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Pat Piper has made a career learning something new. As a journalist in the news business, “something new” occurs every hour so he’s becoming an expert at understanding stuff he never thought about. Learning became a common word in “Future Talk: Conversations About Tomorrow” (Warner Books), the popular book he ghostwrote with Larry King as […]

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God Bless the Walleye

By on May 3, 2013 in Writing with No Comments

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?

Father-Walleye

Father Walleye’s dad, Richard Zajac

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.

“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.”

Father Walleye and his father, Richard, in northern Saskatchewan.

Father Walleye and his father, Richard, in northern Saskatchewan.

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-Miss-River-RedWingMLike 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.

Read more of my story at Boat U.S.

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