A year ago at this time the state's political kingpins attempted to cancel the fishing opener. Gov. Tim Walz might disagree with that characterization. But when you ask a half-million or more Minnesota winter survivors who, with the precision of surgeons, have loaded boats, spun line on reels, propped Mother's Day cards on kitchen tables and packed beverages to "fish close to home," you're heaving a wrench into the works, or trying to.
The bugaboo of course was the virus, and it remains a mystery worthy of research that it didn't spread to areas surrounding the state's primary opening-day destinations, as the Department of Natural Resources feared it would. Possibly the odor of night crawlers, leeches and fatheads that attends walleye fishing ensures adherent immunity. In any event, most Minnesota anglers decided for themselves where they would fish last year on opening day, and survived to tell about it.
Paul Bower might never have learned the joy of surrounding oneself with good friends on the season's first day had he not been able to jack a softball into the bleachers with regularity.
An all-state high school football player who grew up in Kansas City and caught passes for four years for the KU Jayhawks, Bower was a national account manager for a flooring company when he was transferred to the Twin Cities in the 1980s.
Jim Powers, a high-school teammate of Bower, already lived in the Twin Cities and recruited Bower to play on an otherwise also-ran softball squad.
"Through softball is how I met Jim [Tuller, now of of Hackensack, Minn.] and Mike [Sidders, now of Detroit Lakes, Minn.]," Bower said, "and also how I learned about the Minnesota fishing opener. We don't have anything like that in Kansas, where half the state packs up and goes fishing."
Powers, Tuller and Sidders had already established an opening day tradition among themselves, and invited Bower to join them.
Their longtime destination was Big Rock Resort on Leech Lake, from which the three — four, with Bower — fished each May not on opening day, but on the Saturday thereafter. This was their own private opener, with fewer and smaller crowds than on the traditional opening day, and perhaps a hotter bite and better weather.
"The fishing opener for the four of us evolved into other pursuits and celebrations," Sidders said. "Each year we'd go together to Iowa for that state's pheasant opener. Also there were weddings and kids and moves, with Paul getting transferred out of the Twin Cities by his employer. Still, every May, for our fishing opener, we were together on Leech Lake. Thanks to fishing, we made a lot of memories together."
Then in 2007, Bower was vacationing in Mexico, body surfing, when a wave slammed him against the ocean floor, breaking his neck.
He was paralyzed then and remains largely so today.
"I'm an incomplete quad," he said from his Kansas City home.
On fishing openers thereafter, the Gang of Four, as they called themselves, became the Gang of Three, or, more appropriately, the Not-As-Much-Fun Gang of Three.
They still gathered at Leech Lake. But without Bower, the fish catching wasn't as exciting, the cocktail hour lost its edge and the walleye dinners weren't as appetizing.
"For five years, Paul was gone from our group," Sidders said. "He spent that time re-learning to walk, even how to feed himself. Yet we never heard a negative utterance out of him. Never a frustration. Nothing like, 'I wish I could still do this, but I can't.' Just a brave acceptance that his life had changed."
Hoping to optimize his fitness, and ward off muscle atrophy, Bower worked out nearly every day.
"It took five years before, in 2012, Paul said he was ready to come back to our fishing opener," Sillers said. "He flew to the [Minneapolis-St. Paul] airport. We picked him up and drove north, trying to make him as comfortable as possible."
The group rented a pontoon to get them onto the lake safely.
"We got blanked on our first drift, then moved slightly for our second drift," Sillers said. "Paul was holding his own fishing rod, and almost immediately, he hooked a fish. He struggled reeling it in. We all prayed it was a walleye, and when we netted it, it was, a 24-incher. There wasn't a dry eye in the boat."
In the years since, Bower showed up at Leech Lake for most openers. But last year's COVID scare left him largely homebound, and he's lost a step or two, physically.
"I would go to the gym four days a week before COVID," Bower said Friday. "Without being able to do that, I've lost strength. I'm just not ready this year to go to Leech Lake to fish."
Said Sidders: "Guys our age have a difficult time conveying to their close friends what their friendship means to them. So we get together at important times like the fishing opener and make memories and tell stories and give each other crap about what we've done together. It's our way of saying, 'You're important to me. I love you.'"
Bower agrees, but has another reason why he'd like to be at Leech Lake this year.
"We make $1 bets on who catches the first fish and the biggest fish, and I always win," he said. "But they never pay, and I'd like to collect."