Fishing guides in the Brainerd lakes area got a late start, per Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order. They were unable to take anyone out during the fishing opener; and when guidelines began to lift a bit they were able to have only two people on their boats.
Things evolved over the summer and fishing guides have been busy. Fishing is an outdoor activity, so people may feel more safe out on Minnesota waters.
A few fishing guides in the lakes area took a moment to share how business has changed with the pandemic.
John Blong (right), Ranger Pro-staff guide of Brainerd Guide Service, talks July 16 at the Breezy Point Marina on the Breezy Point Resort property about the fishing season as his customers Tim and Kathy Garry listen. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch
John Blong, Ranger Pro-staff guide of Brainerd Guide Service, was getting ready July 16 at the Breezy Point Marina at the resort to take out customers Tim and Kathy Garry. They’ve gone fishing with Blong for about 20 years.
Blong said he has been fishing the lakes since he was about 12 years old. His parents had a place on Pelican Lake. Blong is a mathematics teacher at Brainerd High School and he said instead of painting houses in the summer, he would take people out fishing. He typically takes about 170-180 fishing trips during the course of the summer and goes on almost 50 different lakes.
“It depends on what species of fish they want to catch,” Blong said on picking a lake. “We typically go to the lake where we think they can have the most action for that species.”
Blong, who for the most part guides returning customers, said in January he had about 80 fishing trips on the books and when March came along, he didn’t even want to answer the phone.
“Every phone call was somebody canceling,” he said. “Then my number of bookings went down to 40. And then basically I talked with the other guides and said you know all we got to do is just make it through, we can make it through the season, we’ll be fine. And then basically what happened was sometime around the end of May, it just exploded. People were coming out of the woodwork, they couldn’t take your kids to camp, there was no hockey practice, there was no baseball and the only thing that was left to do is go fishing. And so we have been running nonstop, crazy, crazy since we could open on May 18.”
Blong said it started out that you could only fish with a family member. Then you could take one or two people on the boat for about a week or so, and now they can take anyone fishing.
“It seems like when they come up here they don’t think the COVID virus exists,” Blong said of his customers. “You’ll see 3,000 people standing on a sandbar like they did up at Cross Lake for the Fourth of July. People shaking hands, hugging. It’s totally different from what you see in other areas. People get up here and we’re up in the big open areas and I think people just feel safer, I have no idea.
“I don’t make judgments or whatever but it seems like when people get to Little Falls, they just take a deep breath and they’re like ‘Ahhh we got out of the Cities.’ When they get up here it’s just like everybody’s relaxed. So, life is good.”
Blong said in the beginning they would wear plastic gloves and masks when they went out fishing, but shortly after they stopped doing that as they were outdoors.
Blong loves being a fishing guide with customers like the Garrys, who he has fished with for years. The Garrys have a time-share at the resort so they go out fishing with Blong a few times each summer.
“We always have a great time and always catch a lot of good fish,” Tim Garry said. “John is a pro, I mean he really is. He always takes care of making sure that the boat’s clean and whatever else, you know.
“The COVID thing, that’s really kind of a political thing but at the same time, you know you do what you have to do, you sanitize your hands, wear a face mask and whatever else. I sell real estate so we’re real into, you know, making sure light switches are scrubbed down or whatever. My bride here is retired so she does what she has to do. Her parents are 90 years old so she’s really good about, you know, staying away and keeping her distance when she goes grocery shopping.”
Kathy Garry of Forest Lake said in their neighborhood people have been staying close to home and have been fairly respectful of other people’s feelings on social distancing and wearing a mask.
“So when you’re out you look around you and if there are people that seem to be, consciously, like, ‘Stay away, stay away,’ you just stay away,” she said. “And like I said, when we go out into those more public places like the grocery stores and things, I’ll put out a mask if it makes people feel better.”
Blong’s wife, Michelle Blong, said one thing she has noticed with fishing this season is the people are so happy to get out of the house and out on the lake. She said her husband took a woman who was quarantined in her home for a while and was stressed but was finally able to get out to go fishing with her grandson.
