Northern Wilds Magazine
Having forgot a paddle, author Joe Shead used a chunk of fiberglass off a dilapidated old boat to paddle his canoe. | JOE SHEAD

When Fishing Openers Go Bad

There are three certainties in this world: death, taxes and disastrous fishing openers. Guys have the odds stacked against us right from the start because the Minnesota fishing opener always falls on Mother’s Day weekend. I’m not sure how men finagle their way into drinking beer, playing poker and attempting to catch fish with a bunch of greasy guys that weekend instead of taking Mom out for Sunday brunch, but they do. No doubt there is a lot of resentment among fishing widows/neglected mothers for this behavior. Don’t expect anything nice for Father’s Day, guys.

The other problem with fishing opener is the weather. Oh, I get it. Spring is in the air. Lilacs are blooming. Things are warming up. But although it may be 70 degrees the day before opener, when you actually launch your boat opening morning, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be freezing. You’re lucky if the landing hasn’t refrozen. Actually, you’re unlucky, because if you actually are able to launch, then you have to go sit in the middle of a barely ice-free lake and freeze. Trust me, I’ve been there.

I experienced one of those unseasonably cool openers several years back. I had those opening day blinders on; you know, the ones where you expect the weather to be great, the fish to be biting and nothing to go wrong.

Everything was going great. I made the mile-long portage into my secret little walleye lake, only to realize I’d forgotten to bring a paddle. And it wasn’t the kind of thing where I had just left it in the truck. No. Despite having an equipment checklist, I’d completely omitted it. There wasn’t a paddle to be had for miles.

Author Joe Shead with some walleyes on a fishing opener that actually went well. | JOE SHEAD

I’ve always said I wasn’t blessed with intelligence, but I get by with resourcefulness. I managed to break a chunk of fiberglass off a dilapidated old boat. I won’t say it was a great paddle. Heck, I won’t even say it was a good paddle. But it did work. Sort of.

The weather that day was nasty. Clouds spat snow flurries and the north wind was stiff and frosty. I forgot to mention a fourth certainty of life: the fish are always on the opposite end of the lake. True enough, I had to paddle a canoe with a piece of fiberglass almost the entire way across the lake to reach my favorite walleye hole. Sometimes, as the wind kicked up, I was able to hold my ground. At other times my progress was measured in negative yardage. Halfway across the lake, I gave up. I didn’t want a walleye that bad.

Just a couple years after that, I actually had a very good fishing opener. It had been an early spring, and I’d made frequent trips out on Lake Superior from where I was living in Superior, Wis., at the time. I was coming home with kings, cohos or lake trout every trip out, which pretty much never happens. I had been using this ancient blue-and-orange Lazy Ike I’d gotten out of an old tackle box and it was sheer murder on those salmon. The fishing was so good, in fact, that instead of making my traditional trek north to go walleye fishing, I decided to spend opening day on Lake Superior, which felt kind of moot since the salmon season there never closes. Nonetheless, you’ve gotta play the hot hand, and the fishing was too good to leave.

My friend, Chuck, and I headed out on Gitche Gumee the morning of fishing opener, and it wasn’t long before disaster struck: we actually hooked a fish. Once again, the fish hit that old reliable Lazy Ike. For some reason, I committed the cardinal sin of Lake Superior trolling while we were reeling in the salmon: I put the boat in neutral. We landed the fish, put it in the livewell and prepared to resume trolling. As I put the boat into gear, something in my gut told me to make sure the lines were clear of the prop, but I shrugged off the notion. I was sure it was fine. I’d motored about 15 feet when I saw a line tightening; it was in the prop. I cut the engine, but it was too late. The Lazy Ike—my Vorpal Salmon Sword—was gone.

We caught six salmon and a lake trout that morning, but it didn’t take the sting out of my loss. I considered walking the beach after a windy day in an attempt to recover that old warrior, but I never saw the lure again.

The following day, I convinced my friend Jon to go fishing. He had to be back for Mother’s Day brunch at 11 a.m., but I told him the fishing would be worth it and that he needn’t worry because we’d be back in plenty of time.

Once again, there wouldn’t have been a problem if we hadn’t caught fish. We caught two nice king salmon and a coho, and that’s where the trouble started. We put them in the livewell and began filling it with water. An hour after catching the fish, Jon noticed that the carpet in the back of the boat was wet. We flipped open the livewell and discovered that the pump hadn’t kicked out when it was full, and unbeknownst to us, it had kept pumping water, essentially filling the boat with water. We quickly reeled in our lines and prepared to get out of there in a hurry. When I gunned the throttle, the boat went nearly vertical, as all the water rushed to the back of the boat. I couldn’t get it to plane and the boat was so heavy we only made about one-third of top speed. We trailered the boat, pulled the plug and I swear you could see the lake level rising as all the water re-entered the lake. After draining for a full five minutes, the boat was dry. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and headed back out. This time we decided to not fill the livewell. Jon even made it back in time for brunch.

The ultimate goal: adding a walleye to the livewell. | JOE SHEAD

There have been other fishing opener disappointments as well. In 2014, after an especially tough winter, I showed up at the lake toting both ice fishing and open-water gear, not knowing what to expect. The lake was entirely frozen that day, save for a three-foot ring along the shore. What’s more, the ice was too rotten to venture onto, rendering the fish completely safe from my assault.

Many years ago when I was just a young angler, my dad, my brother Jim and I were pike fishing on opening day. Dad and I were paddling against both the wind and the current on a small stream while Jim cast from the bow. At a certain bend in the river, Jim caught a pike. By the time we helped him land it, we had drifted quite a ways downstream, so Dad and I paddled us back up. Once again, Jim caught a pike on that bend, and once again we drifted downstream. The third time we reached that hot hole, Jim missed a fish. Instead of pausing to let him try again, Dad just kept paddling. Sounds like a pretty good opener, except for the fact that because I was the older brother, I not only got roped into paddling; I also didn’t get much of a chance to fish.

You might think that given all these disastrous fishing openers, I would simply skip opening day and all its pitfalls. However, as a person who paddles canoes on windy days, launches into icy waters and has eaten his fair share of humble pie, I am nothing if not a glutton for punishment. Rest assured that when fishing opener rolls around this spring, I’ll be battling the elements (and probably not battling any walleyes). Sorry, Mom. I’ll send you a card.

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