Fury after fishing competition declared for tourists only

Merna Emara
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Anglers from northern Ontario and Manitoba are being invited to the Rainy River District, to catch a tagged bass, worth $5,000, in a competition aimed at boosting the local tourism sector. To win the prize, the angler must prove residency outside the District, and prove they paid to stay at a local hotel or camp.

The announcement went on to mention that Rainy River District residents are not eligible to win the $5,000 cash prize, however if they do catch the tagged fish they will win a $200 reward.

“This is a unique opportunity to enjoy a day of fishing and go home with a heavier wallet than you started with,” Geoff Gillon, executive director of the Rainy River Future Development Corporation (RRFDC), said in the press release. “Rainy Lake is notorious for holding trophy sized bass that love to fight. This year one of those trophy bass comes with a reward!”

However, some local residents have raised concerns that the contest could put vulnerable populations at risk amid a pandemic which has restricted travel worldwide.

Amber Leigh Bird, 37, said given how Fort Frances is a small and tight community, the effects of something like COVID-19 could be damaging.

“It is such a scary thing. To invite all these anglers from outside of our community is very, very dangerous. I respect that they like to bring in tourism to our community, but at what cost to the community? If you think about the amount of people that one person can infect. It has a domino effect. The amount of things that you touch to the amount of people that you come in contact with,” Bird said.

“COVID-19 is such a scary thing that we don’t even fully understand how it works. They are not sure if it is being passed through water or if it is contact or if it is air and it seems like it might be mutating a bit as it goes. We don’t know if one person has been in contact with COVID, because as we know, we don’t show symptoms for up to two weeks. A lot of people can’t handle the damage that [COVID-19] has on our respiratory system.”

Gillon said in an email to the Fort Frances Times that the province of Ontario has encouraged travel inside the province and the province of Manitoba has included northwestern Ontario in its “bubble” because of our shared low COVID-19 rates.

“The promotion is targeting northwestern Ontario and parts of Manitoba with extremely low COVID-19 rates,” Gillon said in an email. “The Town of Fort Frances currently has any number of construction crews actively working in the community with no negative impact. The city of Thunder Bay is doing a similar promotion offering incentive to tourists to travel there.”

But Bird said since the annual bass fishing tournament got cancelled, the town could have worked to do something for the locals first.

“Yes our tourism is suffering, our businesses are suffering, but we are all in this together. We have so many anglers in this area already in the Rainy River District, that they could have raised money in another way. If we can collectively, as a community, stand together to put the money in the account and be like ‘Hey, local guys, go catch this fish and the money is yours, it might light the fire underneath some of the anglers.’”

Jeff Gustafson, professional sportsman, said he has have a lot of friends in the tourism industry and they are really going through a hard time right now. “A lot of the tourism people are not getting good help from the government like people in other sectors are and I feel bad for these people,” Gustafson added.

But that being considered, Gustafson said the chance of catching one specific tagged bass fish in Rainy Lake would be one in millions.

“The odds of someone catching that fish are very slim. I get why people are upset, I don’t know if that would encourage [avid fishers] to come visit Rainy Lake. The lake is massive and the fish will move for sure and nobody knows where it was released so you would need to have a lot of luck in being in the right place at the right time. It can be five miles away by now,” Gustafson said.

“There are some pretty big predator fish in Rainy Lake, a pike or potentially a muskie would be the two species that might be able eat a bass. But once a bass is full grown, they don’t have a lot of predators. It can go anywhere in the lake. It can be on the Minnesota side of the lake for all we know. They can go wherever they want.”

Gustafson said Rainy Lake is the attraction people will seek in Fort Frances. “For all of us that like to fish and are familiar with it, it is a world-class place to go for fishing bass and pike and that’s the big attractor, not the tagged fish,” Gustafson said.

To put things in perspective, Gustafson said that in the annual Canadian Bass Championship, thousands of fish are measured, weighed and tagged before getting released again to the lake, but only very few of them are caught again.

“The reason they tag them is for scientific reasons. When they tag them, they measure them, they weigh them and so if the fish is caught again people are asked to measure the size of the fish and then share the area of the lake where it was caught.”

Fort Frances Times sought further comment from RRFDC, but no comments were provided by press time.

Bird created a fundraiser on Facebook to raise money for a local angler who catches the tagged fish. So far $180 have been raised to encourage local anglers to catch the tagged fish.

“This is scary especially when people are not truthful about whether they travelled outside the country, because I think there is that fear and that shame of ‘Do I have it? or ‘Have I contracted it?’ or not wanting people to know. There is a lot of ignorance surrounding it and surrounding people’s judgement,” Bird said.

However, if someone is determined to catch the tagged bass, Gustafson says spend a lot of time fishing in different locations.

“You probably have to catch a lot of bass to run into that one specific tagged fish,” Gustafson said. “If I was going to be fishing out there over the summer I’d be looking for areas where there is a mixture of weeds and rocks.”