Opening Weekend

the first morning of fishing season is usually cold, but the memories formed couldn’t be warmer

Justin Patchin, photos by Justin Patchin

The opening weekend of walleye fishing season is practically a state holiday where I grew up in northern Minnesota. And I suspect the same is true for many folks here in western Wisconsin. I rarely miss an opportunity to get together with my dad to fish “the opener.”

You plan this first trip of the year weeks – if not months – in advance. You prepare gear, purchase provisions, and pack lots of warm clothes. Because if there is one certainty about the opener, it’s that it will be cold. 

Each year, about the time lake ice begins to release its grip, I hearken back to the openers of my youth. In February or March, the Cabela’s catalog would arrive in the mail. In my childhood, I would scrutinize the glossy pages even more painstakingly than I did the Sears Christmas catalog a few months earlier. Dad would put in an annual order for various supplies for the upcoming season, and allowed me to pick out any one lure that I wanted. I’d carefully examine every last bait but would invariably choose the bright silver half-ounce Epplinger Red Eye Spoon. For years it was my favorite, and responsible for many fish finding their way into my creel. Often, though, it wouldn’t make it past that first weekend of the season. I would snag it on a stump on the bottom of the lake and lose it. At least Dad would let me order another one next year, I’d think. 

“I spent hundreds of hours in that old boat with Dad. Sometimes we caught fish, sometimes we didn’t. But the quantity of fish caught didn’t seem to determine the quality of the experience.”

Back then I would help Dad make custom spinners which consisted of about 18 inches of eight-pound-test fishing line with a swivel tied to one end and a size 6 needle-sharp J-hook attached to the other. In between were several variously-colored beads and a spinner blade. Chartreuse and gold were killer colors back in the day (for fishing lures and clothing). We’d troll the spinners at slow speeds, hoping to entice a hungry walleye to strike. I was always amazed that Dad could identify the species of fish just by the way it bit the bait. “There’s a perch bite,” he would confidently say. And, sure enough, moments later he would be proven right.  

Last year for the Minnesota opener I met up with Dad at Lake Winnibigoshish in the north central part of that state. He had recently purchased a brand new boat and the goal was to break it in. Little did we know that objective would be taken a bit too literally. 

For my entire fishing life, dad has owned the same 1970s-era 15-foot aluminum fishing boat. I remember the day in the mid-1980s when he customized it with a three-foot length of 2-inch diameter steel pipe, fastened to the driver’s console in the vertical. Its purpose was to hold the landing net. I also remember sometime not much later when he re-painted the exterior of the vessel a bright red. He even affixed factory-ordered “Lund” stickers to the newly-painted hull. 

I spent hundreds of hours in that old boat with Dad. Sometimes we caught fish, sometimes we didn’t. But the quantity of fish caught didn’t seem to determine the quality of the experience.

About 10 years ago a friend and I completely remodeled the boat. We replaced the rotted-out wooden floor and mildew-ridden carpet, and we rewired the whole thing from bow to stern. Despite our best efforts, the boat had developed a slow but consistent leak sometime in the 1990s that we never were able to find, let alone fix. 

On this particular day last May, Dad and I were looking forward to fishing in a first-rate boat. It wasn’t super-fancy, just a simple 16-foot aluminum fishing boat. But it was new, and therefore didn’t leak. 

As Dad made a last-second trip to the porta-potty at the boat launch, I readied the craft for its maiden voyage. I removed straps and disconnected the rope at the front that connected the boat to the trailer. When Dad returned, I gave him the thumbs up and he hopped into his truck and began to back the trailer toward the water’s edge. But the trailer wheel hit a bump on the ramp and the boat slid off the trailer, short of the water, and hit the concrete landing with a crash. Before we had even wet a line, the boat was busted. 

It could have been much worse. There was some damage, but at least the boat did not leak. So we went fishing. I don’t remember how many fish we caught that day– or if we caught any – but as I said earlier, that really doesn’t matter. 

Editor’s note: This year’s fishing opener in Wisconsin is Saturday, May 6.