God Bless The Walleye

By BoatUS Trailering Editors

People get excited talking about walleye, but is there a greater spiritual and political connection to this seemingly ordinary, silvery-brown fish than you might first have thought?

Photo of Richard Zajac, Father Walleye's dadRichard Zajac, the Walleye Father's dad

One Sunday morning at St. Dominic's Church in Saskatchewan, Canada, Father Mariusz Zajac was in the middle of his sermon about the importance of giving back, when he sensed some in his congregation were dozing off. He knew just what to do.

"Now, a walleye doesn't act this way …," he began. Those seven words shot around the pews, bounced off walls, and within the time it took to say them, every eye and ear was waiting for more. You see, in Saskatchewan, Father Zajac is better known as "Father Walleye," after catching a world ice-fishing record walleye on Tobin Lake in January 2005 that weighed more than 18 pounds.

Photo of Marius and Richard Zajac, Tobin LakeFather Walleye and his father, Richard, in northern Saskatchewan.

"It's a way to connect [with] the whole congregation," he says, remembering. "We send them out at the end of the service laughing and smiling, because people love the outdoors. Fishing is a positive vehicle to make a point. You know, Jesus was the greatest fisherman."

Photo of a walleye sign that greets vistors to Garrison, MNBig Fish in a Big Pond: This walleye greets visitors to Lake Mille Lacs in Garri on, Minnesota.

Father Zajac has used the walleye as a bridge, too. Recently he visited a senior center to offer prayers for those in need of a spiritual lift. As he approached one man in a wheelchair and introduced himself, he was met with a blank stare followed by, "Leave me alone, I don't want to talk to you." When someone in the room told the patient, "You know, that's Father Walleye," the frown became a smile, and the two talked for half an hour about fishing; they continue to do so today.

Father Walleye gets numerous invitations from walleye anglers hoping to grab a piece of his expertise, and probably some divine assistance. He even admits to finding himself reciting the Magnificat prayer, which includes the line, "He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty," and not just when he's trying to make a holy connection. He also used that prayer when he broke the ice-fishing record.

Walleye Politics

Photo of fishing boats in a walleye tournament

Like trout, there's no shortage of people willing to tell you there's something almost sacred about casting a lure and waiting to hook one of these rather ordinary-looking North American natives, relatives to the European pike-perch. The walleye is popular for practical reasons, too. According to Wisconsin Fisheries Research scientist John Lyons, "They're difficult, but not impossible, to catch, so they offer a challenge. They taste great. They have trophy potential — meaning they get large, but not so big you need special tackle to land, and in the Midwest and Canada, they're widespread."

They've gone even farther west. Umatilla, Oregon, has laid claim to being the Walleye Capital of, well, Oregon, and so far there are no other contenders for the title. "We're on the Columbia River," notes Mayor Pat Lafferty, who's a Union Pacific railroad engineer when he isn't running a town meeting, or looking for a walleye. In office since November, Lafferty has already appointed a commission to study the idea of building a city park on the river with a walleye statue at the entrance. Umatilla is home to three walleye fishing tournaments attracting anglers from Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

Photo of Wille The Walleye, Baudette MNWillie the Walleye welcomes anglers to Baudette, Minnesota, a "Walleye Capital of the World"

The mayor has no problem laying down the gauntlet: "Come out here and try your luck. We have bigger fish here, and there are areas of the Columbia River that are untouched. The walleye teaches you humility because you really gotta work at it. I've been fishing all my life and here's one thing I've learned: You don't want to put your fingers in a walleye's mouth. They have teeth. I know."

Mayor Lafferty is not the only one to recognize the political clout of walleye's mainstream appeal. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton was "skunked" — fishing talk for "didn't catch anything" — this past May when walleye season opened in his state. Because it's called the Governor's Fishing Opener, with so many potential voters focused on something other than an election, that day has become a must-do on the governor's schedule since 1961. In fact, they've missed the event only three times because of bickering with the state legislature, but as soon as the arguing is resolved, the state's leader gets to the venue in Waconia, the city where the walleye fishing film "Grumpy Old Men" was filmed. Dayton has two more years, and two more walleye openers, to make his case to his electorate, and he's not underestimating the walleye wallop.

Neither is Vincent Leone. When he was running for mayor of Port Clinton, Ohio, last year, part of his campaign strategy involved putting his father-in-law in a friend's 13-foot Lyman boat. With a fishing pole attached to a plastic walleye, the boat was towed behind a truck during the annual Walleye Festival parade, while he and others passed out "vote for me" literature along the route. He got elected.

