Opening Days Are Golden

Some spawn stories that will be told for generations. // Illustration by Glenn Wolff
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Most years, the opening day of trout season is primarily ceremonial. I mean the traditional opener, the last Saturday in April when the rivers often run high and dark, and the trout tend to sulk. I’ve fished it in snowstorms, rain and bluebird weather, and a few times, I’ve caught trout. But the best opener I can remember had nothing to do with fishing.

My old friend Nute Chapman, who raised a large, robust family near Onaway in the house he called Poverty Peak, made opening day more ceremonial than anyone I’ve ever known. He and his wife Jean used to host an opening weekend trout camp attended by their eight adult sons and daughters and a herd of grandchildren.

Now and then, a lucky friend was invited. Opening morning, Nute would be up hours before daylight to prepare a breakfast that would stagger a lumberjack. There were platters of pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage and ham, and homemade toast cut so thick it jammed the toaster and was spread with the delicious strawberry, tomato and blueberry jams Nute and Jean put up every year.

I was a guest in 1990 when Nute was nearing 80 and could no longer wade the river. I’m sure it was hard on him, but he never showed it. Instead, he threw all his energy into feeding his mob and sending them off with sack lunches and advice on where to fish. While he poured me a cup of coffee, I nodded at a 20-inch brook trout mounted on the wall of the kitchen and asked him about it. I assumed it was decades old, from the golden days of trouting. He looked at me intently and said, “My son got it last year.” His tone suggested that these are golden days, too, and I’d damned well better not forget it.

My old friend Nute Chapman, who raised a large, robust family near Onaway in the house he called Poverty Peak, made opening day more ceremonial than anyone I’ve ever known.

After breakfast, Nute’s son, Clark, and I loaded our gear in his pickup, strapped a canoe in the bed and headed for the river. It was barely daylight when we got there.

During the drive, Clark seemed distracted. Now, as we unloaded the canoe, I asked why, and he hemmed and hawed a little and finally admitted that his wife had gone into labor early that morning. He had left her at the hospital on his way to breakfast. She was probably giving birth at that very moment.

I was mortified. “You need to get to the hospital now!” I said.

“She told me we should fish,” he said. “Hey, opening day only comes once a year.”

We launched the canoe, floated a mile or so downriver and caught a few brook trout. In an hour or so, we were back in Onaway, where Clark dropped me off at my motel and continued on to the hospital. He told me later that his wife had given birth to a beautiful daughter.

I never saw Nute again. He died a year later at age 79. But I can guess how much his new granddaughter meant to him. A baby girl, a future member of trout camp, born on the best day of the year. No trout could ever match it.


Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City. His many books include “The Living Great Lakes,” The River Home” and “Canoeing Michigan Rivers.”

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