Minnesota's state-record walleye is going home
LeRoy Chiovitte’s fish will be permanently displayed at the Chik-Wauk Museum on Saganaga Lake.
HERMANTOWN — Minnesota's most famous walleye, the largest one ever confirmed caught on hook and line, is headed back to Saganaga Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail where it spent its natural life.
LeRoy Chiovitte's stuffed 17 ½ pound walleye, which has stood as the state record since he caught it on May 13, 1979, will be permanently displayed at the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center, operated by the Gunflint Trail Historical Society.
Joanne Chiovitte and her children made their decision to donate the mounted fish that's enclosed in a glass case, with family members agreeing it’s too important a piece of Minnesota history to keep in any one living room.
“We've had 40 years to look at it. Now, everyone can see it,” said Mike Chiovitte, LeRoy and Joanne's son.
Bonnie Schudy, Chik-Wauk Museum director, picked up the fish earlier this week and, after a stop at Bowe Taxidermy in Duluth to be cleaned, the mount will be displayed in the museum’s antique boat and motor display building. A ceremony is planned for Memorial Day weekend in May when the museum opens for the summer season.
“It’s coming home to stay,” Schudy said.
Schudy was deluged with Chiovitte walleye memorabilia, and stories, when she stopped at Joanne’s apartment to pick up the fish, including the official state record certificate awarded by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, along with the original Duluth News Tribune newspapers carrying front-page stories about the big fish as well as a ream of clippings from other newspaper articles that have followed over the past nearly 43 years.
“It seems like, just about every fishing season, someone would call and they’d do another story on it,” said Jeff Alberts, Chiovitte's son-in-law. “LeRoy didn’t mind talking about it.”
The fish transfer was facilitated by a couple of columns that ran in the News Tribune outdoors section last summer, the first noting that LeRoy Chiovitte passed away in 2019, at the age of 82, with no specific plans on where his big fish should go after he was gone.
“I’m glad you called me. I’m glad it’s going up there,” Joanne Chiovitte noted. “It is going to be very strange not having that fish in that spot to look at every day.”
In its place will go a large painting of the record fish that was drawn off a photograph and is life-like in scale.
Chik-Wauk was reader’s choice, too
Joanne had been mulling what would be a suitable, permanent home for such a treasure as the official state record of the official state fish of Minnesota. She and LeRoy had talked about the stuffed walleye going to the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward. But museum officials told the News Tribune last summer they had no interest and no room for it.
When the News Tribune solicited readers for ideas for a new home for the fish, they came pouring in from across the country, everything from the Minnesota Fishing Museum and Hall of Fame in Little Falls, big box outdoor sporting goods stores, small-town bars, the Bell Museum in St. Paul and the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth.
But by far the most popular suggestion was the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center on Saganaga Lake. As the crow flies, the museum is only about 1 mile from where the fish was caught.
It’s very possible the big walleye even swam by Chik-Wauk Lodge from time to time during what could have been a 25-to-30-year life in the big border lake.
The museum, once a thriving fishing lodge by the same name, is now operated by the Gunflint Trail Historical Society. The museum opened in 2010 and is a shrine to the history of the region, especially as it revolved around fishing and the early days of what were called tourist camps on the Gunflint Trail.
“This is such an honor. This is such a big deal for our (Gunflint Trail) community,” Schudy said. “We’re absolutely ecstatic. Our whole board is ecstatic. … The fact the fish was caught right there makes it so special. It’s going to be a great draw.”
Apparently there were some differences within the Chiovitte family, at first divided between the Minnesota Fishing Museum and Chik-Wauk. But Schudy said she sent Joanne a handwritten letter explaining why Chik-Wauk wanted the fish so much. Schudy got the happy phone call in December.
A true fish story
LeRoy Chiovitte was a lifelong Duluth-area resident, graduating from Denfeld High School in 1954. He went on to serve in the Marines and had a career in industrial piping sales while pursuing outdoor activities — especially fishing — into his 80s. He died Nov. 3, 2019, after multiple battles with cancer.
Chiovitte's big female walleye was caught on the Seagull River where it enters Saganaga Lake. Saganaga, shared with Ontario, holds some of the largest walleyes in Minnesota, a genetic strain that seems to grow bigger than almost any other lake in the state. They head up the Seagull River each spring to lay their eggs.
The weather was cold that year, there was still ice on some lakes, and many walleyes spawned later than usual. Chiovitte had caught a 12 ½ pounder on Saturday, the season opener, that was spawned-out. He hooked his 17 ½ pounder at about 8 a.m. on Sunday when it was still full of eggs, thus making it much heavier. It measured 35 ¾ inches long and 21 ¼ inches around the belly.
The big fish was caught on a shiner minnow and a plain hook. Chiovitte was using 8-pound test monofilament line. He said it took about seven minutes to land the fish.
Catch-and-release fishing was just catching on in those days, but Chiovitte and his friends weren't releasing many walleyes at that point. That weekend he and his two friends, Lorin and Todd Palmer of Cloquet, took home 10 walleyes that weighed a collective 86 pounds, a feat likely unequaled in Minnesota since then.
Joanne Chiovitte said she was working at Kmart in the days after the big catch and was walking through the stockroom when she heard her husband’s name on the radio. Until that point she hadn't quite appreciated what all the fuss was about.
“I thought, my goodness, this must be a big deal,” she said. When LeRoy's friends came over to talk about the catch, "you could just feel the energy in the room."
It’s entirely possible Chiovitte’s walleye record may never be broken. These days most anglers would measure, photograph and release such a huge walleye, and released fish don't qualify for the official state record. Moreover, the area of the Seagull River where the record came from is now off-limits to anglers in the spring, specifically to protect concentrations of spawning walleyes.
That's why Chiovitte said he thought his walleye record would be safe for a long time.
“Almost every record fish is full of spawn, and now you can't fish up there this time of year, so it's going to be pretty hard to top it,” Chiovitte told the News Tribune in a May 2019 interview, the 40th anniversary of the big catch and seven months before he died.
The closest anyone has come to catching (and keeping) a walleye as big was on July 4, 1989, when then-University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks caught one that weighed 17 pounds, 6 ounces on Loon Lake along the Gunflint Trail. It was weighed more than two hours after it was dead and it's possible it might have bested Chiovitte's record had it been weighed sooner. But we'll never know.
Schudy said Bruininks has agreed to speak at the Memorial Day weekend event at Chik-Wauk.
For more information on the musuem, go to gunflinthistory.org .
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .