Better than Christmas

March and April seemed to last forever when I was a kid. Nothing to do but watch the snow melt and the mud dry. This was also the Lenten season, when I gave up cookies or chocolate for 40 days. Easter Sunday couldn’t come soon enough. My birthday during the first week of April was a bit of a reprieve, unless it fell during Lent, then no chocolate cake for me.

But the hardest part of waiting out March and April was anticipating the opening of fishing season the second Saturday in May. This was the most exciting day of the year for me, bigger than my birthday or Easter Sunday or maybe even Christmas. Fishing Opener meant spending the weekend with my grandparents at Island Lake.

Leading up to the big day, I would go through my tackle box, making sure I had enough hooks, sinkers, leaders and swivels. I carefully untangled the Daredevil spoons and sorted them by color and size. By late April, most of the snow had melted and formed small ponds in the fields surrounding our home. These made perfect locations for casting practice. Having had to slog through the muck a few times to retrieve a lure hung up on some stubble or a rock, I learned to take the treble hooks off and practice with a blank lure.

On the Friday before Opener, my grandparents would pick me up after school on their way to the lake. I don’t think I learned much in school on those Fridays; the anticipation was so hard to contain. Grandpa would have his 14′ Lund loaded in the back of the pickup, inverted with the bow above the cab, and the Hiawatha camper hitched up. I imagined how jealous my classmates were as they watched me climb in.

I always thought the drive to Island Lake, along Minnesota 34, was beautiful, no matter the weather. The scenery heading east from Detroit Lakes transitions from scattered oak stands in fields to dense hardwoods and then to a mix of hardwoods and pine in the hills further east. Having grown up surrounded by farmland, I’ve always been attracted to the beauty and mystery of the Minnesota northwoods. Spotting the first majestic white pine along the highway, somewhere around Toad Lake, was always a highlight for me.

The only part of the drive I didn’t like was the annual stop at Hanson’s Flyway on Height-of-Land Lake. Lawrence Hanson ran a small bar and gas station along the highway, and loved to tell stories to anyone who would listen. As I learned growing up, Grandpa loved to stop at small roadside joints for a beer or two and a story or three. So I would get a candy bar and bottle of pop and sit and wait, spinning on a bar stool until it was finally time to go.

Island Lake lies northeast of Height-of-Land in eastern Becker County. In addition to several islands, the lake features an assortment of points, bars and other structures, which make for excellent walleye habitat. The fishing was great, as well as I can remember, in my early years. Like with most lakes that receive a lot of fishing pressure, fishing at Island seemed to decline over time. But that didn’t discourage us from coming back every year.

After setting up the camper and unloading the boat, Grandpa and I would sit down and go through our tackle to plot our strategy. We’d check the rods and reels, changing line if necessary. Grandpa taught me how to tie knots, pick sinker weights and put together the best presentation to fool the wily walleye. For me, the anticipation continued to build. I couldn’t wait for Opening morning.

We usually headed out just after daybreak, with Grandpa at the helm, Grandma on the middle bench and me at the bow. We had our favorite spots: the Moosehead, the Sunken Island, Barrel Bay (“like catching fish in a barrel”), and others. Grandma would hand out the minnows, but she would not touch the leeches. We would fish until mid-morning, come in for lunch, and then head out again in the late afternoon and fish until dark.

I always liked fishing in the evening the best, enjoying the colors of sunset, the silhouettes of the pine trees along the shore and the calls of the loons. According one of Grandpa’s favorite stories, I didn’t always like the loons. One evening when I was probably 7 or 8, I said “I wish those loons would quit making all that noise.” Apparently, it was affecting my concentration!

Most years we were joined at Island Lake by Uncle Dewey and Aunt Elsie from Brooklyn Center. Uncle Dewey was Grandma’s only brother and a World War II vet who fought all the way across Europe. Being really into all things WWII, I was fascinated by him. Dewey wasn’t one to tell a lot of stories, but once in a while he would talk about his experiences and answer my questions. Aunt Elsie always brought really decadent treats to share and had an infectious laugh.

Uncle Dewey drove a fancy Buick Electra, the first car I ever saw with electric windows and air conditioning. He had a contraption mounted on top that would allow him to load and unload the boat by himself. Grandpa gave him a hard time about living in the lap of luxury. Grandpa would also grumble about Mitzi, the little poodle that went everywhere with Elsie.

When I was little, I thought I would always want to be with Granydpa and Grandma at Island Lake. But that changed when I got to high school. It so happened that the high school prom fell on the same weekend as the Opener. Although I didn’t have a girlfriend, I still asked a girl to prom, because that’s what everybody did. Grandpa and Grandma seemed to understand. Looking back now, I would rather have gone fishing.

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