Fishing in my adopted home state is open all year long. I am thankful for this when the migratory saltwater fish pack their bags and head south; there are trout, bass, pickerel, and panfish to catch. I am also thankful for this when the mercury in the thermometer is consistently below freezing, and there is enough ice on the ponds and lakes we can dig some holes and add a few tip ups. If we’re lucky we’ll enjoy a delicious fish fry on both those evenings.
But some states have closed seasons, and around this time of year there are Opening Day celebrations galore. Pancake breakfasts at the local high school, Elks or Rotary Clubs, or fire departments. There are big kick-off events at tackle shops with guest speakers, raffles, and fishing contests. Sometimes crowds can be fierce, tensions occasionally rise, but they all work out. In an American fisherman’s life, Opening Day is as important a holiday as Memorial Day or the 4th of July.
When I hear about Opening Days in different parts of the country I think back to my very first Opening Day. I was a double-digit-year-old kid, with a hand-me down spinning rod and a Mitchell 300. I had caught a ton of small bass, bluegills, and perch. Because I had mastered the basics of being able to cast without creating a bird’s nest, and could tie my own knots and land my own fish, I was upgraded to accompany the men to catch trout. In anticipation, I read all the fishing magazines I could find, surveyed all experienced fishermen I knew, and rigged up a gold Kastmaster, a favorite among trout.
I could barely eat a bite at the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, and couldn’t wait for everyone to hurry up and finish. After what felt like an eternity we headed down to the stream just before 6:00 a.m. There I saw many people I knew from different areas of my life. I saw my neighbor who I didn’t know liked to fish. I saw my football and basketball coaches. I even saw one of my teachers. That day I saw them differently, and they weren’t neighbors or coaches or teachers. I saw them as fellow fishermen and we were the same.
I set my eyes on a trophy in the 10-12 year old division and went to work. For well over five hours I made countless casts. I missed several hits, and I watched as everyone more experienced than me hooked up. The weigh-in time was noon, and at 11:55 a.m. I was fishless with time for only one last cast. I slowed my retrieve, added a few twitches, and wham, I had a 13-inch brown. I fought the fish like he was a marlin, got him on the bank, and smiled. Everyone was yelling at me to run to the weigh-in station, and off I went with my rod and fish. I arrived at the table just as the horn blew the close of the contest. My fish landed me a trophy for the smallest fish in my division, but I didn’t care. Opening Day had arrived, and I had as well.