5/11/2018 7:25:00 AM traveling trails less traveled Reflections concerning opening day - Part 1
"Buckshot" Anderson Columnist
As time marches on, fewer and fewer anglers remain that can recall how the date of open water fishing in Wisconsin has evolved from mid-May to early May. Also, few present day anglers realize politics played an important role in moving the date of opening day from where it had been for years and years to its present location. Sadly, politics often are the enemy of sound, sensible conservation practices.
I'm not sure when the Wisconsin Conservation Department (forerunner of our present DNR) set the date for open water fishing on game fish, (walleye and pike) on the Saturday in May falling on or closest to the 15th. But I do know that was the rule when my dad began his guiding career in 1941, as he kept a daily record of his guiding for 21 seasons until his death in 1961.
I began following Dad's "daily diary keeping" concerning my guiding dates, with or without paying clients, in 1953 and have continued do so to the present. So, I have a handy "hands on" historical record of many factors concerning fishing in Northern Wisconsin spanning eight decades.
As everyone probably knows, fishing and tourism go hand in hand in Northern Wisconsin, which wasn't always the case, nor was it a major economic factor many decades ago. Tourism began as a tiny dribble in the 1890s and had finally increased to a small trickle by the late 1930s.
World War II nearly closed the tourist spigot, but after that war came to a conclusion the stream of tourists heading north increased dramatically. During Ike's presidency the flow doubled and today the flood gates are wide open.
By the middle of the '60s tourist dollars were rapidly become a major economic boost in Northern Wisconsin, and as usual, those seeking tourist dollars began looking for ways to expand, or lengthen the tourist season. Snowmobiling was just beginning to add a few bucks to our economy and expanding the length of the open water fishing season looked like yet another way to produce more income. And the ugly creature called politics reared its ugly head.
Chambers of Commerce began calling for the DNR to add a week to the beginning of open water game fish fishing, and they caved in to the pressure, despite the fact the fishery biologists knew walleyes and even pike, sometimes did not spawn until mid May, especially after a long, severe winters when ice-out took place much later than normal. Walleye need the water temperature to rise into the low 40s before they spawn and realistically should be protected until spawning is over, as the rules continue to provide for trout, smallmouth bass and musky.
I take my hat off to the Michigan DNR for rejecting an earlier opening day, as that state has retained its long standing date of May 15 as the opening day for most all game fish except stream trout, many of which spawn in the fall.
In 1968 Wisconsin's season opener took place May 11, which was a week earlier than previously. This trend continued until 1974 when the opening was changed to the first Saturday in May, where it has
remained to the present.
By scanning my dad's diary, (1941-61) when the open water fishing season opened in mid-May, there was only one year, 1946, when most lakes were still ice covered and he cancelled his opening weekend clients, which would have been May 16 and 17.
Since the opener was moved to the first Saturday in May, (1974) there have been 11 years, counting 2018, when many lakes were still ice bound, or all lakes were ice bound, or weather conditions were not fit for man or beast on opening day.
For those who do not recall those opening weekends, or are too young to care, here's a short list, which a few quotes from my diary.
May 5, 1979
"Woke up to a blizzard in progress. Five inches on the ground and still snowing. Strong SE wind roaring and huge chunks of ice still floating on Big St. Germain."
May 1, 1982
"Most lakes still ice covered. Fished the Wisconsin River with 400 other die-hards. Not a bite. Took my clients to Lost Creek in the afternoon. Two pike."
May 6, 1989
"Nineteen degrees and snowing, temp hit 34 for a high. Tony Mann almost froze his feet. We quit at 10:30 with four walleyes, had a shore lunch at his cabin and called it a day."
May 2, 1992
"Late ice out, some lakes still contain ice. Took a long shot and fished Lake Superior and nearly froze to death. Not a strike."
May 3, 1993
"Lakes still ice covered. Cancelled my date with Don Capoccia. Hunted turkey's with Tom Tilkens in Michigan. No turkey."
May 4, 1996
"After one of the worst winters in history, all lakes still ice covered. Guys fished with tip-ups on Big Saint today. I cancelled my dates with Kermit Momsen and rescheduled them for Mother's Day weekend." (Big Saint was still ice bound until May 16, so we fished on little Fawn Lake, which was open due to the current flowing through it.)
May 3, 1997
"Another long, brutal winter, many lakes will ice covered. Fished the Wisconsin River and got eight nice walleyes, but very cold and windy."
May 3, 2008
"Some snow still on the ground, very cold, 34 degrees with a high of 38 and a stiff NW wind. Fished the river with a group of eight anglers in four boats. Tough catching, but the gang had 10 pike by noon and we voted to call it a day."
May 4, 2013.
"Snow still on the ground, all lakes still ice bound. Cold opening, 32 to 40 with a raw NE wind and fog early. Our gang of nine anglers in four boats fished the river, but we quit at 11:30, too cold! All we could manage was one walleye and two pike. Poorest opening in years!"
May 3, 2014
All lakes still ice covered. I called all the members of the group and cancelled opening until next weekend."
As I finish part one of this two-part column, the date is May 3, 2018 and the prospect for open water in just two more days looks pretty bleak!
Stay tuned for part two next week.
Buckshot may be reached at: email@example.com.