The last thing I ever thought I would do is fish in a tournament.
Yet, there I was in a cluster of boats on Lake Oahe in South Dakota the morning of June 9, waiting to blast off from the boat landing and begin the search for walleyes on this huge reservoir.
Well, this wasn’t exactly a “real” tournament. I would be fishing from a pontoon boat owned by Wade Van Dover of Big Stone City, which lies just across from the western border of Minnesota. Wade, his wife, Cindy, his parents Ken and Elaine, and a local woman, Kathleen Schlachter, were my fishing partners for the day.
And, the man standing on the dock with a megaphone waiting to give the anglers the go-ahead to take off was Father Paul Rutten, vocations director for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.
Rather than stoke the competitive juices of the 90 anglers entered in the tournament, he opened with a prayer.
Now, this was the kind of event I could support wholeheartedly. It wasn’t about pounds of fish and prize money. Rather, it was about fellowship and fun.
Oh, and there was one other important component to this annual event, now in its 18th year — raising money to support seminarians of the diocese, some of whom study at our own St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas.
Tournament organizers and participants are somewhat serious about doing well in the tournament, but dead serious about fundraising. They have two such tournaments every year a week apart, one on Lake Oahe and the other on Big Stone Lake, which lies on the border of Minnesota and South Dakota.
The tournament on Big Stone, which took place June 2, raised $50,000. On Lake Oahe, the amount was identical, for a combined total of $100,000. That is enough to cover the costs for three seminarians to study for a year.
And that is what tournament organizers are most proud of, and why they keep going every year. It all started in 1996, when then-Bishop Robert Carlson, who served in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and now leads the Archdiocese of St. Louis, was approached by a Catholic couple, Dan and Janet Cronin of Gettysburg, S.D. They wondered what kind of event could bring people throughout the diocese together.
The Cronins told the bishop that fishing and hunting are big among South Dakotans, and an event involving these two favorite pastimes would be a big draw. Then, Dan and Janet went to work to start the fishing tournament, with a pheasant hunt added a few years later. Dan witnessed several tournaments before he died in 1999.
The first event took place on Lake Oahe, with about a dozen boats raising $5,000. Wade Van Dover heard about that event, and suggested adding a tournament at Big Stone, which happened the following year.
Things are cruising along now, with the Catholic Foundation for Eastern South Dakota stepping in to provide support both in promoting the event and helping on tournament days. There were lots of smiles on the faces of the anglers who got out on the water June 9, with beautiful weather to greet them.
Fishing with Wade
When Wade offered me the opportunity to fish on his boat, I jumped at the chance. He has won the event numerous times and said he has fished in about 250 walleye tournaments. So, I knew there was a good chance we would do well on this body of water, which pumps out a massive amount of walleyes every year.
I first met Wade in person the day before the tournament at Blue Cloud Abbey, a beautiful retreat center about 15 or 20 miles from his home. It once was owned by a religious order, and now is in the hands of Wade, Cindy and five other couples who want to ensure that the buildings and land continue to be used for spiritual refreshment. It’s a gorgeous facility, and I hope to return for an overnight visit someday.
The fishing started off slowly on Lake Oahe, with just a few small walleyes pulled in during the first two hours. Then, Wade started working a long point just outside of a large bay. He hit paydirt at 10:40 a.m. when he landed a 26 ½-inch walleye that weighed 5.2 pounds. He ended up in a tie with another angler for big fish honors.
But, the best was yet to come. Wade’s wife, Cindy, who served in NET Ministries for three years back in the 1980s, awoke from a brief nap on the pontoon about an hour later and decided it was time for prayer.
Little did we know the dividends that simple act would produce.
“We have one rule in the boat,” Wade explained. “We have to pray a rosary.”
And, with that, he turned it over to Cindy, who led us through the Apostle’s Creed to start.
But before she got to the first Hail Mary, a voice cried out, “Fish on!”
Then another. And another. And another. Four fish in just a couple of minutes, one landed by yours truly.
Wade smiled and noted that a rosary prayed in his simple watercraft “often gets interrupted by fish.”
To which Schlachter dryly responded, “We should have started the rosary earlier.”
Amen, I replied. But, the prayers to Mary hardly came too late. That brief flurry came with four hours to go before the 3 p.m. weigh-in. The fish bit steadily for the next two hours, which allowed us to amass a nice pile of walleyes to bring to the docks. The rules allow each boat to weigh in six fish, and we ended up bringing 10 ashore, with the additional four kept for eating.
Our grand total was 12.95 pounds, which gave us the championship. We all got plaques, which will be a nice keepsake.
But, that wasn’t the best part of the event. I got to meet many great people, and I made some new friends. Wade invited me to come back for the Bishop’s Pheasant Hunt in the fall, and gave me a standing invitation to come his way to fish and hunt any time I can make it.
I’ll be sure to take him up on that. I have never shot a pheasant in my life, despite several attempts. I told him that bagging a pheasant is on my bucket list. Ken and Elaine own land in prime pheasant country, and assured me I could get plenty of chances at a pheasant if I came out.
I’ll have to make some time for that this fall. For now, I will savor the memories of my three days in South Dakota. Near the end of the tournament, we went back to the boat landing to pick up Bishop Paul Swain, who comes out every year and celebrates Mass after the weigh-in. I even helped him catch a walleye. I hooked one, then handed the rod to Bishop Swain, who gladly reeled in the fish.
That night, I stayed in a cabin owned by the Cronins, and hung out with Janet’s son Jim and a few other tournament volunteers. Jim made some fresh walleye, which he cooked in the microwave with butter and Lowry’s seasoning. It was fantastic, and a great way to cap the day. Earlier in the evening, I feasted on another tasty treat that Jim and others prepared — prime rib.
The following morning, I got to fish with another expert angler, Myron Keltgen, who lives a little ways away, but gets out to Oahe often. We caught some nice walleyes and a catfish, and he even cleaned fish for me to take home. Those walleyes ended up being a birthday dinner for my son Joe, who turned 23 on June 10.
From start to finish, I was treated like royalty by the friendly and generous folks of the Diocese of Sioux Falls. I began to wonder if we could put on a similar event here in Minnesota. With a vocations director here in the archdiocese, Father Troy Przybilla, who loves to hunt and fish, I don’t see why not.
Father Przybilla, let’s get together and talk.
Category: Local News