Dennis Anderson
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The walleye that will live forever in Minnesota fishing lore has come home, or as close to home as possible.

LeRoy Chiovitte's 17-pound, 8-ounce walleye caught on May 13, 1979, is a storied lunker caught on a history-making opening weekend of fishing.

When Chiovitte, of Hermantown, Minn., died in 2019 at age 82, he left no specific plans for the walleye, a mount of which had sat encased in glass for 40 years in the home he shared with his wife, Joanne.

Now, in a deal blessed by her and favored by a majority of Duluth News Tribune readers who responded to stories written last summer by that newspaper's outdoors writer, John Myers, the fish will be permanently showcased at the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center, operated by the Gunflint Trail Historical Society.

A ceremony inducting Chiovitte's walleye into the museum will be held from 4-6 p.m. May 29 at the museum (more at

The museum is located only a mile or so from where the fish was caught, in the Sea Gull River between Sea Gull Lake and Lake Saganaga.

Chiovitte, a salesman of pipe valves, fittings and tubing, was a fisherman's fisherman, and given his passion for the sport, he was as deserving as any Minnesotan to catch the state's record walleye.

The days leading up to the first weekend of fishing in 1979 were cold — so much so that, as will be the case this year, ice remained on some northern Minnesota lakes on the season's first days.

"Back then, I was fishing all the time, up early and staying late,'' Chiovitte told me the last time I talked to him, in 1995.

On the Friday before the 1979 opener, Chiovitte and a friend, Lorin Palmer of Cloquet, and Palmer's teenage son, Todd, drove to the end of the Gunflint Trail.

At midnight — the minute fishing became legal — they launched their aluminum boat, prepared to be on the river most of the night.

Each was rigged with a spottail shiner on a plain hook, weighted with split shots. The anglers' boat was anchored in a river eddy, just out of the current, in 10 to 12 feet of water.

"We'd cast into the faster water and let the current swirl our baits around,'' Chiovitte said.

The first fish in the boat, caught by Chiovitte, was a walleye weighing 12½ pounds, a hefty spawned-out female. The trio caught another five walleyes weighing between 3 and 8 pounds before, at 10 a.m., they decamped to a nearby cabin to sleep.

"We knew fishing would be slower during the day, so we picked that time to rest,'' Chiovitte said.

The waters the three fished are no longer open to anglers on a season's initial days. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries managers believe the river's spawning walleyes need protection until they disperse into Sea Gull Lake and Lake Saganaga.

In 1979, however, the Sea Gull River was popular among opening-weekend anglers. Additionally, catch-and-release walleye angling was only in its infancy at the time, if that. So keeping big fish, as Chiovitte and his friends did, was commonplace.

Back on the water at 5 p.m. on opening day, the three again fished spottails on plain hooks.

"We fished until about midnight Saturday, catching a few more fish,'' Chiovitte said. "Then we went to our cabin to sleep a few hours before getting back on the water about 4 a.m.''

Chiovitte caught his record walleye at 8 a.m. Sunday, May 13, 1979.

"A boat had been anchored near us, and when it left, I cast my line to the spot it had been anchored,'' Chiovitte said. "That's when I caught it.''

The fish wasn't a great fighter. But complications arose when the big walleye wound itself around the boat's anchor rope.

LeRoy Chiovitte, shown in an unrelated photo with  Lorin Palmer, right, and his son, Todd Palmer. They fished together when LeRoy caught his record.
LeRoy Chiovitte, shown in an unrelated photo with Lorin Palmer, right, and his son, Todd Palmer. They fished together when LeRoy caught his record.

Provided, Star Tribune

Finally, Lorin Palmer pulled up the anchor . . . slowly.

"That's how we got the fish close enough to get it in a landing net,'' Chiovitte said.

The Minnesota walleye record at the time was 16 pounds, 11 ounces, caught in Basswood Lake by an Iowan, Merle Pulliam, in 1955.

"I will never forget the feeling I had as I watched the scale (at a nearby resort),'' Chiovitte said. 'It just kept going up and up. When it hit 17 pounds and kept going, I got weak in the knees.''

Though some anglers doubt Chiovitte's record will ever be topped, others — I among them — disagree.

True, only big female walleyes filled with spawn are likely to claim the crown, and most places where they hang out in spring are now off-limits during the season's first days.

But on July 4, 1989, then-University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks boated a 17-pound, 6-ounce walleye that wasn't weighed for more than two hours after it was caught — an indication that, all things being equal, Bruinicks' brute might have out-bruted Chiovitte's.

Additionally, in 2012, a Bemidji area fishing guide, Don Mickel, said he caught a walleye in Minnesota waters of the Rainy River that tipped 17.9 pounds on his hand scale. The fish, Mickel said, had a 24.25-inch girth and was 35.1 inches long (Chiovitte's walleye was 35.75 inches long, with a 21.25-inch girth.)

But because Mickel's walleye was caught in waters designated catch-and-release only by the DNR, it didn't count as a record.

Yet whether the current record stands for one more day — or for forever — Chiovitte was as good, and gracious, a walleye record-holder as Minnesota could hope for.

Not a braggart, he would nevertheless talk about his record catch to anyone who asked.

And a lot of people, over 40 years, asked.

Now, with Chiovitte passed on, his big fish is being returned to her home waters, or nearly so.

As it should be.