Opening Day

It’s a beautiful day in May. The sun is high over the lake, and thirteen gulls circle the water. The wind blows a soft, but steady breeze that rolls the water into gentle waves that slap at the side of a boat in which two old fishermen sit. It’s opening day, and the lake is full of other fishermen, yet the men in the boat pay little mind. They are focused at the task at hand, to catch some walleye. They’ve been fishing together since they were kids, and this is their 75th year. They’ve had many good outings and some that didn’t go so well. They’ve caught big fish, and they’ve caught no fish. For the man piloting the boat, he’s still looking to catch his fish of a lifetime, the one that’ll hang on the wall above his fireplace. He came close once, but the line broke just as he was landing the monster. Like so many others, his “big one”, was the one that got away.

Another boat, a newer boat, races through the water. Its aluminum sides are bright with fresh paint. Its large outboard motor hums as the boat cuts across the water at high speed. The two old fishermen look up. The sight of this new, fast boat stirs emotion in one of the old timers, the one who owns the boat they’re sitting in. It’s an old boat, one with bench seats made of wood – one that has that old familiar smell of sweaty marine plyboard. Its sides are faded from the sun, the paint chipped away from dock posts and rock outcroppings. The bottom, too, has grooves cut along the keel from rubbing against gravel flats and sandy shorelines.

Like the boat, the motor is old. It was once painted, its bright colors visible from across the lake, but nature had long ago chipped and faded the paint to little more than a film over top of a metal shell. The motor is a tiller, the kind that needs to be started by pulling a cord that’s wrapped around a greasy flywheel. The owner of the motor has thought often of replacing it with a more efficient model, yet though it smokes a bit, it still pushes the old boat across the water. Like the boat it’s attached to, it still gets the job done.

This certainly isn’t the first trip the boat and motor have had. They were once new, the prized possession of a young man with visions of catching limits of fish and trophies to hang on the wall. As the years passed, “it” became a “she”, and finally an “old girl”. A quick bit of math and the owner realizes it’s the boat’s 50th year on the water. With this thought he wonders how many trips his prized boat has left, and how many trips he has left before he no longer hears the waves slap against her hull, or the hum of his old, smoky motor. It’s a deep thought, but as every fisherman knows, deep thinking is always a companion on the water.

The only thing not old is the newly bought Rapalas that the two men are using – a tradition they have held up for years. The old timer piloting the boat is using a “shallow-dive” Rapala, he feels the choppy water will bring the fish closer to the surface. Soon, he’ll find out just how right he is about his hunch. Behind his lure is a trophy walleye, the kind he always envisioned would hang on his wall, yet the one that has always eluded him. On this day, the day that could possibly be his last opening day, he’ll finally catch his fish.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to a painting, I would say that it’s worth a thousand thoughts. The aforementioned scene of two old fishermen is one frozen in time, created from the brush of none other than Les Kouba. The story that jumps out of the painting, at least to me, is the one I write down today. With opening day of fishing at hand, I thought this would be the best time to describe one of my favorite prints at the McLeod County History Museum. It’s titled “Opening Day on Lake Mille Lacs”, and was painted by both Les Kouba and Bud Grant in 1995 during a period of conflict between the State of Minnesota and the Mille Lacs Lake Band of Ojibwa over treaty rights and walleye harvest quota for non-band members. It was donated a number of years ago by a friend of Les named John, one of many on display in the museum’s Les Kouba collection. When John donated the painting, he said that one day Les borrowed some clothes to go fishing. When he returned the clothes, Les said “John, now I know what it’s like to be in your shoes”.