in the fishing industry cited poor weather on the opener, gas prices and the general state of the economy as possible reasons for lagging license sales.

"That's alarming," said Bill Heig, who owns Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnibigoshish near Deer River. "All of us were commenting. We were looking out over the lake, and there were hardly any boats out there."

License sales for 2011 through the Friday before opener were at 257,123, down from 366,595 last year at the same time and down from the past 12-year average of about 364,000 on the same date.

License sales took a similar dip in 2008, on the early end of the economic downturn, when gas prices also were high. Typically, however, license sales recover during the remainder of the season. Year-end sales totals for the past 11 years have ranged from about 1.12 million to 1.16 million.

DNR fisheries chief Dirk Peterson said he isn't concerned about the slow sales.

"They are in the range of what we've experienced, but they are at the lower end," Peterson said. "It's probably the cool weather, the very cold spring. Once the weather warms up, people will feel more like getting out and fishing."

Traffic was slow at Vermilion Fuel and Food near Lake Vermilion in Tower, said owner Dave Sorensen.

"We were down 15 to 20 percent in customers and sales," he said. "I think maybe it's the price of gas. In 2008 when gas prices were high, we saw a similar opener."

Some shops did well despite an apparent downturn in angler numbers.

"I think this is the busiest opener I can remember," said Russ Francisco of Marine General Sports in Duluth. "The phone is still ringing off the hook."

At Fisherman's Corner in Pike Lake, Scott VanValkenburg said business was "decent," but he noted that angling pressure was down.

"All the guys on Fish Lake and over on the St. Louis River, they said, 'Where is everybody?' " VanValkenburg said.

He thought the forecast for a wet, cool, windy opener was a factor.

"If the weather guy says it's going to be bad, a lot of guys don't go," VanValkenburg said. "They did schedule bad weather. Saturday was no bed of roses."

Several DNR conservation officers mentioned the lack of angling traffic on opening weekend in their weekly reports on Monday.

"Two retired C.O.s stated that this year was the least number of trucks and trailers that they had ever observed at a particular access," said Brad Schultz, a conservation officer stationed in Cook, near Lake Vermilion. "Wind and cold temperatures kept some anglers away, and the price of gas."

Conservation Officer Don Bozovsky of Hibbing worked the opener and found angler numbers down on opening day, and that didn't change on Sunday when the weather was pleasant, according to the weekly C.O. report.

At Bowen Lodge, Heig said the economy might be having an effect.

"It tells me that maybe there are a lot of people really hurting out there," he said.

On Leech Lake near Walker, fishing was excellent but traffic was down from last year, said Jeff Zbasnik of Shriver's Bait.

"It wasn't what it usually is," Zbasnik said.

Leech Lake is enjoying a strong walleye comeback, and last year's hype may have been tough to live up to, he said, discouraging some anglers from a return trip this year.

At Chalstrom's Bait and Tackle north of Duluth, overall opening weekend traffic was good, said John Chalstrom.

"Friday was the best day we ever had," he said. "We hammered all day."

Saturday was slow, but Sunday was better than usual, he said. He estimated license sales were down 10 percent, not the nearly 30 percent that occurred statewide.

He predicted that with good weather now, more anglers would get in the mood to go fishing.