Michelle Blong said it’s been a particularly fun year, even with COVID, from the perspective that people are so grateful to be outdoors.
Business: Brainerd Guide Service.
City: Brainerd lakes area.
Number of guides: Blong is the owner and he works with five other independent guides.
Interesting Fact: “We have had clients who started out as an infant on the boat and we have watched them grow up and fished with them as college students to older adults,” Michelle Blong said. “We have clients who call him Uncle John … and families send us Christmas cards with John in it. We’ve developed amazing relationships.”
Glen Belgum, who has been a fishing guide for the Nisswa Guides League for close to 45 years, caught this nice fish on North Long Lake in June 2015. Submitted Photo
Glen Belgum has been a fishing guide for the Nisswa Guides League for close to 45 years.
“We got a really late start … we couldn’t really work,” Belgum said. “We couldn’t take any clients out til toward the end of May. And then it was only two people in our boat plus the guide, which is fine. I mean, at least we were out working.
“And then it was about mid June when we were allowed to take three or four people. It pretty much was back to normal by mid-June. It started out slow because everyone was very fearful of it. COVID affected our business like it did a lot of businesses. We certainly aren’t the only ones affected by it.”
Belgum said typically, once the walleye opener weekend hits, fishing guides are busy through the end of October. He said July and August are the busiest times of the season as that is when tourists are in the lakes area.
Belgum said he may get a few new clients each year, but most of his business is mainly all people who have used his services for years.
“It’s a business that if you’re new to the business of fishing/guiding, you’re not going to have much business just because you don’t have a client base,” Belgum said. “It takes time to develop and build a clientele. … It takes years and years to do that.
“Just about every week is filled with people that I’ve fished with before. I’ve got people I’ve fished with for 38 years in a row, they are very loyal customers. It’s like buying a car, if you like the salesman and they treat you right, you’ll come back. This is a people business and you have to be friendly. You have to be patient. But you have to catch fish. I mean, that’s what people are going to come back for. That’s what people are going to pay you for. They can go out and not catch fish on their own. When they hire you, you better catch fish.”
Glen Belgum, who has been a fishing guide for the Nisswa Guides League for close to 45 years, caught this nice fish on Big Trout Lake in July 2017. Submitted Photo
Belgum, who is one of about 10 fishing guides with the Nisswa Guides League, said they have a core group of lakes they fish between Gull Lake to the Whitefish Chain, including some of the bigger lakes like Pelican, Lake Edward and North Long. Belgum said it depends on the week, the weather and what the client wants on choosing a lake to fish.
Belgum said in the beginning masks were mandatory and then people were allowed to make their own decision whether they would wear one or not. People also rode in their own vehicles instead of with the fishing guide to the boat landing to be safer.
“When we’re in the boat and fishing, we’re a distance apart from each other,” Belgum said. “Plus you’re out in the fresh air. I think people felt pretty comfortable, you know, in spite of the COVID fear right now. I mean, being outside in a boat in fresh air where you are a distance apart from each other, people feel pretty good about that. I mean, we have had nobody complain about (saying)… ‘I don’t think I should go fishing because COVID is gonna get me’ or anything like that. I mean, we just haven’t had issues like that. We tell people if you feel more comfortable wearing a mask then do it, but to be honest, we haven’t had too many people that wear masks out fishing.”
Belgum said most people from the Twin Cities tell him that it feels like “normal living” in the Brainerd lakes area, a more relaxed feeling.
“They’re telling us that they like the open air up here,” Belgum said. “They like the idea of doing outdoor activities, and I think they feel pretty secure and pretty safe. And you know, whether that’s going fishing, golfing or going out to eat. I think when people go inside, like to eat, a lot of people still like to wear the masks as COVID is still on everyone’s mind. It’s not so much on everyone’s mind when they’re out fishing to be honest with you. It really isn’t that big of a deal to people right now, at least when they are on the water fishing … then I think they feel very safe, very secure.”
