Wet a line and remember those who didn't make it back

Monday is Memorial Day, and I’ll be fishing. Have been for the past 39 Memorial Days, and I see no reason to break the string now.

Our family has enjoyed some fantastic fishing over Memorial Day weekends. For the last six or seven years we have gathered at Pimushe Resort on the lake of the same name, where we divide our fishing time between walleyes, crappie and bluegills and the incidental perch and northern pike we catch while fishing for one of those three primary species.

I like fishing lakes where some species of fish is almost always willing to bite, where if we decide at noon to have fish for supper, we almost always come up with enough fillets for the main course.

But as good as the fishing is on Memorial Day, I must confess that the main reason I always fish on this day is because of the memories. Memorial Day is the one day each year we Americans set aside to honor the men and women who have paid the ultimate price to insure that you and I can live in relative peace.

For most Americans, Memorial Day is just another holiday, a day we don’t have to go to work or to school.  I suspect a lot of people never give much thought to the real reason for Memorial Day. I’m not criticizing or chastising — just stating the obvious. 


But for me, each of the past 39 Memorial Days has made me sad. Those who know me, will vouch for me when I say that I am not usually a sad person. Just the opposite, I hope. But on Memorial Day, the faces of all the guys I served with in Vietnam, especially those who did not come home, play over and over in my mind like some kind of instant replay.

Some of those young men I held in my arms as they died. On Memorial Day I can still hear them crying for their mothers. No matter how big and tough the man, almost all would ask for their mama.

For several years I tried to drown out the images with beer and whiskey. Lots of it. But that didn’t work very well.

So I settled on fishing on Memorial Day. Fishing does not stop the tape from playing, but it does seem to make the memories of those boys more treasure than punishment. And when Lucas or Leo or Katie or Shel or Kelli Jo or Nancy are hollering at me to get the net because they’ve got a big one on, the sounds of the battles those boys and I fought together are momentarily drowned out by the excitement of catching a fish.

So if you and I should meet on the lake one of these Memorial Days, don’t take it personally if I seem a little distant.  On that day, my mind and my heart are still in a place far, far away.

Thank you for allowing me to share that with you. Now, back to the fishing.

Options abound

Walleye are nearly always hitting well on Memorial Day weekend. The spawn is long over and all of the walleyes, including the big females, are back to feeding.  Not only have we very often caught excellent numbers of walleye over this long weekend, but lots of big fish as well. One trip I remember especially well was up to Ballard’s on Lake Of The Woods. Unlike this year, it was a late spring and the walleyes had not dispersed out into the big waters of Traverse Bay as yet. Instead, the fish were ganged up along the south shore in familiar places like Four Mile Bay, The Gap, all along Pine Island, out from Morris and Zippel Bay. 


The nets were really flying that weekend and it seemed like someone was always posing proudly with a real brute of a walleye while a picture was being snapped before the fish was slipped back into the dark, bog-stained waters.

Although walleye have been my main focus most Memorial Day weekends, I have also enjoyed some very good crappie fishing about that time. Crappies move shallow to spawn when the water temperature reaches 63 degrees, and often that is right around Memorial Day.  My all-time favorite lake for big crappies, at least since the crappies on Red Lake are gone, is the previously mentioned Pimushe, which is east of Bemidji.  Big, black and strong, the fish we keep run from 11 to 13 inches. Nice size to fillet.

Once they move into the bulrush beds to spawn, crappies are easy targets for adults and kids alike. Unless you drop a tackle box or something in the boat, you should be able to make short casts to the fish and catch a dozen or so before having to move on.

Bluegill bonanza

This year, because of the early spring, the crappies might be all done spawning, even on northern lakes. But if the crappies are done, that means the bluegills will be starting. Bluegills spawn in the same hard-bottom areas that attracted the crappies. Look for bluegills to begin moving into the shallows in good numbers when the water temperature gets above 65 degrees. When it hits 70 degrees, the bluegill spawn is in full swing.

Because bluegills are fanatics about guarding their nests, they are very easy to catch during and for a week or so after the spawn. Anything that drifts near the nest will be attacked, not so much to be eaten, but to be driven off. 

A piece of nightcrawler on a plain hook has probably accounted for more bluegills being caught on Memorial Day weekend than any other bait or lure, but crawlers are messy in the boat and bluegills easily strip them off of the hook. My preference is small leeches, which are so tough that you can often catch four or five bluegill on a single leech. You can fish them on a long-shanked No. 6 hook or a similar-sized ice fly. Green, orange and chartreuse are all good colors.

Or you can tip the ice fly with a wax worm or two. This is my favorite when there are some crappies still mixed in with the bluegills in the shallows, because crappies and bluegills alike will readily take the wax worms, but for some reason you rarely catch crappies on worms or leeches.


Some fishermen shun livebait altogether and fish small 1/32 and 1/64 ounce jigs for both the crappies and bluegills when they are in the shallows. If you are going to fish jigs that tiny, light line is a must. I prefer three- or four-pound test.  Two pound test is just too fragile and I end up losing too many jigs when I snag them on reeds.

No matter where you are fishing this Memorial Day weekend, or what you are fishing for, take a moment and say "thank you" to all of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who gave up all of their Memorial Days so that you and I could continue to enjoy the incredible freedom to just go fish.

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