In the dusty A-frame attic guest room at the family cabin is where I spent many a night as a kid, tossing and turning, waking up and squinting through the blue-black darkness at the glowing orange digits on the old flip number clock radio hoping for something later than five or six a.m when the tinny buzz of the unit would get us out of bed. Every weekend at the lake, especially an approaching Saturday morning, provided a sense of sleepless anticipation, but none moreso than that of opening weekend.
It served as the start of summer, and still does in my mind, as school in my hometown would usually finish up the Friday before the start of pike and walleye fishing seasons, and openwater fishing in general. More often than not the clock’s buzzer would be beaten to the punch by the lonesome whistle of the trains along the Burlington Northern railroad which cut through the blue morning mists of the pre-dawn hours. It served as my cue to sneak silently down the fold-out stairs and out to the old boathouse where my trusty Zebco 202 and tacklebox was stashed. Along the silent sprint from the back door to the beach, racing with the one-note song as my playlist, would come the blur of pike and walleyes from my dreams the night before and the welling up of excitement for a new season.
In the springs of my young adulthood, the anticipation for the glow of dawn was replaced by the glow of the digital read-out on the green digits of the VCR, circa 1986, in the family room where my friends and I would ready our rods, for the moment it read 12:00. I’d steal a nap on the weathered faux-leather couch following the televised Twins game or ten o’clock news, but inevitably the light shake on my shoulder would come from my buddy or my brother, saying it was time to go. In a groggy haze, I’d help finalize our gear, grab the yellow-and-white Flow-Troll bucket full of shiners and we’d make our way down the beach to the small feeder creek in hip-boots and waders, led by the shine of headlamps and lanterns to the opening moment of the season. And as we walked, the song of the visiting train would cut through the night, heralding that we were once again in the right place, many years down the road.
Like every opener, there’s at least the hope of fish in the forecast, even if the weather is highly variable and usually chilly. Most openers are cold, unsettled and rainy as is the predominant predication for the transitional weeks of spring, but once in a while a perfect calm starts the season and the fish come with it. In those dark midnight outings, the reflection of smaller silver eyes in the shallows usually signaled that bigger fish lay just a cast beyond the shore. If there were none, it was a sign that a late spring had delayed the shiner spawn and kept the fish out a bit deeper, and we’d have to pursue them the following morning, using the train-whistle alarm once again a few hours later.
In recent years, I have spent a greater majority of my openers away from the cabin where I grew up fishing. While the scenery has changed, the excitement leading up to the first official cast of the season has not. There are boat projects to complete in the days leading up, planning with friends and family on new lakes to sort out, and the anticipation of the night before to deal with before the moment comes. And in the latter, there’s no shortage of sleepless moments, drifting in and out of fitful dreams of doubled rods and golden walleyes in the glow of clock radio digits. And even if it isn’t real, the echo of the train whistle will certainly blow through them, reminding me of what was before and what will certainly come on the opener express barreling its way into a new season…in our outdoors.