Business: Nisswa Guides League
Number of guides: 10.
Interesting Fact: “Our group of guides is the oldest fishing guide group in the state of Minnesota. You know, Marv Koep started this whole thing out of Nisswa Bait and Tackle in 1961. And, you know, Al Lindner, Ron Lindner and all of those guys started our group. We have just continued our group of guides. We’ve taken over 50,000 professional guided trips, you know, and that’s a lot of fishing trips.
“The first question most people always ask me, if I have a new trip with them is ‘How many years have you been doing this?’ And they’re not being mean about it. They want to know that they’ve got someone that they can trust, that has experience that can go find fish, and I say I’ve done this for over four decades.”
Also of note is the Nisswa Guides League works alongside S&W Bait and Tackle.
Nate Berg of Nate Berg Fishing Guide smiles while out fishing in late July on Lake Edward. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch
Nate Berg, who grew up in Wisconsin, has been a fishing guide for about 17 years. Berg started his own fishing guide business about six years ago based on the premise of raising funds through the guide business to donate to charities in the form of fishing trips.
Berg said most of the charity work he does is for youth, such as the Minnesota Chapter of the Outdoor Adventure Foundation, which provides outdoor adventures to children and young adults with life-threatening illnesses as well as combat disabled veterans. He also works with the Wounded Warrior Project and Hometown Hero Outdoors, where he takes law enforcement officers, military service members and veterans out fishing to help them heal and to make them smile all while enjoying the outdoors.
This year, they did 22 donated trips, down from previous years. Fishing trips have been down this season because of the coronavirus.
“I feel very, very bad for the guides who are full time,” Berg said of the fishing guide season. Berg said most fishing guides have a main source of income and then being a fishing guide is more like a secondary job. Berg’s main job is as a videographer, filming fishing and hunting shows for Jason Mitchell Outdoors.
Nate Berg’s fishing rod bends during a late July fishing trip with his friend Ben Aeiltz on Lake Edward. Berg is a fishing guide in the Brainerd lakes area. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
“I know what it’s costing us and we’re not full time,” Berg said. “We do probably 40 and 80 trips a year, depending on the year. And we’re down over half. And the guys that are full time that require this as their main income and their only income, I can’t imagine how bad they’re struggling. I feel so bad for them. … I have other fishing guides who work with me and I’ve actually sent a lot of people to the full-time guides, just because they need the help and it’s the right thing to do.
“We’ve been hit really hard here in Brainerd. It’s amazing to see a lot of the fishing guides that are full time, you’ll catch them out on the water and they’re fishing together … and it’s a weekday. They should have clients, you know, and it’s pretty sad. But (as of July 16) it’s picked up quite a bit here in the last month, but boy it was pretty dry in May and June, and I was like, I hope they all can make it. It’s scary.
“So this year, we’ve been down just like everybody else. … In fact, the very first weekend that they shut down, it cost me a 15-person corporate trip for ice fishing and a 10-person family trip the next day. I mean that was almost $4,000 gone right there. It’s tough to rebound from that, but you just got to, you know that at the end of the day there’s a lot of people worse off than us. We’re at least getting business now. There’s a lot of people that are still laid off and it’s scary.”
Berg believes the pandemic will lead to a huge increase in the fishing industry, as they are seeing more people on the lakes fishing.
Fishing Guide Nate Berg holds a northern for a moment before he releases it back into Lake Edward during a fishing outing in late July. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch
Berg, who also does the fishing reports for Visit Brainerd, was fishing July 16 on Lake Edward with his friend Ben Aeiltz of Lake Shore, who he met first as a client he took fishing. Aeiltz, who moved to the lakes area two years ago, said he wanted to learn how to fish Gull Lake and other lakes in the area. Aeiltz enjoys fishing and said he would like to take people out fishing, like Berg, but he noted he has no patience.
