Remembering Past Minnesota Fishing Openers

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.

She Touched A Leech!

This past weekend was the Minnesota Fishing Opener so I did what any good dad should do…take their kid fishing.   Of course, the fishing opener is much more than just fishing.   It’s a time to gather in the entirety of the experience, passed on from one generation to the next.

Our fishing outing began by stopping at Cabela’s.   You see, accompanying me fishing was my soon-to-be 8y/o daughter who has been anticipating this experience for several weeks.   What’s a good dad to do…well, you build excitement over the event because as experience has taught me…sometimes early season fishing can be downright slow.   Especially for younger children.

While at Cabela’s we were in search of a “lucky fishing hat” suitable for a little red-haired girl.   Eventually we found one that looked capable of not only blocking the harsh sun rays, but also delivering on the piscatorial fortune we had attributed to the hat.   After all, if you believe something to be “lucky” isn’t that half the battle?

Next, we had this pink, plastic Plano tacklebox that needed more “stuff.”   You know, the kind of “stuff” fishermen cram into their boxes to help complete it for just about any fishing situation.   We purchased bobbers, hooks, sinkers, pliers, lures, bait…you know, all the good “stuff” that any self-respecting fisherman should carry.

By now, our cart was filling up with plenty of fun fishing items to help fuel the fishing fires burning inside both of us.   It was about that time Elsie asked, “Dad, can we go over to look at the bait?”   Sure, that is next on our list.

We approached an employee who seemed eager to help us with all of our live bait needs.   Elsie peered into the tanks to look at the fathead minnows, the shiner minnows, taking in the lovely sights and smells that only a dedicated fisherman could possibly enjoy.

It was about that time when the employee asked if Elsie would like to hold a leech.   He took his dip net into the big tank and flopped out a big black ribbon leech onto the counter.   Elsie stared at it for a moment watching it squirm and wiggle.   As it did its little dance trying to escape back into the water, Elsie reached down and picked it up.   She cupped her hands and watched it slither and wildly squirm for about 30 seconds.

I then told her to throw it back into the water tank and let’s get going.   As I proceeded to thank the employee for his time, he made a comment that could not have made me more proud.   You see, what I learned is this employee likes to scoop leeches up and encourage young kids to play with them.   Part of it is to encourage contact with a form of bait not always pleasant to touch.   Another aspect is to learn more about the kids.

As we were about to walk away he told me your daughter just did something that most boys her age will NOT do.   “Really,” I said, “boys won’t touch leeches…what is wrong with them?”   The employee went on to explain how most young kids her age will refuse to touch them.   He actually stated how it warms his heart to see a young child so eager to explore their natural world horizons.

At first I thought, WOW!   How could inquisitive kids who come into a Cabela’s store not want to touch a leech.   When I was that age I wouldn’t have given touching a leech a second thought.   But, things have changed.   Society has changed.   By nature, and I hate to say this, but many kids are not automatically drawn to engage in such experiences like kids once were.

I never for a minute considered that Elsie would have an aversion to touching a leech.   That’s not how she is being raised.   If you want to fish you touch crawlers, minnows, grubs, leeches and other such things that fish like to eat.   Indeed, not only do you bait your own hook when fishing with me…but when you can do it safely you also remove your own fish.   It’s all part of the experience of…well, fishing.

Now, certainly I’m not saying that touching a leech is some sort of magical litmus test for whether kids will grow up to be positively engaged in the outdoors.   Nevertheless, I’ve taken every opportunity possible for Elsie to be present when I clean game and fowl.   After all, she dreams of being a veterinarian someday so why would I want to delay her first-hand exposure to the innards of God’s creatures.

And all of this is such a good reason to take a kid fishing.   Not only does it help develop a lifetime enjoyment with one of the best outdoor recreations available, but it helps to push kids beyond their normal comfort levels.   Kids need to realize how death does not only occur on video games and in the outdoors, as in life, there are no reset buttons or “do-overs” if things don’t go well.

Never Lose Your Sense Of Humor Over A Bad Day Spent Outdoors

I’ll choose a fun bunch of hunters or fishermen any day over a group who takes their task outdoors far too seriously.   In fact, it’s the group of sportsmen who know how to laugh and tease one another before, during and after the outing whom I want to be around.   Those who are so focused and serious on achieving some lofty sporting goal…want little to do with them.

You can’t assemble a group of hunters like this in close proximity without the BS flying and the laughs flowing non-stop.

Perhaps that’s why I watch very little outdoors television.   It just doesn’t inspire me to watch edited video of hunters performing at the top of their game show after show as if they were some super hero with a bow.   I want to see sportsmen razzing each other for a missed shot or a fish that didn’t quite get landed in the boat.   The real outdoors contains more misfortunes than achievements and laughter is one of the best medicines to soothe the sometimes painful sting of that reality.

And that’s why I like deer camp.

It certainly doesn’t take meat hanging from the deer pole to generate a good story.   In fact, some of the best stories often end with an unfilled possession tag still in the hunter’s pocket.

This past weekend my buddy, Mitch, had taken several shots at deer with no luck.   Of course, the obvious banter revolved around the fact maybe at the age of 52 he finally needs glasses to see things better.   After some good-natured teasing Mitch’s son whispers a confession to me.   “Dad just got glasses but he doesn’t want you guys to know about it.   He was having trouble in the deer stand keeping them from fogging up.”

You know what that’s called?   That little tidbit of disclosed information in secrecy is called fodder.   Fodder for continued harassment and amped up commenting about needing glasses.   Oh, Mitch has shot and missed a deer since that information discovery…and you can believe now with renewed enthusiasm we commented about his eyes obviously going to hell quickly considering he’s reached middle age.

And that’s what the outdoors should be about.   Not bullying or relentless griping about how someone is a failure in life, but a friendly give and take that is interrupted occasionally by smiles and laughter.

These fishermen have a contest ongoing…and that is to see who can score the best insult on the others in fish camp.

Honestly, when you take the fun out of the outdoors for me it becomes a chore.   I don’t voluntarily get up early and go sit out in a boat during the rain just to catch fish.   I do it to both catch fish and to experience the process of catching those fish.   Often times its the happenings and down-right discomfort about the experience that gets long remembered afterwards.

Certainly, I’m not saying how a person shouldn’t go out on the lake or into the woods focused and serious about why they are out in the first place.   But, I do think that today more than ever there is a pressure on sportsmen to succeed.   That pressure comes from TV, it comes from industry experts giving seminars, it comes from an array of products promising the world if they get used in the field or on the lake.

Truth is, the savvy sportsman knows when to funnel the mental energy into concentrating and focusing on the techniques that put them in the best position to score.   And at the end of the day, rather than beat yourself up because expectations were not achieved…find a way to laugh at yourself and others.   For it is the mature hunter who best appreciates how laughter is the best way to decompress from a stressful day spent in the outdoors world.

©2013 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.