Tournaments are adapting
Last year's fishing boom in Minnesota came with an asterisk.
Yes, the Department of Natural Resources sold 100,000 more licenses to the general public than it did in 2019. But under the weight of COVID-19 gathering restrictions, many long-standing fishing tournaments folded.
Jonathan Hansen, fisheries management consultant for the DNR, said he's sensing a revival. The rules have loosened and more tournament organizers are embracing catch-record-and-release scoring formats over traditional live weigh-ins that congregate people on shore.
"There's certainly a lot of interest this year" to resume tournaments, Hansen said. "Folks are hopeful right now given the trajectory of the pandemic."
Before 2020, the DNR was in the habit of authorizing 400 to 450 fishing tournaments each year — including about 100 competitions on the ice. After COVID-19 hit last spring, live weigh-ins were initially prohibited and a string of cancellations cut the number of open-water tournaments for the season to about 200.
This year, live weigh-ins are back if organizers strictly limit gatherings at the scorer's table. But Hansen said the DNR is strongly encouraging permit holders to adopt methods for measuring fish in boats as they are caught. The quick-release systems also benefit the fish.
The first open-water tournaments of the year will kick off in March when anglers target river panfish, then walleyes along the state's border waters. Any open-water tournament featuring 25 boats or more must obtain a DNR permit. Hansen said the biggest permit issued so far for 2021 is for the Student Angler Tournament Trail bass event on Mille Lacs in August. Up to 400 anglers are expected.
Supply disrupts a good thing
Among their outdoors toys, consumers turned to bicycles and accessories in record droves in 2020. For example, U.S. bike sales were 81% higher between April and July vs. the same period in 2019, according to analysts. And while demand was over the top, a dearth of supply continues to hamper the industry and keep it scrambling to find balance.
Ben Doom, a co-owner of Revolution Cycle and Ski in St. Cloud, saw record sales months last spring, but the coronavirus still strains the supply chain. Doom said he has more than 500 bicycles on back order from last summer. (He has skis flying out the door, too, with companies running out of stock.)
Winter normally is quiet on the floor, but not this year. Revolution has worked hard to stay ahead of demand. Doom said he has spent much of winter searching for and ordering chains, cassettes and other parts to stock up and keep repair jobs from turning into monthslong endeavors like they were for some Minnesota shops. Already this winter, there have been more sales and tuneups than normal.
"People are anticipating that it is going to be hard to get bikes. It is." he added. "I think it is going to be worse than last year for bikes, and parts and accessories, too."
Doom was anticipating a shipment of bikes that he's since learned is another month out. They are in a shipping container among many others waiting on COVID-testing protocols.
Doom has few options. Wholesalers are limited. The playing field is different for consumers, who can sift through hundreds of vendors online and likely turn up a part to get a bike rolling.
Revolution already has ordered bikes for 2022 sight unseen to stay prepared, Doom said.
"I think business will still be really good," he added. "I think the service side of things will be key."
All roads hold promise
As the pandemic gained steam a year ago, no one could have forecast that recreational vehicle dealers would thrive in 2020.
Like most nonessential businesses, dealers that sell travel trailers, pickup campers and motor homes were required to lock their doors for a time last winter during what typically is a critical sales period.
Similarly, sport and RV shows that showcase new RVs suspended operations, leaving most dealers at their outlets, hoping customers would come to them.
More ominous was that RV manufacturers also shut down, and many struggled throughout 2020 with pandemic-induced staff shortages and supply chain delays.
Yet before 2020 ended, 430,212 RVs had been shipped to dealers nationwide, a 6% increase over 2019 and the industry's third-best year ever.
Mike Pearo, an owner with his three brothers of Hilltop Camper and RV, with locations in the Twin Cities, Rochester, Brainerd and Alexandria, sees no letup in demand in 2021.
"A lot of our customers who bought RVs last year felt that traveling and vacationing in an RV was safer than staying in motels, and a better way to spend time with their families," Pearo said. "Now, even though sports and RV shows are still shut down, our December, January and February sales have been pretty strong."
Nationally, RV shipments to dealers are expected to rise 17% in 2021 above last year's stellar production number — assuming supply chains can be maintained.
"The biggest challenge for all dealers right now is getting inventory," Pearo said. "It doesn't matter size or style, most are backlogged a little."
Wave on the water
Social distancing is easy in a canoe, even easier in a kayak and easier still on a SUP, or stand-up paddleboard. Which in part explains why paddle sports have gained so much traction during the pandemic.
Fastest growing in this space are paddleboards. The sport's modern-day iteration was born in Hawaii. But stand-up paddling is centuries old. And the exercise-intensive or (alternatively) paddle-at-a-relaxed pace sport seems made for Minnesota, with its 11,842 lakes larger than 10 acres and 69,000 miles of rivers.
The challenge is finding a desired paddleboard in stock, whether hard or inflatable.
Wyatt Behrends, paddle sports department coordinator at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, said he has some SUPs on the showroom floor, but that "kayak and canoe sales are very busy for this time of year."
"Normally now in winter our paddle customers are only thinking about what they might get," Behrends said. "Now, they're realizing if they want to get something, they better buy it soon. Our suppliers have told us we can't order any more than we already have for the year."
Bear Paulsen, general manager of Northstar Canoes in Princeton, agreed.
"We're sold out of everything we can build until the end of August," he said. "We're up over 50% in employees since the beginning of the pandemic. There's not a retailer in the U.S. or Canada that hasn't seen an increase in demand."
Added Paulsen: "In paddle sports, you don't even have to share a trail with anyone."
Adjusting takes time
Expect to continue jockeying for a parking spot or space on a trail at some of the busiest of Minnesota's 75 state parks and recreation areas. Forward thinkers also will have an edge on landing one of the system's 4,000 lodges or campsites if there are plans to stay overnight.
This year, parks managers in the Department of Natural Resources could open more ranger stations, visitor centers and even some camping areas that have been off limits because of lack of staff and public health mandates around public gathering. Rachel Hopper, manager for visitors services in the Parks and Trails division, said plans still are forming.
Nearly a year ago the surging coronavirus health crisis wiped out an estimated 25,000 camping reservations before overnights were allowed again in late spring. Still, the parks remained open and were a healthy refuge from concerns about an airborne virus wreaking havoc indoors. Some metrics tell the story:
• Visitation to the parks system last year increased 25 % from 2019, with more than 12.3 million visitors and many to spots in the center and northeast of the state. Daily visitation to Afton, for example, nearly doubled. Normally quiet Beaver Creek Valley in the southeast had a 78% increase in daily traffic.
• Paved state trails accommodated 3 million cyclists, runners, walkers and others, an increase of 50% from 2019.
When state mandates eased and camping resumed Memorial Day weekend at limited capacity, overnighters made new reservations and worked their way back. The shortened season contributed to an 18% decline in camping across the system last year, but a closer look at numbers from July through October revealed the real demand and interest: More campers took advantage of fewer available sites compared with the same period in 2019.
"What we are hoping this next year is we'll keep adjusting as the dial keeps adjusting," Hopper said, referring to pandemic-related restrictions.
High school trap shooting
Hoping for routine
Ian Wheatcraft of the Prior Lake High School trap team returns as a senior this year with a gaudy trap shooting average and a reasonable chance to compete for a state title. For every 25 clay targets thrown for him last year, he blasted an average of 24.6.
No other high school trap shooter in Minnesota posted a higher scoring average in 2020, but COVID-19 upended the season and canceled state championship play. Wheatcraft's coach, Scott Conrad, said teams around the state are poised to resume competition in April. By June, those clubs are hoping also to re-establish the state's annual, eight-day shootout in Alexandria. From there, the top 40 teams would meet at the Minneapolis Gun Club in Scott County for a season finale sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League.
"Hopefully we can do it," Conrad said. "I'd love to see this play out."
John Nelson, president of the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League, said shooting ranges are ready to host a full season of participation and the league is moving forward in hopes of returning to its year-end hoopla. One predictable roadblock, Nelson said, is Minnesota's COVID-19 outdoor recreation restrictions.
Another problem — not so obvious — is the continuation of a national shortage of ammunition that developed last year. Nelson and Conrad said players and coaches are scrambling for every box of target-load shotgun shells that they can get.
"It's a nightmare," Conrad said. "We've told our families to secure all the ammo that they can."
Backlog to tackle
Minnesota firearms safety instructors will chip away this year at a serious backlog of hands-on training for aspiring hunters, but classroom and field day openings will remain in short supply as a result of COVID-19.
Capt. Jon Paurus of the Department of Natural Resources Enforcement Division said a special allowance for online training is helping older kids and adults meet the requirements needed to purchase a hunting license. But girls and boys who are 12 and 13 — even if they opt to take their safety class via computer — must still attend field day events where instructors evaluate each student's knowledge and handling abilities.
"We've always struggled to meet the demand for field days," Paurus said. "But in my estimation we're definitely looking at a backlog that will last into next year."
In a normal year, 17,000 to 18,000 Minnesotans obtain the safety certification required by DNR to legally hunt. Because the program was shut down for much of last year, there's a spillover of demand at a time when classroom capacity remains limited by gathering restrictions and the withdrawal of some instructors who won't hold classes during the pandemic.
