Dennis Anderson: Fishing remains a tradition — for the lucky

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2014 - 11:35 PM

Whether the walleye bite or not on the opener, the first day of fishing is always memorable.

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Guide Dick "Griz'' Grzywinski of St. Paul with a 9-pound walleye he caught while fishing the Mississippi River near Red Wing, Minn.

A mystery, this, that not everyone fishes, and I’ve often wondered just what these non-anglers do with their time. I’m sure on the opener, and for a week or two thereafter,the odd yard is raked or car washed. Yet while turkey hunting Friday morning, and daydreaming about this segmentation of the citizenry into anglers and non-anglers, I considered ruefully the entertainment options that foment the distinction, not least the Chippendales performance I saw advertised for “opening weekend widows’’ — compared to which pulling a Lindy Rig or long-lining a floating Rapala might seem small potatoes.

Yet it’s an existential consideration, why some people fish and others don’t. Certainly in Minnesota, heritage must be credited for the state’s industrial-size interest in wetting a line. The Sioux did it here first, by spear, net and hook. Then the Ojibwe, followed by French fur traders, also the Swedes, Finns, Germans and Norwegians, among others.

Regardless of their origin, these early residents were startled by the bounty of fish that inhabited the waters of what would become Minnesota. And while the Department of Conservation, forerunner to the Department of Natural Resources, wasn’t established until 1931, thus formalizing many hunting and fishing times, a seasonal rhythm governed generally by the angle of sun was recognized from the outset: Ice formed on lakes in October and November, sap flowed from maples in March and April, and open-water fishing took hold again in spring, usually in May.

Thus were born the state’s harvesting and gathering traditions, including the beginning of summer fishing.

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Various degrees of wackiness have been attributed to fishing’s first weekend, and it is true that distilled beverages, card games and dimly lit cabins have been part of the revelry. Nonetheless, fishing is the real attraction, also friends, and when these are combined with a collective realization that winter has ended, or — as this year — might someday end, celebration ensues, inebriation not required.

The goal, of course, is to catch fish. And not just any fish, walleyes.

The season’s first morning is often very crisp, and winter clothes are warranted. Also, anticipation has played a big role in the run-up, and many anglers the week before will have organized their tackle boxes and spooled their reels with fresh line. So when boats are untied from the dock early Saturday and the sweet aroma of combusted gasoline wafts from their sterns, beelines can be made to the first fishing spots, and the next.

On Crane Lake, where I’ll fish on the opener — provided the hoped-for dissolution of lake ice occurs — all manner of craft will gather in a handful of areas. Some anglers will tie on jigs, others sliding-sinker rigs. Minnows will be the bait of choice, shiners if they can be found, and the hope will be that much of the lake’s walleye spawning run has been completed, or nearly so. But it’s possible the ice will have gone out only a day or two before the opener, and the walleyes, as a result, will be caught midstream in their spawn and will be tight-lipped. If so, disappointment will follow, to a degree.

But mystery is at the heart of all fishing, and ultimately is its attraction. It’s not a game to be watched, or a movie or a play, a ticket to which can be purchased, and satisfaction more or less guaranteed.

Fishing by comparison isn’t so much entertainment as an encounter with oneself. It is true that 10 percent of anglers catch 90 percent of the fish, and if catching fish matters to a given individual (and over time, it does to most), then computations both simple and complex must be resolved, or at least undertaken — some by book learning, some by experience, others by instinct.

Inherent in this process is joy, but also frustration because fishing, as Izaak Walton said, “can never be fully learned.’’

Preparing fish for the table, however, can be.

In our bunch at day’s end, one or two among us will be assigned to the screen house to clean our bounty. Someone else will spread hors d’oeuvres on a platter, while others arrange a salad and slice potatoes, these last destined for the deep fryer, along with the walleye fillets.

By then, darkness will have enveloped the lake.

Only rarely on these openers will the fish “catching’’ be as good as it will be a week or two hence.

But the “fishing,’’ broadly defined, on these initial days of the season is always memorable, a characterization that likely was similarly true for the Sioux on the first days following ice-out, and the Ojibwe, and the French and all the others that followed.

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