From the weather to the bite, memorable fishing openers are eternal
The Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame in Little Falls recently inducted three new individual members into its ranks for 2021. We asked them about their most memorable openers. We also solicited stories from readers — shared below, too. And we are sure new memories will be made when this year's opener arrives on May 15.
Longtime member of Nisswa Guides League and outdoors personality
2014 will go down as the most memorable fishing opener of my life. I was chosen by a committee in the Brainerd lakes area to guide Gov. Mark Dayton.
The spring of 2014 was very cold. Gull Lake opened up just three days before the big event.
The governor wanted to fish at midnight for a couple of hours and again at 8 a.m. I was so excited and honored that I could hardly wait. But two things happened that made for a challenging night: We had to fish out of a pontoon, not my regular boat with all my electronics, and the depth finders on the pontoon did not work.
So, I left Grand View Resort at 12:01 a.m. with Dayton and two of his friends and no electronic equipment. We fished Gull Lake, in the dark, from midnight until 2 a.m. One of the governor's friends caught a 27-inch walleye, a fish that won the biggest fish award for the tournament. The governor got skunked, but we had a wonderful time telling jokes and trying to figure out where we were on the lake!
Co-founder of the custom Rod & Tackle and The Fly Angler stores
Sometimes it's hard to single out the most memorable fishing opener. Maybe that's because I think of each as unique and special. For me, fishing openers have always been the measuring stick of my physical age. It's the beginning of a brand-new season. Good weather or bad, I'm just happy to be back in the boat again.
The fishing openers that have been the most memorable are the ones where I learned something new. Three years ago, I fished with my brother on a northern Minnesota lake. I decided to forgo using the standard jig and shiner. It was a tough decision based on the many years of success. Instead, I went with a jig and some of the new BFishN plastics. It was one of those gray days with a slight wind. Not exactly warm but comfortable enough. The walleyes were shallow and receptive to the jig and plastic combination. It outfished the jig and shiner 4 to 1. Since then, jig and plastics have become my go to choice for early season walleyes.
This fishing opener will be special. Our adult son came home during the COVID restrictions for an extended visit. We will spend this fishing opener together. It doesn't get more memorable than that.
Author, publisher and pioneering angler
My most memorable opener was my first Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener in 1983 in Ely.
That morning, we were greeted with a very cold and windy day, plus an inch of snow covered the boat seats. Our guide was an old-timer who knew the lake well, but the fish weren't active in the cold temps. As the afternoon sun warmed, the lake and fishing conditions improved. I caught a 5-pound-plus walleye — just in time.
We raced back to the weigh-in station to register the fish in the event's media walleye contest. A small crowd had gathered to watch. When we retrieved our winning fish from the back of the boat, all we found was a skeleton. The guide had hung it too close to the motor and it was stripped of all meat and skin.
The crowd laughed and named the remains "Ain't Quite There" and "Missing Something?" We laughed, too. I have been to every governor's fishing opener since that Ely trip until COVID, and we are still laughing.
READERS SHARE OPENER MEMORIES
Oh, heavenly day
Though I recall at least two snowy Leech Lake openers, my favorite memory is from 1970 when the walleye gods took a break from rugged weather and gave us the opener of our dreams.
Saturday was sunny and warm. There was little wind. As we putted out from the Sugar Point harbor, the motor died. While my friend tried to restart, I dropped a jig and minnow in 5 feet of water. A walleye picked it up immediately. Such was the heavenly fishing three of us experienced for the next several hours along the shore between Sugar and Five Mile points.
I've often wondered what it looked like above that rocky Leech Lake bottom and the thousands of our state fish that had gathered there. Now in my late 60s, I still try to imagine what it's like down there. But more often now I reflect on how much I love and have loved this incredible place.
Bill James, Woodbury
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Defend the spot
It was the opening day in or around 1968. I was about 14. I was guiding Vernie and Marie Schwantes of New Ulm out of Early Bird Resort, our family owned resort. We were in a 16-foot cedar strip rowboat with a 5.5-horsepower motor — my first boat.
As snow made the shoreline disappear from only 300 yards away, we bundled up to a point of being, evidently, unrecognizable. In those days, on-the-water ethics meant one NEVER fished near or moved in on another fishing boat. And with that mind-set, I was taught to defend my spot, in no uncertain terms, with an aggressive no-nonsense attitude.
As the snow flew by sideways, we caught fish after fish while no one else had a landing net in sight. It didn't take too long for the boats to take notice. Three burly young guys were soon only about 20 feet from us, barely allowing me to control the boat on "my" spot.
Of course, as a 14-year-old veteran guide, I did not like that unethical scenario and asked the three guys if one of them would like to fish in my boat. "We have a spare seat, ya know!" As usual, instead of the parasites apologizing for their crowding me, they snapped back at us. "You guys want to go to shore and fight about it?"
As the two 70-plus-year-old clients and I, the punk guide, took off our hoods and face coverings, Marie screamed at them. "Just how tough are you guys ... picking a fight with an old lady, old man, and a 14-year-old kid?"
To say the least, those three big burly young guys quickly left the area with tails tucked and disappeared into the big wet snowflakes. We went back to our net flying in the faces of most of the other boats on my spot.
In hindsight, now 50-plus years later, the kid maybe should have kept his mouth shut but, then again, in those days it was my spot. Dem were da days.
Steve Fellegy, Wealthwood Township, Minn.
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In a good seat
I remember my first ever Minnesota fishing day opener. I was invited by a co-worker to fish Mille Lacs in 1982.
