LAKE OF THE WOODS, Minn. – I’ve had better fishing on some openers, but I don’t think I’ve ever had an opener that was more meaningful, or more enjoyable, than last weekend’s Minnesota Fishing Opener.

There’s more to this North Country tradition than fishing, after all; or at least the catching part of fishing.

A lot more.

Last weekend was all about the company of friends, about getting together again and finally being able to look ahead with optimism instead of uncertainty.

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Like hundreds of others – maybe thousands, judging by the fleet of boats – three friends and I converged on Lake of the Woods last weekend to resume a tradition that was harshly interrupted last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meeting up last year didn’t feel like the smart thing to do, and so, as with so many other things in 2020, we canceled our Minnesota Fishing Opener plans.

Last weekend marked the long-awaited return to something more closely resembling normal. It also was an opportunity to christen a friend’s sparkly new boat, a 20½-foot Yar-Craft with a 250-horse Suzuki on the back.

We hit the water in style. And since all of us were fully vaccinated, we felt completely comfortable about getting together again.

It was grand.

Based on info from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources going into the opener, numbers of 15- to 17-inch walleyes on Lake of Woods – the ideal “keepers” – are down, the result of a couple of weaker hatches in 2016 and 2017. Smaller walleyes, by comparison, are thriving, and larger fish in the 19½- to 28-inch protected size range also are doing well. Ditto for 12- to 14-inch saugers.

That pretty much mirrors what we saw last weekend, although big walleyes eluded our crew.

We caught our fish, but we had to sort through a pile of small ones to find keepers. We had a fish fry Sunday night back at camp, and everyone who wanted to take home fish was able to do so.

Pretty hard to complain about that.

The weather gods also smiled down last weekend, and conditions were about as close to perfect as you can get for a Minnesota Fishing Opener. This spring has delivered a relentless barrage of wind, but the breeze last weekend was comfortable, and the waves ranged from “perfect walleye chop” to flat calm.

Minnesota statute sets the fishing opener as the Saturday two weeks before the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Because of that, this year’s May 15 opener was the latest it can be.

Most years, especially during late springs and years when the opener is earlier, we spend much of our time fishing the Rainy River, anchored and jigging with frozen shiners in a favorite spot. It’s usually less crowded than the lake, and the fishing often is just as good.

This year, the combination of an early ice-out and a late opener meant most of the walleyes that spawn in the river had filtered back to the lake. We started in the river out of tradition, but it didn’t take long to figure out that we’d have to head for the lake if we wanted to put fish in the livewell.

We caught our fish jigging with frozen shiners in 20 to 24 feet of water.

Every Minnesota Fishing Opener has its own flavor, and this year’s version of the great outdoor get-together was no different.

Years from now, when I think back on the 2021 Minnesota Fishing Opener, I’ll remember being serenaded at night back in camp by the spring peepers, tiny frogs with big voices that sang joyously from the cattails on the far side of the Rainy River. I’ll remember the elk and moose tenderloin served with Port and Morel Mushroom Sauce we had for dinner Saturday night on the picnic table outside the cabin, thanks to the gourmet chef and grill master we have in our crew.

I’ll remember the laughs and the fishing and the camaraderie we enjoyed from a luxurious new boat that I’m sure will be the vessel of many good times to come.

But more than anything else, I’ll remember the 2021 Fishing Opener as a return to something that more closely resembles normal and getting together with friends to celebrate that reality.

That’s a good memory indeed.

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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken