Pandemic makes this Wisconsin fishing opener like no other

By BARRY ADAMS

The Associated Press

DODGEVILLE, Wis. — Kate Mosley thought she had turned the corner with her small bait shop business just down the road from Governor Dodge State Park.

The peg boards at her Kate’s Bait & Sporting Goods are flush with artificial lures that mimic frogs, minnows, worms and other aquatic creatures designed to grab the attention of a bass, walleye, crappie or monstrous muskie.

Mosley also has a vending machine outside for after-hours sales. It’s stocked with bobbers, jigs and even live bait like night crawlers, wax worms and live minnows in specially designed containers that don’t spill when they tumble down.

With the statewide game fishing season opener on Saturday, May 2, this is normally a time of increased sales and excitement. But these aren’t normal times.

Mosley opened her business in shared space with her taxidermist brother in 2008 in a former truck stop on Dodgeville’s east side before finding her own space in 2013 in a building on a former miniature golf course along Highway 23 north of Dodgeville. She’s managed to pay off her startup costs, thought she was on sound financial footings and was eager for this spring.

“If I didn’t have the support of my husband through those years I never would have made it,” Mosley, 36, told the Wisconsin State Journal last week. “It was rough all the way around. Rough on our relationship, rough on everything. We put a lot of blood, and sweat and tears into it and I got to the point where I’ve finally made a name for myself.”

But the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has thrown a jerkbait into her business plan. Mosley has installed a doorbell at a window next to her front door for walk-up service since customer’s aren’t allowed into her 250-square-foot shop. But she has serious concerns about the future and knows this fishing opener will be unlike anything she has ever experienced.

Nearby Twin Valley, Cox Hollow and Yellowstone lakes are off limits after the state closed many of its parks. The Department of Natural Resources-owned but Iowa County-operated Blackhawk Lake Recreation Area north of Cobb is closed, state-owned boat landings on the Lower Wisconsin River are barricaded, and anglers who once came from Madison, Milwaukee, northern Illinois and Iowa are unlikely to be stopping by Mosley’s shop anytime soon. She didn’t qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program and never heard back after applying for two loans from the Small Business Administration.

“I just fall through the cracks. I’m just so small,” said Mosley, who has no employees. “This was really looking like a great year. But if they don’t open up any of the lakes, why will people come here?”

With Gov. Tony Evers asking people to stay close to home to stop the spread of the respiratory disease, it’s anyone’s guess what the fishing opener will look like. Crowds are likely to be down for northern Wisconsin fishing destinations like Hayward, Minocqua, Eagle River, Tomahawk and Rhinelander. In southern Wisconsin, lakes like the Madison chain, those in Waukesha County’s Lake Country and in Delavan and Lake Geneva, could see increased traffic from those who have skipped a trip to the Northwoods out of health or economic concerns.

Trips canceled

Jeff Hanson, of Verona, has been a muskie guide for 24 years and primarily takes his clients to Dane County lakes Wingra, Monona and Waubesa, and occasionally to Twin Valley Lake at Governor Dodge State Park. Because of the “safer at home” order, he can’t legally begin taking clients out until May 26 and has several openings for June.

Hanson normally does 200 trips in a season. However, he’s had some people cancel because they’re now out of work. Some his of clients are Madison-area doctors, but they’ve canceled as well since they can’t get time off.

“Normally in May I would be 100% booked right now and same for June,” said Hanson, who charges $400 for an eight-hour trip. “I just know I’m going to have a tough year this year. I’m not going to go out of business, but it’s going to put a burning into my pocketbook.”

In Dane County, boat ramps on area lakes have not been closed, except for those at Lake Kegonsa and Governor Nelson state parks. On most of the landings that remain open, signs have been posted on docks asking that only one person be on a pier at one time and that boaters avoid touching common areas with their hands.

Some businesses that sell bait and tackle remain fully open, such as Dorn Sporting Goods, which is part of Dorn Hardware, Middleton Ace, Fleet Farm, Farm & Fleet and Walmart. Wilderness Fish & Game in Sauk City, Cabela’s in Sun Prairie and Gander Outdoors in DeForest are also fully open because they are federally licensed firearms dealer.

But for those that specialize in primarily fishing, the spring has taken on a different feel and is cutting into sales.

Not inside

D&S Bait & Tackle, 1411 Northport Drive, is open but is not allowed to have customers in the store that is next door to a Culver’s. Gene Dellinger, who has owned his bait shop on Madison’s North Side since 1990, is asking customers to call in their orders for live bait, rods and reels and other fishing supplies, even if they’re in the parking lot, and pick them up at the door.

“Obviously, you don’t do the same sales that you would if people were coming into the store. You do a much smaller percentage,” Dellinger said. “It’s like when you go to the grocery store and you know you need some bread and milk, but when you walk around you fill your cart.”

Dellinger, 59, normally holds a series of free spring fishing seminars, but those have been scrapped because of social distancing. However, he planned to host a Facebook Live seminar with longtime Madison-area fishing guide Ron Barefield, who was to offer tips for Opening Day and take questions from viewers.

Washed away

Back at Kate’s Bait, Mosley was closed for all of March for remodeling that was planned prior to the virus. She reopened with limited hours with the walk-up window on April 2 and not only sells fishing tackle and bait but also storage sheds and caters to the area’s turkey hunters. However, the sales of blinds, turkey calls, decoys and ammunition are only 8% of what they were last spring. Governor Dodge is home to 269 campsites and historically one of Wisconsin’s busiest state parks.

Mosley stocks up for the weekend with mosquito spray, camping supplies and even purchases meat sticks, sausage and potato salad from local butcher shops to sell to her customers. Only this year, there will be no rush of campers, hikers or anglers.

“It’s always a weekend we prepare for and are excited for and you stay late hours. You sell wood and beer and all the camping supplies,” Mosley said. “This is almost like your business has burned to the ground and you have no insurance.”

By Jim Ellis

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