In the northern Minnesota counties of Lake of the Woods and Koochiching, commissioners have decided to close access to the walleye-rich Rainy River during the annual spring fish run. Doing so, the commissioners decided, will discourage visitors from coming to the northern Minnesota river and help protect local residents from the spread of coronavirus.

In Chamberlain, S.D., fishing along the Missouri River is open. As South Dakota encourages outdoor recreation during the pandemic, the open access points are an invitation to outsiders, many of whom are flocking there to take advantage of the opportunity. Many locals are not happy.

The two famous walleye destinations – Baudette, Minn., and towns like Chamberlain and Fort Thompson in South Dakota – are offering portraits of a growing rift between recreationalists who seek the outdoors during the pandemic and local residents who simply do not want them around during the health crisis.

Who’s right?

We side with the commissioners and residents of northern Minnesota, who are rightly concerned that an influx of visitors will increase the likelihood of spreading coronavirus.

In South Dakota, various government entities – tribal, county and city – are concerned that the state isn’t doing enough to stem the flow of nonresidents coming to the area. Anglers will argue that there is plenty of room to spread out on the Missouri River’s wide waters, but what about when they sleep in local hotels, eat at local restaurants and gas up at C-stores along the way?

Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Chairman Lester Thompson Jr. has urged the state to “shut them down from coming here right now.”

Meanwhile, the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks recently called for people to enjoy the outdoors while following coronavirus prevention guidelines. “Make mindful decisions as you care for yourself and your loved ones,” the GF&P wrote, “but know that our state’s outdoor resources are available and waiting for you.”

We prefer the message being sent in extreme northern Minnesota. The Herald last week reported that access points along the Rainy River have been closed by the local county commissions. Wednesday, another Herald story noted the discord that has followed the decision to close access.

Predictably, the controversy came to a boil on social media. Those involved in tourism in the area say they worry not just about the current downturn in tourism, but what the decision will mean in the future.

Will those anglers come back to the Rainy River? Or will they boycott the area in protest of this year’s decision?

Of course they’ll return. They may threaten to fish elsewhere, but they’ll change their minds when the walleyes begin their annual run next spring.

Keeping them away today is a sound strategy in the interest of the health of the communities in the region. The commission members in those counties should be commended.

Local entities are being forced to make hard decisions for the sake of public health. In South Dakota, they haven’t quite figured that out yet. In northern Minnesota, elected leaders made a wise and brave decision, one that probably was made knowing full well that controversy was sure to follow. That’s leadership in action.