For almost a year now, I’ve been paddling my kayak in pursuit of the East Tennessee walleye. I’ve heard people claim they’ve caught walleye—a pikeperch native of the upper Midwest—and I’d been given ample advice on when, where, and how to catch them. But after fishing through the winter, spring, and summer in places like Norris and Tellico lakes and the Douglas Dam tailwaters, I had not had so much as a glimpse of my Moby Dick—a smaller version with tiny, sharp teeth and delectable flesh.
This summer I was on the verge of driving to Minnesota’s Rainy River, where my sister-in-law, Betsy, a native Minnesotan, guaranteed I’d catch one. But what was the challenge in that? Here in the South the walleye is exotic, primordial, and elusive. I wanted to see one and I wanted to possess it, if even for a short time.
I began to focus on Fort Loudoun State Historic Area, on Tellico Lake. I’d caught other fish there—smallmouth, bream, catfish—and because I’d caught these other fish, I began to believe, without any hard evidence, that walleye had to be there as well.
One Thursday evening I escaped from an overworked week in hopes of relaxing in the boat. I didn’t care if I caught a fish; I just needed to drift until sunset or beyond, away from the land and its troubles. In my exhaustion, I’d forgotten about my walleye obsession.
I cast the spoon, a Little Cleo, over and over, soothed by repetition. Then something broke my line. I tied on my other spoon and thought I got hung. No, I had hooked something animate, something that wanted to stay at the bottom, in about 15 feet of water. He’d taken the hook as if he’d gulped it, a different approach than a bream or a bass, who strike with more precision and alacrity. His fight was intermittent. He would pause a few seconds and then dive.
What I pulled from the water had tiny teeth and a fan-like dorsal fin. He was long and muscular, and as he lay on the floor of my boat between my legs, he broke off the knot that held my lure. There was a drop or two of blood on the boat, mine and the walleye’s. After a couple of minutes, I extracted the treble hook and held him in the water to revive. He was off.
I showed the photos on my phone to the park ranger. He did not know this fish. I sent the photos to Drew Crain, a biologist at Maryville College. His response was “Eat him!” then a follow-up text with a link to a Tennessee Wildlife Resources fish identification page: I had caught a walleye.
I was thrilled, but I felt cheated because I had to be told what it was, and people kept asking me why I’d thrown back the best-tasting fish in the world. This drove me onward in my quest. I returned one blustery evening in search of Walleye II. I had my camera this time and my stringer. I didn’t know if I’d keep what I caught, but I was ready in case I decided to.
There were severe thunderstorm warnings a couple of counties over, and the wind in Monroe County was gusting to 20-25 miles an hour. Fort Loudoun, sitting on a knoll, provided shelter for me in the lee of the west wind. It raged through the tree tops but left the water calm.
After 10 minutes of fishing, I snagged a sycamore and lost my first lure, which hung like an ornament from a twig 20 feet above me. This incident not only underscored my skill level as a fisherman, but it also made me skeptical of receiving the kind of blind luck that my fishing success depends upon. I decided to give it a half hour and then go home.
Five minutes later, I snagged what felt like a tree limb on the bottom, 15 feet from shore. After a few turns of the reel, I could see this oblong pale form emerging from the depths, twice as long as Walleye I. The fight was far from over. He’d lie in the water still like a log, and as soon as I turned the reel, he’d dive for the bottom. He went under the boat. He pulled me toward shore for a bit. At the edge of the boat when I reached down for him (no net!), he thrashed and soaked me from the chest down. In the boat, on the floor between my legs, a foot and half of fury banged against the plastic. As I unhooked the lure, he opened and closed his tooth-filled mouth.
It was humbling to find out later that the world-record walleye was 25 pounds, caught in Tennessee at Old Hickory Reservoir, and my Walleye II was around five pounds, I’m guessing. TWRA also points out that 60,000 of them were stocked in Tellico as recently as 2013, and “walleye in the 10-pound range are not uncommon.”
At the time, though, I was shaky with excitement and exertion, and I put him on the stringer and towed him to the shore, deliberating briefly on whether I would let him go. I hadn’t cleaned a fish in years.
I heard Drew’s voice: “Eat him!”
What to do with Walleye II? Catching a fish is a way to feel the wilderness pulsing in your hand, and to get bitten or finned or to hook yourself creates healthy empathy. Harvesting and cleaning a fish extends that connection. You see the insides and maybe you get finned some more. You remove the flesh as cleanly as you can and you wash off the blood to ready it for the skillet, a much different sensation than plucking the “wild-caught” package of frozen salmon from the grocery store freezer and tossing it into a shopping cart, a process I have perfected.
Cleaning Walleye II also connected me to my father, who taught me everything I know about fishing. He would have been proud that I completed the entire cycle that he showed me and coached me through over and over. It brought back to me the things that he did so well. And as the smell on my hands lingered after repeated washings, as it had on his, I was glad to be reminded of where I’d come from.
Walleye II was as tasty as advertised, and I had thanked him repeatedly, on the stringer and in the plate, for giving me closure in my quest. Still, the glassy black eye followed me into an uneasy sleep, my reflection in this eye an accusation, a witnessing of sorts. I remembered the fish alive and then not. At 4 a.m. I took an antacid and considered the next quest: mushrooms, ginseng, wild ginger, something without a face.
Meet Kim Trevathan in the flesh! He’ll be speaking about “Transformative Places” at a meeting of the Harvey Broome Group of the Sierra Club, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m., at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (2931 Kingston Pike).
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