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Long ago, during the waning weeks of the legendary “Sixties,” still in uniform and proudly marching to the Marine Corps Hymn, I promised myself that I would never miss another opening day – of any kind, for any reason. I’ve lost a few jobs and scuttled a few relationships as a result but so far I have been on hand for the first day of every hunting or fishing season since then. Everyone has their goals!
Maine’s official opening day of fishing season is April 1, and though most anglers living in the northern two-thirds of the state know that one may as well cast a fly or lure onto a hockey rink much before the end of April, I go forth in full fisherman’s regalia and give it a try, not because I honestly expect to catch anything but because, by heck, it’s opening day and I’m big on keeping promises to myself.
The legal definition of “open water” is pretty straightforward: “Taking freshwater fish during the open water fishing season by means of hook and line in hand, or attached to a rod, or by casting or trolling artificial flies, lures, or baited hooks, provided that the person angling does not take fish through a manmade hole in the ice, from the ice or from any object supported by the ice.” Well then! That means if you reach a stretch of open water, however large or small, using hook and line, with both feet firmly on the bank, in a canoe or kayak, or wader-clad in said open water, you are considered to be legally fishing open water.
Truth be told it is cold work fishing when there’s still snow on the ground and ice on the water, even if a stream or pond edge is available. I have a 65-year-old aluminum canoe that is perfect for early-season fishing except that it is made of metal (aircraft-grade notwithstanding) and absorbs the cold like a magnet. Fishing from it is akin to sitting in the refrigerator with your feet in the ice box – all kinds of fun! I will do it if I have to but when I can get to open water on foot I much prefer that approach.
Conditions on April 1 can be daunting for most fishermen, who take the sensible route and wait another month to wet a line, but a promise is a promise and forth I must go. Some years (like this one) going fishing on opening day seems a fool’s errand, but common sense is not a motivating factor on those days when one must do what one must do. If all I catch is some fresh air and sunshine I still come out ahead, and even the worst of days on the water are better than those spent sorting through yard-sale candidates in the attic.
Interesting things can happen on opening day. One year I found the only hole in the ice on the Sebec River that was near enough to shoreline boulders to provide a chance to cast. I actually had to toss my lure (a heavy red/white Dardevle) into the dark, racing water, watch it disappear under the downstream ice and wait for it to start bouncing along on the gravelly bottom. With a turn of the reel handle I’d get the lure up and wobbling, hoping that a big salmon or lake trout would take it before it made it back to the rocks. That didn’t happen, but twice that day one of the biggest fish I never caught came up behind the lure and followed it right to my boulder just like a big summertime muskie might do. The big togue’s dorsal fin stuck out of the water for a few seconds as he weighed his options and decided to refuse my offering, finning slowly backwards into the depths below the ice. Of course, this made me continue fishing longer than I normally would have, and by the time I was ready to give up my hands and feet were frozen. I never saw that fish again but decades later I can still see him in the icy cold water, just inches from the tip of my rod.
Another time I went fishing on opening morning and had an “expert” test the water temperature and then announce that I was not going to catch anything that day because the water was too cold. True, I’d checked the temperature myself at dawn and it was just about 50 degrees (trout like water temperatures in the mid-50s) but I’d already caught a 3-pound salmon and had released to more “short” fish (under 14 inches) so I figured I was way ahead of the game. I don’t know if the fishing got any better later that day but by noon I had my limit and was more than happy to leave the water to the experts.
One year the only open water I could find was at a small bass lake where a large culvert separated two adjoining ponds. I was gearing up to fish when another “expert” drove up and parked on the culvert crossing to watch.
“It’s way too cold for fishing,” he said, “They probably won’t start biting for another couple of weeks.”
I nodded and said something to the effect that I’d rather be fishing even if I don’t catch anything, but I doubt that the guy heard me. He knew what he knew but what I knew was that the water under the sun-warmed culvert was almost 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding water. I wasn’t planning to fish in the main pond, I was going to fish under the culvert, where, I surmised, temperature-sensitive smallmouths would find conditions more to their liking.
After the truck drove off I crept up to the culvert and tossed a silver Rebel as far inside the pipe as I could, then reeled it slowly back to me in a standard erratic, wounded-minnow presentation. Sure enough, halfway through the culvert something big and aggressive hit the lure. After much splashing and thrashing the fish came to the net – a nice, fat 5-pound bronzeback that posed for a few pictures and then went back into the water for the edification of some other angler who didn’t think April 1 was too early to go fishing. I hope this time it’s you!
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