‘Walleye Queen’ still can fish with the best of them

Dan Falloon

Even at the age of 84, Lil Pihulak still has a flair for fishing on Rainy Lake.
Back in July, for example, Pihulak hauled in four large walleye, ranging from 22-28 inches in length, over the course of about three hours.
Pihulak’s friend, Sylvia Johnston of International Falls, was out in the boat that day and snapped pictures of the fish as a keepsake.
“After I took those four pictures, I thought, ‘This woman, when it comes to fishing, she is just phenomenal,’” lauded Johnston.
“It was just a matter of a couple hours that she out-fished everybody.”
Pihulak was humble talking about that impressive day, noting that for every one blowout, there are numerous days that aren’t as successful.
“That won’t happen every day,” she stressed.
Pihulak competed in many tournaments over the course of her career, but now just sticks to “fun fishing.” She tries to get out onto the lake once a week in search of trout and walleye, often at her daughter Sandra’s cabin.
She also said she does more than just fishing.
“At least once a week, I go up to my daughter and her husband’s cabin and go fishing with Jim quite a bit,” Pihulak noted.
“God gave me good health and I take advantage of it,” she reasoned. “I even went out picking blueberries nine times this summer.
“I have half a freezer full of blueberries,” she chuckled.
Pihulak also enjoys visiting casinos, with her grandson, Jeff Pihulak of Dryden, pointing out she often had a penchant for wagering out on the water.
“The gambler would always come out in her,” he recalled.
“There was always a side bet for the first fish or the biggest fish, a couple bucks here or there, but there was always a side bet on the table.”
Jeff Pihulak reminisced that the days he spent out on the lake with his grandmother often were long ones—and they often were jam-packed with angling action.
“I can remember that you’d go out fishing with Grandma for the day and you weren’t coming in until you had your limit of fish,” he noted.
“She’d take kids with her just so she could bring home a couple extra fish,” he kidded.
“It was lots of fun. She’s really been an influence,” he added. “All her kids were fishermen, and my kids now, we love going out on the lake.”
But the influence worked both ways. Jeff Pihulak was the first to convince his grandmother to enter a tournament when he was set on fishing the Dryden Walleye Masters back in the early 1990s.
“It was sort of a funny story,” he remarked. “I thought it would be a fun thing to do.
“I had asked my dad about it first, and he thought it about it a little bit. I let him ponder that idea for a little while.
“Some time went by and I asked him again,” Pihulak continued. “I gave him an ultimatum at the time. I said, ‘Well, you know what, Grandma’s coming up this weekend, so if you don’t give me an answer by the weekend, I’m going to ask Grandma because I know she’s going to say yes.’
“I asked her and there was no hesitation at all,” he recalled. “It was ‘Yeah, that’ll be fun, let’s do that.’
“That started the ball rolling, and for years and years she came up with different family members and friends.”
During a tournament, the attitude on the boat was far from leisurely as Lil became quite the competitor once the horn sounded to release their boat to start competition.
“She always liked to wager, so this upped the ante a little bit for her,” Jeff Pihulak reasoned.
“It was pretty serious. There was no fooling around with her,” he stressed.
“It was tense, actually. It was quite tense. She was hard-core,” he added. “You went out there and you were fishing hard.
“She wanted the big fish. It wasn’t just a relaxing day out on the lake.
“It actually sort of got to be more of a job than fun at some times,” he laughed.
Pihulak estimated she would fish in about three tournaments a year, and sampled a wide variety of events during her competitive years.
Aside from the Dryden Walleye Masters, she also participated in the Gary Roach Pro-Am Tournament in Minaki, as well as the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship, Emo Walleye Classic, Rainy River Walleye Tournament, and “Castin’ for Cash” on Lake Despair.
“I enjoyed all my tournaments,” she enthused. “I never won any of them, but I came close.”
“I sort of unleashed a monster, so to speak,” chuckled her grandson.
Although she began tournament fishing with Jeff, Lil fished competitively with a number of partners, including Ann Grabowski, to make up the first all-female team in Emo Walleye Classic history at the debut tournament in 2002.
She also was the first woman to fish in the FFCBC during its debut back in 1995.
This year, both the EWC and FFCBC drew only one all-female team apiece.
“Fishing is mostly a male sport,” Pihulak remarked. “Some women just don’t think they should come out, but there’s more and more of them.
“It’s a lot of work for a woman, too.”
Jeff Pihulak noted that before his grandmother sold her boat, she often used to take friends and relatives out for a day of fishing.
However, these days, a number of people are repaying that kindness with boats of their own.
“The tables have turned,” he reasoned. “For years, she was always taking people out fishing, and now, she’s getting up in age, she can’t handle the boat herself, so people are more than willing to take her out for the day.
“She’s slowed down a little bit these days, but she still loves going out on the lake,” he stressed.
Although she’s known as the “Walleye Queen,” Lil loved to fish for lake trout with her husband, Nick, who passed away in 1999.
“They’re just a bigger fish. They’re a thrill to catch,” she said of trout.
And when she had the boat, she was in charge and was able to run it, although her experiences these days are a little toned down.
“After my husband passed away, then you don’t have anybody to help you with things, so I gave it up,” she noted.
“When I had my old boat, I ran my old boat.
“Now I don’t do nothing. I just sit in the boat and fish,” she added.
Johnston credited Lil with introducing her to fishing a number of years ago, and added that Lil is a major reason for keeping up with the sport.
“She’s very knowledgeable of the lake and she’s a lot of fun,” Johnston said. “It’s because of her that I really have a love of fishing.
“She is just such a loving, giving woman, she’s there for everybody,” Johnston added.