Mayor Leone's city calls itself, wait for it, "The Walleye Capital of the World" because, to use his words, "there are a lot of fish that come out of Lake Erie and they set records. I'm willing to put on the gloves with anyone and defend the Walleye Capital claim," he says. There's a ring of truth about "the gloves," but it has more to do with the season than the reputation. Every New Year's Eve, the city has a celebration honoring not only time gone by, but, yes, you've guessed it: "There's no other city that I know of that drops a 20-foot walleye from a crane on December 31st," the mayor brags. "We have a webcam, and a countdown clock, fireworks, food, live bands, and attendance in the thousands. The stores make money, and there's a walleye bringing everyone together."

The walleye that's dropped weighs 600 pounds, has appeared on Jay Leno's "The Late Show," and is named Wylie the Walleye. Meanwhile, in Baudette, Minnesota — yet another Walleye Capital of the World — the first thing you see as you come into town on the Rainy River near Lake of the Woods is a 40-foot statue of Willie the Walleye. In fact, every June, the town hosts Willie Walleye Day. So don't mistake Willie for Wylie, or Wylie for Willie, because the room will turn real cold, real fast.

Walleye On Ice

"People have walleyes in their soul," observes Joe Henry who lives near Baudette. They would also seem to have them in their hearts, as witnessed by Joe's wife some time back. Joe was ice fishing for walleye on Minnesota's Lake of the Woods a few years ago, with his then-girlfriend, Leah. Truth be told, she was only there because she knew Joe enjoyed spending weekends in the middle of winter sitting in a heated shack after drilling a nine-inch hole through three feet of ice with a power auger, to catch fish. As Joe tells the story, she'd just woken up from a nap and was about to turn on the television — yes, you read that right — when he suggested she check the line she had in the water before they headed in for dinner at one of the nearby restaurants onshore. Leah started reeling in the line, mentioning how he obviously wasn't paying much attention because the line had no tension at all, and no wonder they weren't catching anything. When the line reached the surface, Leah realized "the lure" was an engagement ring.

"I figured if a walleye had taken the ring, then this relationship wasn't meant to be," Joe reasoned. They've been married almost four years now, despite Joe's admission about reading walleye magazines during their honeymoon in Mexico.

Ice fishing in Minnesota is part of the Land of 10,000 Lakes culture, though the smart money says you can find animated discussions about the perfect ice shack design and walleye-catching technique any day of the year. During the winter, you'll see hundreds of ice shacks lined up on frozen lakes. On Mille Lacs, near Garrison, or Lake of the Woods near Baudette, the shacks will be on "streets" with names like "Walleye Way" or "Perch Way" with a pickup truck parked nearby. To take this a step further (and because we're talking about walleye fishing, this goes hundreds of steps further), Baudette's Zippel Bay Resort has built an igloo in the middle of all the shacks. Powered by a generator, it provides widescreen TV, sandwiches, and a full bar for anglers. Sundays are especially busy because walleye fishermen can have refreshments while watching the Minnesota Vikings in action. The igloo is on Igloo Street, just off Main Street, before you hit Raccoon Way.

The Fish Whisperers

Mayors Leone and Lafferty have seen this fish as a way to promote tourism. Father Walleye calls it the gift that gives us the chance to slow down and connect with each other. Joe Henry has watched a small town near the Canadian border become the site of national fishing tournaments and a venue for fishing-lure companies to shoot commercials for their product lines. But each agrees it goes deeper than all that. Beneath the hope to land a record holder, revitalize a town, or make a spiritual connection, there's always been a desire to understand how this fish operates. On Lake Erie, charter-boat captain Gary Houpt, who owns the Pipe Creek Marina (a BoatUS Cooperating Marina), says he hears all the experts argue about using a certain color hook when going after a walleye — and if pressed, he'll admit he prefers chartreuse. In other walleye waters, there's an insistence that adding a rattle to the lure so a specific noise is made attracts the prized catch.

But then there was the day when Captain Houpt watched a guy put an M&M Peanut Butter wrapper on an Erie Dearie lure and started landing walleye, one after another. So, it's safe to say, in these days of tweets, fishfinders, and GPS on cellphones, we remain utterly clueless about how to catch a walleye. And that's the way it should be. Fishing will never become Disneyland, despite all the activity we see going on above the water. 

This article was published in Fall 2012 issue of Trailering Magazine.

Annual Walleye Celebrations

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Port Clinton, OH, Walleye Festival

Walleye Weekend, Fond du Lac, WI

Ashtubula, OH, Wine and Walleye Festival



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