“It takes a lot of patience to do what he does,” Aeiltz said. “You really have to watch what your clients are doing as it could be the first time they have a fishing pole in their hands.”
After a few fishing trips, the two became friends.
Business: Nate Berg Fishing Guides.
City: Brainerd lakes area
Number of guides: He is the owner and works with a few fishing guides.
Interesting Fact: “When I was 9 my brother bet me that I couldn’t fish every single day. during summer vacation. Well I did for 46 straight days. The next year, in March, it was 1988, we had a really bad drought year and it was a hot spring, we didn’t have any snow and all the ice was gone. He bet me that I couldn’t beat 46 days. So, March 27, 1988, was the first day I went fishing and the last day that I fished was Sept. 9, 1991 — for 1,261 straight days. … My older brother wanted time to spend with his girlfriend.
“Some guy decided to become my ‘quote, unquote’ agent and started pushing my story to different magazines, newspapers to some of the local TV shows and I ended up on what was called ‘Lucky 13,’ it was out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I used to watch it … and I ended up on his show at 121 days. Well, it kept on going and this guy kept on pushing me. I still don’t know who this guy is to this day. He stayed anonymous, which is sad. I wish I’d known.”
Berg said during those days several media outlets did a story on him, including NBC Nightly News, ESPN and People Magazine.
“This is kind of how I got into this industry.” he said.
A friend of Nate Berg’s unhooks a fish in late July on Lake Edward. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch
Cindy Gibbs does not run a fishing guide business, but volunteers for charitable fishing events for organizations such as Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, Confidence Learning Center and Wounded Warrior Fishing. The tournaments were either canceled or went virtual because of the pandemic, so things have been slow for her.
“It’s sad for those kids, they are just bummed they can’t get out to fish,” Gibbs said of the campers at Camp Confidence. “Virtual fishing tournaments have opened up where people can fish anywhere in the state. They measure the fish, take photos and send it in.”
Cindy Gibbs, who does not run a fishing guide business, but volunteers for charitable fishing events holds up a nice northern. Submitted Photo
Gibbs said spring was tough for fishing guides and others in the fishing industry with the stay-at-home order. Gibbs said the weather pattern this past spring also was poor and the fish were not biting.
Gibbs said she and her husband, J.R. “Coop” Cooper, who has been a fishing guide all his life, would go fishing on their own as everyone was staying at home. Cooper was inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame in March 2019. As social distancing guidelines were lifted (and the state stay-at-home order was lifted) they began taking a few close friends out fishing on their own. They did not do anything tournament related primarily because of safety reasons for themselves and others. They hope to do some fishing tournaments this fall or winter.
“I have been in contact with fishing guides and it has been hard with social distancing,” Gibbs said in a July 16 interview. “In the beginning, you could only take one or two persons out and … then you have to help with netting the fish and that is hard to keep that social distance. I think there was a lot of mix up on what you could do and what you couldn’t do it (with fishing). It was never really clear when it should have been clear on what the guidelines were.”
Gibbs said she volunteers to take people out fishing who otherwise wouldn’t have the means to get out.
“I promote being a good steward of the fishing industry, and helping others enjoy learning about our fisheries here in the Brainerd lakes area,” Gibbs said. “Knowledge from boat safety, understanding water is a powerful force of nature, to be respectful, knowing why some weeds are good for fish, how to use the right tools for fishing and how to have fun finding the fish.
“I was once told that the days you don’t catch fish is a day you have gained valuable knowledge. So this is really what I try to do when I am out with a group of children, students or adults.”
Nate Berg’s fishing rod bends during a late July fishing trip with his friend Ben Aeiltz on Lake Edward. Berg is a fishing guide in the Brainerd lakes area. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Mary Devine Johnson, executive director of Visit Brainerd, said most people go directly to the hotels they are staying at, which have all the tourism information they will need. Visit Brainerd is the official destination marketing organization and visitor’s bureau for the cities of Baxter and Brainerd. Johnson said people are vacationing this summer during the coronavirus pandemic, and taking trips closer to home. People are making reservations at the hotel for the same day of their inquiry or the next day.
