When I was in college I had a rod and reel but otherwise considered the fishing opener in the manner of a kid watching a train pass by destined for a better place. This was in Morris, in west-central Minnesota, not a walleye hotbed. To top things off, I drove a ‘57 Buick with a Dynaflow transmission that engaged sometimes long minutes after being shifted into “drive.” SUVs hadn’t yet been inflicted upon the motoring public, but this was my best shot in that direction.
One year, on opening day, three friends and I decided to fish from the shore of a lake with rumored walleye credentials. We split the cost of a dozen worms and a bucket of minnows and arrived at our destination amid threatening rain, a downer in literary terms. For a few hours a couple of us cast into the suspect lake using baited small jigs hanging beneath bobbers. Our other technique involved the same setup, minus bobbers. In well-worn angling terminology, the action was “slow.” Still we were outdoorsmen, an important accreditation to us, notwithstanding our multiple backlashes.
Except for two bullheads, we caught no fish.
Having nothing else to do, and having long since learned that time passed glacially in Morris, we took a circuitous route back to town.
Meandering slothfully, we eventually passed the Pomme de Terre River and a dam there that was a known weekend hangout for the kegger-happy among our UMM brothers and sisters, especially those who by then had lost all hope of making the dean’s list or any other list, save perhaps most wanted.
This was when we saw three boys, each perhaps 12 years old, strolling along the two-lane blacktop carrying multiple hefty stringers of walleyes, northerns and bass.
“Let’s beat ‘em up!” one of my friends cracked.
Sporting option that this suggestion was, I chose instead to back off the Buick’s foot feed as we approached the anglers from behind, rumbling to a smooth stop alongside the heavily laden fishermen.
“Guess they were biting, huh boys?”
“You could say that,” the bigger boy said.
“He just did say that.” This was my friend who made the crack about beating the boys up.
“Huh?” the bigger boy said.
“Forget him,” I said. “We were fishing, too. Caught a couple. But nothing like that. Guess we should have fished the river. What did you catch ‘em on?”
For a long while the boys looked only at each other and alternately at their feet, unsure whether to divulge their angling confidences.
Finally the bigger boy shrugged.
“Caught ‘em,” he said, “using a 40-foot minnow seine.”
Some states, believe it or not, don’t have fishing openers. This is because they don’t have fishing closures. Weather permitting, they fish year-round.
In this respect, Minnesota is better off. True, we have other holidays, including the standards, Memorial Day, Labor Day and the others, as well as the deer opener, the run-up to which, by rights, should include school closures and work stoppages.
But the fishing opener is different. Families are involved, also friends, some of whom are seen only on this yearly occasion. It matters some whether fish are caught — walleye fries on Saturday night often being an opener’s highlight. But I’ve fished on openers when I was blanked, or nearly so, as were my friends. Along with many other Minnesotans, I’ve also fished on openers when northern lakes were largely ice-covered, and when snow fell so hard, navigating amounted to a stab in the dark. Still, a good time was had by all.
Of course much of this has to do with the changing of seasons hereabouts, as long winters end and promising summers begin. At these junctures hope reigns supreme and determination is renewed, admirable traits of experienced anglers. Also after hundreds upon hundreds of years of habitation, the DNA of a large portion of the state’s population, native or more recent, is imbued in spring with the need to be on open water in a canoe or a boat, whether paddled or propelled by a motor. In the old days, of course, the latter were noisy, while modern outboards are as quiet as sewing machines. Either way the aroma of combusted gasoline wafting aloft from a boat’s transom and distilling into the chilled air of a mid-May morning is as Minnesotan as Minnesota gets, impolitic as that combination may be to celebrate.
Participation on an opener does require some money. But not necessarily much. When I was a kid my dad carried a 5-horsepower Johnson in the trunk of his car; in combination with boats rented from various resorts, it served us well for many years. Also some of the most productive openers I’ve had occurred while fishing from a canoe launched on glass-flat lakes at midnight of opening day, with a friend and I paddling slowly, trailing floating Rapalas behind.
It is true that not everyone gets married on an opener. But my wife and I did. This was 25 years ago, in Ely, on an island in Garden Lake on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Previous to the ceremony on a warm, sunny day, our group experienced outstanding fishing on White Iron Lake, with limits or near limits of walleyes taken by all.
This preceded, on the Sunday of opening weekend the following year, the birth of our older son, an event that necessitated my return home the night before from fishing on Green Lake, hard by the village of Spicer, near Willmar.
I made this trip only after my wife, Jan, assured me that no, she wasn’t “faking” labor, tossing in a “you idiot” for good measure.
So it is in Minnesota, one opener after another, and come Saturday, the first day of fishing 2017, I hope you’re on the water.
As a footnote, if you happen to be out and about anywhere near Morris and you see three guys, by now middle-aged, carrying stringers of walleyes, northerns and bass — call a conservation officer.