Saturday was Opening Day in Minnesota.
No more need be said. Nobody mistakenly thought it was the Twins opener. We all knew. Opening Day is about fishing for walleyes. The opener begins another chapter in a long-running love story: Minnesotans and walleyes.
Opening day means busy bait shops, resort reunions, heavy traffic northbound, crowded boat ramps and so forth. When an estimated 500,000 Minnesotans go fishing at once, the scenarios can be endless. Minnesota might be behind in a lot of things, but we’re No. 1 in fishing license sales per capita.
Yet, for many Minnesotans Opening Day is not just about fishing; it’s more important than that. Someone once wrote (me, I think) there are three major holidays in Minnesota: Christmas, New Year’s and Opening Day. Indeed, few states celebrate a fishing date on the calendar, let alone turn it into a statewide party from the governor on down. Wisconsin has a walleye opener, but who knew? Motels aren’t full; resorts aren’t packed. During the Badger State opener on May 2, I was amazed to find a bar/restaurant that was almost empty at 9 o’clock on a Saturday night on northern Wisconsin’s Red Cedar Lake. In northern Minnesota on opening weekend, you’d better have reservations. However, both states seem to share one common trait on Opening Day: Our governors get skunked.
The most significant downside to Opening Day is that it often falls on Mother’s Day weekend. This was nobody’s idea. Blame the calendar, tradition and walleye spawning cycles. This clash of special occasions never would have bothered my mother, however. She always went fishing on Mother’s Day.
Is this grandiose view of Opening Day some romanticized fish tale, the dreams of a night crawler hunter? I have no proof, but I think not. Rather, I’d like to believe the opener is a bonding moment in Minnesota, an event that keeps us connected. Rarely, for the rest of the year, are so many of us wondering the same thing: Where are the walleyes? On opening weekend, we find ourselves all in the same boat, floating together in an eternal quest to fool the pea-sized brain of a fish. Neither wind nor waves nor snow showers discourage us, although veterans of Opening Day have learned to pack snowmobile suits, just in case.
The fishing rules of the game also are relaxed on the opener. If the walleyes bite, successful anglers are allowed and expected to gloat or brag or both. To catch nothing is not fun but to get skunked on Opening Day is worse. Godawful. Depressing. We’ve all been there.
Oh, the memories. Hey, maybe that’s it? Opening Day is a maker of memories, memories to be told and retold as the fishing seasons go by.
I’ll never forget that fisherman on Lake Mary who caught a dandy 8-pound walleye on the morning of Opening Day and held up the fish on a stringer again and again for all to see. Then, as he again lifted the lunker to show it off, the big fish flopped and the stringer slipped out of the angler’s hand. In the next instant, the trophy walleye slowly began swimming toward the depths, stringer and all. The panicked angler quickly slipped off his coat, followed by his shirt and his shoes, followed by his pants and dove in. As I watched, I told my dad and brother that we’d better head over to the boat because we might be witnessing a drowning in the ice-cold water. Quickly the chilled fisherman returned to the surface with nothing but goose bumps. “Just as I reached for the stringer, the fish flicked its tail and was gone,” he cried.
Another memory. As it is for hundreds of Minnesotans, my own Opening Day festivities are wrapped around family. I’m blessed with a bunch of relatives who all love fishing. A few are good at it; most not so much. Doesn’t matter.
A few weeks before the 1981 Opening Day, my father, Harlan, called from his home in Iowa and said he felt too sick to come to the opener. He was battling pancreatic cancer. I pleaded with him to try and make it. I told my father a doctor friend I knew had recommended something to help ease my dad’s pain on opening weekend. On Friday morning Dad showed up at the house, gray and frail but smiling. He made it for the opener.
On the way north, Dad asked what the doctor had recommended. I handed him the doctor’s recommendation, a strange-looking cigarette. Some people call it a joint. Dad smoked it. He also caught a few fish and, I think, enjoyed Opening Day. We both knew it would be his last opener, his last fishing trip. And it was.
Memories of the 2014 opener also will not fade. I can still see my younger brother, Robert, on the end of the dock waiting for a bite. He was wrapped in a blanket and was sitting in a wheelchair. My, my, isn’t it remarkable how fishing openers and lives change from one season to the next? A year earlier Bro’ Robert was running his own boat and declaring himself to be the “Walleye Whisperer.” This was before his brain cancer took over. Robert died on July 2, 2014. He is missed, of course. But most of all, he’s missed on Opening Day.
My 11-year-old grandson, Jake, also was absent Saturday from our Opening Day festivities. He had to play baseball. Some adult scheduled a baseball game. On Opening Day, no less. Good grief, what were they thinking? Clearly, we need a new law: Opening weekend is only for mothers and fishing.
Now that the 2015 opener is winding down, I catch myself wondering more about something I’ve seldom wondered about before. How many openers do I have left? I don’t know, of course, and that’s probably just as well. However, I’m certain the many openers I’ve enjoyed so far in my life likely now outnumber the openers I have left.
Oh well. So be it. That’s life. Anglers must always be optimistic. Pass the minnows. I’m expecting a bite.
Ron Schara, host of “Minnesota Bound,” is a former Star Tribune columnist.