We launched his boat at 11:30 p.m. the evening before. He and his brother-in-law took the "good" seats up front and I was in the back corner by the motor. We set up slip bobbers on the rods to about 8½ in 9 feet at his favorite spot. They were using minnows. I put on a nice leech and was ready to go. At exactly midnight we dropped our lines. However my bobber didn't stop and kept sinking. My thought was "what the .." before setting the hook and bringing up a 2-pound walleye. It surprised all of us. Resetting the bait I dropped the line again. Same exact thing, the bobber never stopped, and I had another 2-pound walleye on. The third and fourth walleyes took) about 15 minutes more. The brother-in-law insisted we change seats. End of story.
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May 10, 2008. We were on Big Swan Lake in Pengilly, Minn., and started in the morning looking for panfish. When that proved fruitless, we started a trolling pattern. I was the inside man, pulling a shad rap behind a planer board. The captain of the boat was fishing out the back, and the third guy was fishing deep looking for large fish.
It just so happened the country artist Eddy Arnold had passed away on the 8th, which lead to us listening to the Eddy Arnold tribute on XM Radio. Halfway through that, it started to snow, and we started to catch fish. The finally tally for the day was 25 walleye (nine kept) and 14 pike (seven kept), with one of the pike measuring 42 inches. A memorable day to say the least.
Andy Mitchell, Winsted, Minn.
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I was fortunate to be invited to the 2016 Governor's Fishing Opener on Big Sandy Lake in McGregor with five other guests. We were greeted by cold and blustery 33-degree weather on Saturday morning as we prepared to launch the pontoon from our local guide's dock. We pitched in to sweep off three inches of snow that fell on the boat overnight. The guide's elderly father offered us extra clothing and a heavy blanket before we pushed off at 8:30 a.m. This was especially appreciated by our friend from the West Coast who brought only shorts and T-shirts for the event. We fished in earnest for the next four hours with nary a bite. With the walleye chop, make that major whitecaps, we six burly men huddled together under the blanket as we traversed the lake and tried several fishing holes. Suffice to say, the photo of our collective teeth chattering under the blanket was not shared on social media. Despite the weather, we enjoyed Fireball shots, hearing the local gossip from our guide, and a delicious walleye community luncheon at noon under a warm tent. No fish tales but plenty of "yuks" and memories to tell future generations.
Doug Killian, Lake Elmo
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Our group has been opening the walleye season for 50 years on Lake Kabetogama. We started as college students in the early 1970s at Minnesota-Duluth and continue to this day. Same guys, just a little better off than back in those days where when we went north on a wing and a prayer.
The winter of 2014 had been brutally cold and we were worried that April that ice would not be out in northern Minnesota, particularly on Lake Kabetogama. We called the resort the week of the opener and were told that the ice would for sure be gone by Saturday, so, as usual, we packed up, hooked up our boat, and headed north on Friday. The entire five-hour ride was full of stories and adventures from college to our retirements.
Off our Hwy. 53 route, we crested a familiar hill where could view a big portion of the lake. There was no open water, not even dark ice. We saw nothing but white from one end to the other. Getting to our resort in the Arrowhead bay area, the ice was confirmed, but we decided to make the most of it. The next day we dragged the boat down to the Ash River and put in to fish the mouth of Lake Namakan and Ash River. We put the boat in at the public river landing but, low and behold, the battery was dead. Even after extras hours spent finding a new battery, we found ourselves engulfed in a cloud of smelly white smoke. The boat would not move.
We decided to make the best of it at the resort, sitting on the dock under blue skies and sun. As we set up lounge chairs, we noticed that large floes of ice would rotate in the bay, with openings in between. We decided to throw our lines and a bobber in-between the floes and fish, and reeled in before the gaps closed. Our bobbers continued to go down, and we did well. Boat unnecessary. We took photos of our catch on my cellphone to chronicle a very interesting and unexpected opener.
Tom Larson, Oak Grove, Minn.
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Two weekend affair
The fishing opener — my two favorite weekends.
The first weekend, several of us head up to our friend Eric ("Miracle On Ice") Strobel's cabin in Cross Lake to get all the vehicles running, get the boats in the water and up on the lifts, and do whatever else Eric has on the jobs list. It's a long list. He's the foreman or supervisor. Whichever of those titles implies not doing any actual work. He watches with an eagle eye and is free with "suggestions." I usually fire up the smoker first thing Saturday and throw on some ribs and a brisket. The other guys fire up a Bloody Mary.
In many ways, this is my favorite weekend because I love to cook on the patio high on a bluff overlooking Whitefish Lake, and there isn't time for relaxed cooking when we are fishing all day on weekend two.
After dinner, we retire to the family room for a fire in the fieldstone fireplace and I fall asleep on the couch, which has been renamed "Stan's bed."
For the actual opener, five of us head up Thursday so that we are there Friday morning for the annual fishing opener golf tournament at the Golden Eagle course in Fifty Lakes. As the 40 players finish, they ring the 18th green to hurl abuse or the (very) occasional encouragement at the other groups as they come down the fairway. It's a great way to reconnect with old friends after a long winter. Then it's off to buy minnows.
Saturday (the opener) comes early, but getting five guys down 52 steps to the dock and into two boats is like herding cats. We never get out as early as planned. But, no matter, because it really isn't about catching fish (we are mostly catch-and-release anyway), it's about spending a day in a boat with good friends. We head first to the honey hole, which ran out of honey years ago. Then off to other secret spots to strike out.
Stan Hill, Minneapolis