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Wild Side: Opening day fishing traditions continue

The 2010 fishing crew at Lance Gore's dock on Big Chetak Lake. From left, Bob Burrows, Bob Gwidt, Gore, Gerry Keithley and Bill Smith. Dan Wilcox photo

Many intrepid anglers venture north to fish opening day on Wisconsin lakes in keeping with tradition that verges on a religious pilgrimage. On Friday the roads heading north are filled with boats on trailers. Tackle shops, taverns and restaurants in lake country are packed. All this, despite the fact the first Saturday in May is iffy for catching fish given the vagaries of spring weather.

A group of friends from River Falls began attending the opening day fishing ritual at the late Tim Linehan's cabin on Big Chetak Lake near Birchwood many years ago. Tim, the former owner of Johnnie's Bar, was a fun and generous man and the good times fishing with him started a tradition that continues. Now Lance and Julie Gore from River Falls own Tim and Sandy's old cabin, and the same group of friends tries to get there for fishing and fun at the lake.

This year Lance, Bill Smith, Bob Burrows, Gerry Keithley, Nate Brom, Bob Gwidt and I met at Lance's cabin on Friday afternoon. I drove south from Washburn after working on our sailboat. The rest of the guys convened at Johnnie's Bar, drove north from River Falls to Louie's Meats in Cumberland and several other places for refreshments and supplies on the way. The rain let off as I got to the lake, so I went down to the dock to fish until the other guys arrived and promptly caught a crappie. Good sign!

We were optimistic about fishing, but not as rabid as some anglers who stumble into their boats at midnight to try to catch walleyes. Jim Renslow, Norman Kusilek, Rick Wallin and Mike Bowen of River Falls stayed at Jim's cabin across the lake. They were out to fish for walleyes early on Saturday morning. Our crew had breakfast before heading out onto the lake. The weather was overcast, cool and breezy from the southwest.

On opening morning a couple of years ago, Gerry and I motored up Big Chetak Lake into a snow squall driven by a 20 mile-per-hour wind. We were bundled up but it really wasn't very comfortable. In the somewhat sheltered north end of the lake we were pleasantly surprised to catch crappies. The snow stopped, the clouds cleared off, but the wind kept howling out of the north.

We didn't have to deal with snow last Saturday but the wind picked up to 25-30 miles-per-hour with gusts to 35 mph. A steep chop with whitecaps covered the main body of the lake. Gerry, Bob Gwidt and I managed to catch eight crappies, one perch and a bluegill by anchoring in sheltered spots behind points and islands. Gerry caught a nice largemouth bass on his new St. Croix spinning rod from Lund's Hardware. The cold wind and slow fishing wore us down so we motored back to the cabin to watch the Kentucky Derby.

The other guys went out on Lance's pontoon boat. Pontoon boats are notoriously hard to handle in strong wind, but they managed to catch a few fish. Lance said that they plowed the lake bottom with the anchors.

Sunday started clear and calm. We all tried fishing some of our favorite spots and got skunked. The wind picked up again, as strong as the day before. I tried a drift across a flat that holds plenty of crappies. I caught one small one and that was it for catching fish on Sunday.

I met Renslow and Kusilek at Jim's cabin across the lake when I took my boat out. Those guys are expert walleye fisherman. Jim said they only caught one keeper walleye that weekend.

We packed up and made our way back to River Falls. We returned with only a small bag of fish fillets, but with plenty of memories of another fun opening weekend up north.

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