It was about 10 years ago when I put my last dog down. It was painful. It was heartbreaking. I never wanted to experience that sort of loss again.
As I left the vet’s office I just needed to be alone. I cried. I was filled with memories and emotion. I made a promise to myself that this was it. Never again am I getting a dog knowing full well the eventual outcome and heartache their loss will mean to one’s life.
I was at a transition in life when I got married just two years prior to the dog passing. My wife never connected with my Black Lab. My Stepson certainly didn’t feel anything towards the canine. Indeed, the dog getting sick and needing to be euthanized came at an opportune time…if ever there is such a time in a person’s life.
Afterwards I drove to the hardware store where I browsed the aisles for what seemed like hours. Why? I needed to find my happy place. Nobody else felt my grief. I didn’t want to go home. After all, there is nothing more lonely in life than to deal with the empty kennel syndrome all by yourself.
Nope, never again was I getting a hunting dog. These days I rarely go duck hunting. There is likely only a pheasant or two in my entire county. And frankly, if a person has to have a dog I could not see owning anything but a Labrador Retriever. Without a doubt when God made dogs he stopped with the Lab as he molded the perfect canine companion.
Within a year of losing my dog something else came along in my life–my first biological child. I quickly realized how raising a puppy was a lot less challenging and costly, but the task of becoming a father certainly occupied my time and energy. Indeed, I forgot all about being dog-less for one of the first times in my life.
That is, until my stepson turned 17 and decided he wanted a dog. He held this fantasy notion that if he took the puppy with him while driving to visit friends…well, he would garner more attention. Presumably attention from girls. I dunno. I never stooped to such tactics, although I’m aware when used properly it can work marvelously to a single guy’s advantage. In other words, the cuter the puppy, the stronger the magnetic attraction by the female human persuasion.
I worked to quickly squelch this harebrained scheme. Pulling some parental logic, I asked him what would happen to the dog for the 10+ years of its life AFTER he moved on to college. As suspected, the dog would then by default become my sole responsibility. I quickly nixed this idea.
Then a few more years passed when my daughter then became school-aged and started asking for a dog. I thought…NO…not this again. I’ve been down this track before. But this time things were different. She needed a summer companion. She would be around home for the next 10 years to presumably care for the critter. And moreover, she wants to grow up to be a veterinarian. How can you be a vet without animal experience? She played me perfectly.
We brought a new Yellow Lab puppy home on May 5th from a local breeder. We named her Mikka and boy what a ball of energy she has become. Yes, I lost the battle. I mean, when I’ve grown up with dogs for the first 45 years of my life…how could I deny my daughter the same youth canine experience?
Well, I was steadfast in my decision that if I am buying a dog it would be a Lab…and after two BLACK Labs this time it would be something different. I wanted to go with a YELLOW Lab.
Mikka has grown into quite the family pet. New this time is Mikka’s also an indoor dog. All of my previous dogs have been outdoor kenneled dogs, so that is also a completely new experience for me. Still getting used to having a dog in the house, but I must say they grow much closer to the family that way being with you almost 24/7.
But today the crate is empty again. We’ve been through the puppy obedience sessions and all that sort of thing…but now she is taking the first big step toward growing up. She’s in puppy kindergarten. Yup, for the next two weeks she is attending training at Tom Dokken’s Oak Ridge Kennels near Northfield, MN. They do an excellent job with the dogs and I can’t wait to see how much Mikka has learned.
So, for the next 10 days or so I need work through my loneliness once again knowing how this time it’s only temporary. Mikka is a great dog with the potential of being my best hunting dog ever. She’s smart…good looking…and I can already imagine her flushing those pheasants within gun range. My only concern now is…can I still hit those birds so as not to disappoint a new pup? We shall soon see.
The Minnesota fishing opener (more appropriately called the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener) used to be a big event for me. Heck, just check the history of this blog and you will see many posts dedicated to this annual spring fishing ritual during the sportsman’s year. In most cases, it was more social than piscatorial…meaning that the true reason for the gathering may have been focused on the fish, but for many anglers it was really just about socializing with the people involved.
I remember spending fishing openers in my youth on Roberd’s Lake near Faribault, MN where my uncle had a cabin. Oh, the lake was probably about 30 miles from my home…but distance really didn’t matter. What mattered was spending time with my Uncle, Art, whom I believed at the time knew everything there was about fishing. His boat didn’t have electronics, it didn’t have plush seating, come to think of it…fishing on the opener back in those days offered very few amenities. But oh, did it offer memories of a great time spent with my uncle.
