David A. Van Wie
Opening Day: An April Fools' Joke?
Opening Day of fishing is just around the corner.
Here in Maine, the first day of “open water” fishing is April 1. Note that this is April Fools’ Day. Coincidence? I think not.
I have always considered Opening Day to be a cruel April Fools' joke in northern New England, at least for a fly fisherman like me. Until recent years, my yard would still be under a foot of snow on April 1 with more in the woods. Even if the snow had melted by that date, the rivers and streams were usually running high and milky and too cold for fish to be active.
I remember the first and perhaps only time I went fishing on Opening Day.
I was in 8th grade and my friend Randy Herring took me fishing in the Taconic foothills near Petersburg, NY. A friendly and high energy guy, Randy had just graduated from college and thought of me as the little brother he never had. Likewise, he was the big brother I never had, so it was a great match. He would take me skiing and taught me how to work on cars. He gave me my first beer and let me listen to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida through his stereo headphones. Randy did a laudable job guiding me through my teen years.
And that year, after a long cold winter, he was anxious to get out fishing on Opening Day. So, we headed to the hills to try to catch some trout.
Patches of snow lingered under the hemlocks, and the stream was topping its banks. Randy had set me up with a small spinning rod rigged with a worm and a split shot. I spent the chilly gray morning bouncing the worm along the bottom in the slower water, trying desperately to discern if I was getting a strike or just snagged on the rocks. I pretended to have fun, but after 40 years, I mostly remember that as a miserable and futile outing.
If I had caught anything, I'm sure I would remember it. But I don’t, so I'm confident I was skunked. I think Randy caught one or two, but I’m not sure. I do remember how much I enjoyed stopping for hot chocolate and a donut at a country store on the way home.
As much as I enjoyed fishing other times of the year, that morning pretty turned me off to Opening Day for years to come.
Once I started fly fishing, I found that I had even less interest in wading through snow to the stream and chucking a streamer into a rushing freshet. As April 1st would come and go, I watched with amusement as friends and neighbors trudged out in the cold for the ritual of Opening Day. Rarely have I heard stories that would challenge the image of my first April Fools outing.
Opening Day for me is the first day I slap a mosquito or black fly on the back of my neck. After all, fly fishing is always more interesting when there are bugs in the air, so I usually wait until the bugs are buzzing and the buds are “the size of a squirrel’s ear” before I rig up my rod and lug my waders up from the basement.
A few of my favorite authors have celebrated traditional Opening Day with some fine stories about their personal rituals and anticipation. In Corey Ford’s amusing tale, “Tomorrow’s the Day,” he laments that, even though he had all winter to prepare and organize his gear, he would always leave everything to the last minute: sorting flies, greasing his fly line, buying a license, repairing his waders, and excavating his favorite fishing hat from the attic, all on the night before.
For Robert Traver, who lived on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Opening Day fell on the last Saturday in April. Even on that late date, success was thwarted more often than not by frozen water.
Traver famously kept a journal of every fishing outing for most of his life, and in “The First Day” (Trout Madness, 1960) he humorously recounts the highlights of Opening Day excursions from 1936 to 1952. On one trip, he caught eight trout on dry flies while standing on a frozen beaver pond, casting to an opening over a spring-hole thirty feet away, dragging the trout across the ice to put them in his creel.
That actually sounds kind of fun. Sort of.
Another colorful entry, 1947, goes like this:
“Snowshoed 5 miles with Dick Tisch to Nurmi’s Pond. Snow still 3 feet deep in the woods. Got caught in bitter cold mixed rain and snow. Came down with chills and vapors and spent three days in bed with a nurse. Enervating but fun. Must try the same next year. Her name was Lulu.”
I’ll keep that in mind for next year myself.
In recent years, melting snow and mud season have come much earlier, thanks to all the CO2 we have been pumping into the atmosphere for a hundred years or so. According to data kept diligently by residents across the northern states, ice out on lakes and ponds now comes a week or two earlier on average than it did throughout the 1900s.
With an early melt, streams drop early, and we are more likely to have a warm afternoon with bugs biting by the end of March. It may even be possible to cast a dry fly on Opening Day. This is a development that I do not relish.
I hope the trout will adapt, and I am confident that the wonder and beauty of nature will never cease to touch our souls. But we do need to stop the fossil-fueled madness that is damaging our climate and our ecosystems.
Even with a warming climate from year to year, there will always be variation in the weather. After a double-dip blizzard last month, we had two weeks for warm weather, followed by a cold snap with below zero wind chills. We most certainly can’t predict what the weather and conditions will be on Opening Day.
So, what do you think? Will the streams be fishable and the bugs biting come April 1?
Maybe I will be out there on Opening Day, casting a dry fly to rising trout. But I sure would be happier sitting by the woodstove thinking smugly about fools out there with ice building up on their rod eyelets, then heading to the country store for a hot chocolate and a donut.
In my book, that is the way Nature intended it. At least here in Maine.