By Shawn Perich
Editor, Northern Wilds Media, Inc
Working a booth or exhibit at a sport show is not everyone’s cup of tea. Days are long as you talk to folks in an endless parade of passersby, promoting the product or organization you represent. What makes shows fun are the short, yet interesting, conversations you have with people who check out your booth.
Last weekend, I spent a couple of days at the Central Canada Outdoor Show in Thunder Bay. I’ve worked the show for a number of years and always enjoy seeing many Canadian friends and acquaintances. I even recognize some of the folks who attend the show every year. The reporter in me regards the many brief encounters with folks from a wide array of backgrounds as a way to check the pulse north of the border.
Minnesota’s closure of the 2013 moose hunt was a frequent conversation starter. Several people said moose numbers are declining in parts of northwestern Ontario, too. Most Canadians blamed moose woes on mild winters, more deer and bear predation. Ontario’s bear population increased after spring bear hunt was closed about a decade ago. Many people believe bears prey heavily on newly born moose calves. Ironically, since the spring hunt closed, deer numbers increased as well. Moose are susceptible to deer-borne parasites and disease.
I fielded several questions about snowmobiling and ATV riding in Minnesota. Due to the high costs of maintaining trail systems and relatively few trail users, snowmobile trails in the Thunder Bay area are no longer being groomed. Avid sledders are heading to Minnesota to tour trails. Ontario trail passes are expensive, so the cessation of grooming isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because passes aren’t required on ungroomed trails. As for ATVs, Canadian riders are curious about our designated trail system. One man told me he’d ridden the ATV trails near Silver Bay last summer. He was impressed at the quality of trails and the whole experience.
Canadians are crossing the border in droves to enjoy outdoor activities such as downhill and cross-country skiing, hiking and bicycling. I talked to folks who were vacationing not only on the North Shore, but also in places like Grand Rapids and the Brainerd lakes region. Grand Marais, about one-and-a-half-hour-drive from Thunder Bay, is a tremendously popular day trip. Nearly everyone I talked to at the show made regular, recreational visits to Minnesota. Their presence hasn’t gone unnoticed. One group of Duluth motels was at the show promoting a special discount package for rewarding Canadians for frequent stays.
All of this southbound traffic is a relatively new phenomenon. Not so many years ago, far fewer Canadians were crossing the border. What changed? The economy. Canada emerged from the Great Recession relatively unscathed. Since then, the northwestern Ontario’s economy has been going strong, so the folks within driving distance of Minnesota have money to spend.
Canadians also take advantage of a favorable exchange rate. For some time, the value of the U.S. and Canadian dollars has been at par or nearly so. Nearly all goods and services are cheaper in the U.S., so Minnesota excursion is a bargain. Last year, the Canadian government raised the dollar value of purchased goods Canadians can bring back from the U.S. without paying a duty—creating even further incentive to head south.
Economics answers another question I was asked at the show: Why are so few Americans now vacationing in Canada? As recently as a decade ago, many anglers from Minnesota and other Midwestern states made at least one annual fishing trip to Canada. Now, far fewer fishermen are heading north of the border. Living near the border, I’ve also noticed my friends and neighbors are less likely to go north for day trips or getaways.
Some folks say the slowdown in American tourism is related to additional security measures at customs in the aftermath of 911, specifically the need for a passport to enter the United States and the Canadian denial of entry of Americans who have DUI convictions. While negative experiences with customs agents are a travel deterrent for some folks, a bigger reason is likely the high cost of everything Canadian. Currently, a gallon of gasoline in Thunder Bay costs just over $5 per gallon. Prices in restaurants, grocery stores and other places tourists are likely to shop are noticeably higher, too. In the past, Americans benefited from a favorable exchange rate that extended their purchasing power. Now, when considering a Canadian trip, they may think first about the additional expense and secondly about the possibility of a hassle at the border. It seems likely some anglers have decided they were better off staying home.
Another factor affecting fishing travel is an aging demographic. A fly-in camp outfitter told me his client base has stayed more or less the same, with past customers returning annually. However, those loyal customers are growing older. A new generation of younger anglers isn’t showing up to take their place.
What hasn’t changed is the quality of Canadian fishing. Restrictive bag limits enacted during the past decade or so to protect fisheries are making a difference. Generally speaking, the lower bag limits allow you to come off the water with enough fish for dinner, but prevent you from heading home with a cooler packed with filets.
I spoke with fisheries scientist Jon George, who recently retired from a 38-year career with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Jon is well known among Minnesota and Ontario steelhead anglers for a long term study he initiated to learn more about this popular Lake Superior sport fish. He discovered generous bag limits greatly reduce steelhead abundance. Unlike salmon, which die after spawning, steelhead may spawn more than once. Releasing one after you catch it is a way to make an investment in your fishing future, because your personal fish conservation pays a dividend when the steelhead spawns again.
From his study and the work of other researchers, Jon is convinced the adoption of catch-and-release fishing regulations led to significant population gains for steelhead and Lake Superior’ native coaster brook trout. Restrictive bag limits for muskies and walleyes have had similar positive effects on inland waters. The upshot is that Ontario still offers the terrific fishing for which it is justly famed. In fact, the fishing across northwestern Ontario is likely better now than it was 10 or 20 years ago. For this fisherman, the exceptional quality of Canadian fishing is worth the extra hassle and expense needed to enjoy it.