Interestingly enough some of the most vivid memories fishing with Uncle Art didn’t even involve fish. Nope, to this day I can envision his beat up old gray lunch box he used for work each day that flipped open to reveal a coffee thermos at the top. When lunch time rolled around he would pop that box open, pour a cup of coffee and proceed to unwrap a sandwich on white bread usually containing summer sausage with a dash of mustard. You see, lunch was a time to sit in the boat, pause to do some reflecting on the day, if only to reevaluate the day’s fishing strategy that surely needed improvement.
As time moved on in my life the Minnesota fishing opener eventually meant traveling “up north.” For those of you who are from out-of-state it’s important to realize how Minnesota’s big population center is largely in the southern 1/3 of the state. So, when we say go “up north” that means to get away from life as we know it…at least for most of us.
Oh, and believe me there’s a certain mystique that tends to draw people “up north” here in Minnesota. Sky-blue waters, singing loons, tall pine trees, and did I mention hundreds, if not thousands, of lakes in most counties. Yeah, there’s a certain laid-back life style in northern Minnesota which beckons the true natural spirit of every sportsman.
Indeed, as I got older the fishing opener meant pointing the pickup north. It meant hooking up with friends who owned boats and had places to stay. It meant getting away to do some fishing, but mostly it just meant getting away for smart talk, fun times and a little fishing fun occasionally thrown in the mix.
Then after college things got more serious. I hooked up with Ron Schara, a noted outdoors writer here in Minnesota, and was fortunate to be included in his fish camp. Wow…what an eclectic bunch of guys that turned out to be. All personal friends of Ron’s, from his high school band teacher, brothers, cousins, uncles, business associates, fishing industry notables…heck, just about any interesting character he could find. Schara would often rent out an entire resort filled with a bunch of fishing hacks from all walks of life.
This is where I truly developed a deeper appreciation for what the Minnesota fishing opener is all about. Catching fish might be the prime motivation for why we gathered, but truly what was being celebrated was the people who where enjoying the outdoors together. Most needed a reason to be there. Some, truth be told, may have never even stepped foot into a boat…but they were still “up north” …fishing. Well, as far as the rest of the world knew.
Ask most die-hard local fishermen from northern Minnesota and they will quickly tell you how the real fishing season doesn’t begin until the week after the traditional opener. Yep, that is when all the hoopla has died down, most of the “tourists” have gone home, and these locals can get serious about fishing on lakes that won’t be crowded until Memorial Day weekend once again.
But, of course, these folks missed out on all the lies that are told in fishing camp. They never got to partake in the fabulous food and spirits shared by the gathering. They never got teased for some of the stupid things they may have said or done. Nor, for that matter, did they get an opportunity to brag when the top fish of the day happened to reside in your boat’s livewell. Oh, so much can be said about fish camp when a bunch of guys (and a few gals) descend on a Minnesota lake to celebrate fishing.
Yes, I did this large group communal fishing opener experience for over 20 years and rank some of the memories that were made among the very best ones I cherish in my life. For Minnesota’s fishing opener is a big reason to celebrate the end on another winter season and to kick off a great new season of open water angling to come.
In recent years, however, I have chosen not to participate in the fishing opener for a variety of personal reasons. A few years the lake we had reservations on still had ice, so it was a no go. Then there was the year my mother was on her death bed and going fishing didn’t seem like the place to be. Then there was the year where my stepson’s graduation was two weeks away and I would have gotten divorced had I gone fishing and not stayed home working to prepare for that event.
Life happens. As with most traditions to keep them alive they need to become a habit in your schedule. There needs to be that desire to make more NEW memories and not just be accepting to live off memories from days gone by.
This year, more than ever, that itch to be an active participant of the Minnesota Fishing Opener again is stirring inside me. Next year I am vowing to quit making excuses and to start making things happen again on the second Saturday of May. Time to call up friends and start making plans. A person is only given so many opportunities in life to attend a fishing opener…best not to squander it and later have regrets.
For those who will be hitting the water in just a few hours here in Minnesota I say “good luck fishing.” Enjoy the catching, but be sure to enjoy the people you share the experience with even more.