“People are kind of making some of those last minute decisions to come,” Johnson said. “They’re just ready to get out or something freed up with their schedules. As far as people doing fishing activities and that kind of thing, typically those folks are at the resorts. However, we have had hotels report that they are seeing more boats than ever before because they think the rates are competitive. People are just getting out of wherever they were for a couple of days to come up and go and do outdoor activities, a lot of biking activity, people that are doing kayaking, that’s what we’re seeing on top of cars and trailers at the hotels right now.”
Johnson said once the water parks and pools opened, it was a game changer for the local hotels, because they all of a sudden started to see their reservations go up. People stay at the hotels and are able to do any of the area attractions in the lakes area, all while practicing social distancing.
“We have just a lot of natural social distancing activities here, with biking and fishing and golfing and other activities in the area.”
Johnson said Visit Brainerd is seeing a lot of people from out of town vacationing in the lakes area. People are driving between two to three hours to their destination. A couple from Fargo, North Dakota, were on their honeymoon and visited the office checking out the attractions. The couple stated they canceled their bigger trip because of the pandemic, but chose to stay at a cabin in the lakes area. Another couple from Rochester canceled their flight and were traveling in the lakes area to go camping in their recreational vehicle.
“As a whole, about a third of the people are ready to go, another third are in the middle and a third of the people won’t travel until there is a vaccination or until the virus is more contained,” Johnson said of people going on vacations. “This is pretty typical across the state and nation right now.”
Visit Brainerd, a nonprofit corporation, is committed to promoting Brainerd and Baxter as a leisure, business and convention travel destination, and as the economic center of the Brainerd micropolitan area, according to its website.
One thing that has been interesting this summer, Johnson said, has been the number of people coming into Visit Brainerd asking about relocation information.
Getting bait on a hook. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Since the beginning of March, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in $297 billion in losses for the U.S. travel economy, according to the U.S. Travel Association by Tourism Economics.
As of July 18, the travel association stated the U.S. is on pace for more than $51 billion in travel spending losses. The continual depressed levels of travel spending produced a loss of $38 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue since March. This includes $23.6 billion in federal taxes, $8.7 billion in state taxes and $5.7 billion in local tax revenue.
In Minnesota alone, people spent the below amounts on travel spending. The amounts are in the millions and were reported weekly at the end of each week:
The latest forecast prepared for the travel association projects visitation and travel spending both domestic and international.
Through the end of 2020, the report estimates $505 billion in losses for the travel industry for a total of $81 billion in lost federal, state and local taxes by the end of 2020. The travel industry is not expected to recover until 2024.
The three recovery initiatives would generate an estimated $71 billion for the travel industry by the end of 2021, delivering $163 billion in economic output and restoring nearly 800,000 jobs.
By the numbers (2019):
$1.1 trillion: Total domestic and international inbound traveler spending in the U.S. which generated a total of $2.6 trillion in economic output.
15.8 million: Jobs supported by travel expenditures, includes $9 million directly in the travel industry and $6.8 million in other industries.
$277.4 billion: Wages shared by American workers directly employed by travel.
$179.7 billion: Tax revenue generated by travel spending for federal, state and local governments.
2.9%: Percentage of nation’s gross domestic product attributed to travel and tourism.
1 out of 10: U.S. jobs that depend on travel and tourism.
No. 7: Where travel ranks in terms of employment compared to other major private industry sectors.
2.3 billion: Number of person trips Americans took for business and leisure purposes.
Travel is among the top 10 industries in 49 states and Washington, D.C. in terms of employment.
Direct spending by resident and international travelers in the U.S. averaged $3.1 billion a day, $128.6 million an hour, $2.1 million a minute and $35,700 a second.
(SOURCE: U.S. Travel Association by Tourism Economics: https://tinyurl.com/y5makx9e)