I like this one because she matches my hat. We made one more bluegill-crappie run last night and now we’re gearing up for the Minnesota walleye opener.
What a year. Bass are already spawning in smaller lakes up here, in central Minnesota, even though night-time temperatures dropped into the 40°F range every night over the past week.
We kept four crappies last night. Nobody else was at the ramp. We have a fire burning out back, and I’m whipping up some curry. We marinate the crappies for an hour or two, then wrap them in tinfoil and toss them in the fire. Hobo crappies. Awesome stuff.
Just beyond the flames and down the bluff is the Mississppi. While poking the fire I watch a heron, an eagle, and a great-horned owl go gliding by to the calls of geese, under the tree tops, and under the radar of people sitting inside, watching TV in the homes nearby.
The walleyes down at the bottom of the bluff will be fair game tomorrow. But I’ll go elsewhere. Some people from this neck of the woods go up to Bemidji, Leech, Cass, or Red. The people south of here come up to Mille Lacs, Whitefish, and Gull. I slip off down the back roads to little lakes time forgot. Not far away, because the traffic is murder around here on opening day. It’s almost a religious thing for some—being on a classic walleye lake on opening day. Ugh. We have family members that set up folding chairs near a local ramp. They pull out a thermos of coffee, pour a steaming cup in the predawn gloom, sit, and watch the circus unfold. Brakes fail, trucks slide into the water, tempers flare, fisticuffs ensue, wreckers come. The Ringling Brothers could throw a tent over it and sell tickets.
One colleague told me today he goes trout fishing on the walleye opener. Good call. Give me a quiet little backwater with a handful of hefty walleyes left in it from stocking efforts that ended a decade ago. And a couple pike protected by the new regulations around here. And a few largemouths with a genetic propensity for obesity.
They say we can’t fish for largemouths yet, in Minnesota. Not for a couple weeks. But we can fish for the sacred walleye and the mighty northern and pretend we had no idea these crazy largemouths would hit the same suspending baits, presented the same way, in the same places at the same time.
This is my back yard. It’s like the wardrobe in that story about kids, lions, and kingdoms on the other side of the clothing racks. Out the front door I have sidewalks that lead, within a few blocks, to traffic lights, a grocery store, and a pizza joint. Out the back door, the lawn ends along a precipitous bluff leading to the haunts of deer, coyotes, racoons, and grouse. Once upon a time, it was a smallmouth paradise during early summer back there. A quick rappel down the bluff and I was wading through pigs anytime after opening day.
I haven’t eaten a smallmouth in 35 years. When I did it back then it was out of desperation. I was camping, fishing for trout, young, and arrogant. I packed a fry pan, some grease, and not so much as a can of beans. I went hungry the first night, gave up on trout the second day about noon, and drove down lumber trails to an Upper Peninsula stream full of smallmouths. Which are not bad at all. When you’re starving.
A lot of people around here and from surrounding states ate smallmouths, though, until the population in Brainerd all but collapsed. Or I wouldn’t be writing about the fishing beyond the campfire in my back yard. What a waste. Trapped between dams, the genetics no longer able to flow, smallmouths were like sitting ducks when they gathered to winter. People filled their livewells and hauled them away.
Hopefully, most of them will be sitting in line at a boat ramp tomorrow morning while some completely oblivious sort is taking the rods out of his truck. And putting them slowly, carefully—one at a time—into his boat. Which is still on the trailer. On the ramp. While 300 guys in 150 trucks watch. And wait. And steam. And my relatives laugh.
I typically caught-and-released about 80 smallmouths, on the average, for every 5 hours fished down the bluff. Fifteen years ago. Now I generally get skunked.
Minnesota protects smallmouths with catch-and-release regulations from early September on through winter now. A spectacular idea. One I wholeheartedly endorse. It just came along a little late for the fish in the wardrobe.
Every silver lining has a dark side. So I put that bluegill back and forgot where I caught her.