By all accounts, Griffin Thompson is a typical Minnesota kid. Mostly notably, that manifests itself in his love for fishing the dozen-plus lakes in and around his southern Minnesota hometown of Albert Lea.
But when Griffin, now 16, came to his mother with the idea of starting a high school fishing team a few years ago, she was a skeptic.
“My son and his buddies would fish all the time, and he told me that there were high school fishing teams. I didn’t even know about them back then. I totally didn’t believe him,” said Julia Thompson. “But I started Googling, and I found a coach in Lakeville who told me more. I got more information and started a Facebook site and got an email address, and started promoting it.”
“It” is what became the Albert Lea Anglers -- the community’s first youth fishing team. Thompson and co-organizer Brandon Brackey were delighted to have 29 kids sign up for that first season. That number has more than doubled today.
“Three years later we have a new coach this year, Jason Howland, and he does a lot of tournament fishing,” Thompson said. “He knows what he’s doing and he’s excited about it. We have 63 members signed up, and it’s crazy. They’re all over the place, and we help out where we can.”
On Friday morning, May 3, those 63 kids -- 61 boys and two girls -- were helping out by assembling nearly 600 boxes to hold the gifts that will be given out to the hundreds of media and visitors set to descend on Albert Lea next week, when the community hosts the 72nd Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener.
The most unique part of this year’s event is not that it is the first hosted by Governor Tim Walz, who was elected in November 2018. What makes Albert Lea a more interesting first-time host is that 2019 is just the fifth time in the history of the event that it will be held south of the Twin Cities, and the first since Fairmont was the site in 1987.
Walz, who was southern Minnesota’s representative in Congress for a decade before seeking the governor’s office, is from Mankato. Last week he opened the turkey hunting season near Northfield, and in the fall the Governor’s Pheasant Opener will be held in Austin, signaling that the communities south of the 494/694 loop are suddenly the place to be.
The arrivals begin on Thursday, May 9, and there are events and tours throughout the region for visitors from all over the state. Walz and his fishing party might head out on Fountain Lake or one of the other bodies of water in and around Albert Lea just after midnight on Saturday, May 11, which also happens to be the day Minnesota marks 161 years of statehood. Area residents Bryan Skogheim and Mike Petersen will serve as volunteer guides for Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, respectively.
In addition to their fishing skills, the Albert Lea Anglers are participating in lake cleanup efforts designed to show first-time visitors to the region that they offer attractions and activities on par with any of the more traditional fishing destinations in northern Minnesota.
“It’s exciting. Austin and Albert Lea have the pheasant and fishing openers and we’re ecstatic to have those things here,” Thompson said. “We want to show the state what we’ve got. It’s beautiful here.”