Firearms safety instructor Shelly Boser of Pierz said her best advice for children and parents is to keep checking the DNR website for class offerings and field day openings. She's in the camp of instructors who don't support virtual training. Each year she holds two in-person courses — one in the spring, one in the fall. For six consecutive Monday nights, her students receive an abundance of hands-on learning with help from five assistants.
Boser said she's often asked why she doesn't provide more courses.
"People forget that we are volunteers," she said. "I physically can't do more than two a year."
Strong sales all around
For much of the past year, power boats have been made and sold in Minnesota — and the nation — almost as fast as they could be made and sold.
Lesser known is that a strong seller's market for used power boats developed in parallel with the pandemic, and the market for these rigs is expected to remain hot throughout 2021.
"I'm a one-man operation in Pelican Rapids," Paul Sillerud said this week. "Primarily I'm in the outboard business. But I also sell used boats. For those, demand was high last year, I could never get enough. And new outboard sales in 2020 were double my best year ever."
Nationwide, new powerboat sales surged by 12% in 2020 and were the highest since before the Great Recession.
All power boat categories rose: Personal watercraft sales increased 8%, wake boats were up 20%, and fishing boats and pontoons jumped 12%.
Encouraging for the industry, for the first time in a decade, the number of first-time boat buyers increased in 2020. Aluminum boats reign in Minnesota, where more than 800,000 boats are registered, and the average price of a new aluminum boat, motor and trailer rig last year was $36,000.
Powerboat sales in 2021 are expected to be even higher, assuming manufacturers can keep up with demand.
"We're selling more than we usually do at this time of year, and boats are slightly more difficult to get than they usually are," said Randy Timm of Dan's Southside Marine in Bloomington. "Most companies we deal with stopped taking orders late last fall or early this year.''
To satisfy customers' seemingly insatiable interest in pontoons, Timm recently took on a fifth brand. "By ice-out we expect to have most of the boats on hand we plan to deliver this spring," he said.
Moving with caution
The pandemic gutted Run Minnesota last year, forcing the cancellation of its races and spiking a marathon training program for 120 runners with dreams of glory at Grandma's in Duluth. The North Shore gem ultimately canceled, too, as did its fall bookend: The Twin Cities Marathon didn't run in person after 38 consecutive years.
Run Minnesota (former Minnesota Distance Running Association), which relies on race entries and training program fees for much of its operating budget, got help from its members as they responded with $20,000 in donations.
Now, following state-mandated protocols and with a better understanding of how to protect people, the organization will roll out the first of three spring races. The first is in April. Runners will set out in pods of 25, socially distanced. The field is capped at 250.
Sarah McInerney, Run Minnesota's operations manager, sounded relieved but realistic. The pandemic continues, and cautiousness remains. Some runners are raring to go, some are reluctant, and others might wait until they are vaccinated.
"I understand all three," she said. "It's hard to predict. People are very excited to run … I don't know if they are excited to race."
Cautious optimism also extends across town to Twin Cities in Motion, which puts on the marathon and a series of smaller races every year.
Executive director Virginia Brophy Achman said the organization, which lost $1.9 million in revenue generated by registrations, has several small, safety-compliant, in-person races ahead. The first is March 20, the Shamrockin' MNy 250. And she's optimistic for the fall marathon — on what scale is to be determined.
"We're staying optimistic and being realistic," Brophy Achman added.
The Superior Hiking Trail Association doesn't have, say, trail counters to gauge users, but all the hallmarks were clear of unprecedented interest in the 300-mile trail up the North Shore.
Jaron Cramer, development and communications manager, is among colleagues keeping track. The trail keepers heard anecdotes from their volunteers, regular users and land management partners. There was a spike of activity on social media. A trail Facebook group in which people take up trail conditions or hiking tips saw followers surge from 15,000 to more than 25,000. More people donated and joined the association. Sales of guidebooks and maps and inquiries to the main office in Two Harbors rose, too.
The wild interest in hiking matches national observations. The Outdoor Industry Association reported that day hiking was up 8.4% between April and June 2020 vs. the same period in 2019 — the biggest increase for any activity, from fishing to camping, that it sampled.
"Hiking, walking, running … there are very few barriers, by comparison, to getting started," Cramer said.
The association wants to meet the surging interest with education. The group is fine-tuning a strategic plan that runs through 2023 that would teach new hikers how to find resources and plan and, in turn, learn how to tread responsibly and minimize their impact.
The association is working with partners in Lake County on expanding the popular trailhead at County Road 6 near Sawmill Dome — a spot of relentless interest.
"It's a balancing act for us because we really want people to discover, explore and enjoy the trail, but it definitely was a stress test for some of our infrastructure," Cramer said, such as heavily used trailheads and campsites.