Rushford’s ongoing celebration of a fish for the ages

The man who landed one of the largest walleyes ever caught in North Dakota passed away Oct. 31 in Bismarck. The Rev. William Rushford was 89 years old. At the time of his death, he still possessed the whopper walleye he pulled from the Van Hook arm of Lake Sakakawea over a quarter century ago.

I don’t recall ever meeting Rushford. Based on a few telephone conversations with him, I know I wished I had. Even over the telephone he projected a friendly personality. Talking with him was refreshing, invigorating.

My conversations with him were about one of his favorite endeavors – fishing. Talking to him about fishing was like talking with a youngster the day he caught his first fish. A chat with him had the effect of increasing a person’s appreciation for fishing. He loved to talk about his time in the boat and, of course, his monster walleye.

Rushford’s first assignment following his ordination in 1955 was as an assistant at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Minot. Later he would serve churches at Sentinel Butte, Medora, Ray, Marmarth, Epping, Bowman, Underwood, Turtle Lake and Riverdale. It was in his final assignment, pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Garrison, that Rushford was able to find time to spend a few additional hours on the water.

In one of our conversations he told me about the day he caught his 14-pound, 4-ounce walleye. I don’t recall who he was fishing with, but I do remember him saying it was two others from the church who thought him to be “a little crazy.”

Consider the date of the catch – Nov. 30, 1987. Rushford said he had to push his little boat across more than 100 yards of the ice to launch it in open water. It must have been quite a sight to see three men involved in that treacherous maneuver. It proves how much Rushford enjoyed fishing.

The trio’s adventure wasn’t over once they got on the water. Rushford’s outboard motor wouldn’t start. Imagine the sight, three men bundled up against the winter cold in a boat on Lake Sakakawea with a motor that won’t start. It’s not like there were any other boats on the lake at that time of year. That scene is every fisherman’s nightmare!

What did Rushford do? He started fishing. Yup, he put a line in the water while working on his outboard. Why not? When you are in a boat, fish!

In a 2008 interview with the late Wes Cumings of Garrison, the taxidermist who mounted Rushford’s remarkable catch, he said the big fish grabbed a jig and minnow as soon as Rushford got his motor working and the boat began to move. It was then that Rushford’s line tightened and the battle to land the fish began.

Rushford told me about the catch, saying all three men knew it was something special. Rushford said his fishing partners wanted to immediately take the big fish to an official scale. Nope. Rushford intended to fish some more.

When his catch was finally verified at 14 pounds, 4 ounces, it was second on the list of largest walleyes ever recorded in North Dakota. The top fish on the list was the 15-pound, 12-ounce Wood Lake walleye credited to the late Blair Chapman of Minnewaukan. However, the Wood Lake walleye was not taken on hook and line. It was found floating on the lake.

Rushford’s catch was finally matched by a 14-pound, 4-ounce walleye caught by Aldon Olson of Williston in May 2001. It wasn’t until August 27, 2011, that a certified catch weighed more than Rushford’s walleye. That’s when Alecia Berg of Minot caught a 15-pound, 12-ounce walleye from the Missouri River Tailrace.

McLain Morawski of Bowbells landed a 14-pound, 7-ounce walleye from Lake Sakakawea in late April of this year. That means, to date, Rushford’s walleye still ranks No. 4 all-time for North Dakota. His catch was an accomplishment he was quite proud of. Indeed, given the circumstances and its size, the Rushford walleye will forever be a fish for the ages.