Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fish for change in a walleye wallet

Local trapper's fish-skin items seem headed for the big time

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LA RIVIÈRE -- Nothing says you're from Manitoba quite like... a walleye-skin wallet?

Walleye wallets have started flipping open at cash registers in Manitoba and are about to go on sale across North America.

Cabela's Canada already carries the local product, and Cabela's in the United States is expected to pick it up soon. Other sport-fishing retailers are lining up. Barcodes are being made up to allow distribution to up to 70 airport gift shops, starting with Richardson International Airport.

"For a little patch in the woods, it's pretty exciting," said Clint Boyd, the trapper who makes the wallets from his trapper's shack on a hillside near Holiday Mountain Ski Hill in Pembina Valley.

While Boyd has definitely landed the big one this time, his company, Big Eye Leather, produces more than wallets. He also makes walleye-skin business-card holders.

"A company called King Fisher took a huge order (as well as wallets), and they want more," he said.

He makes walleye-skin belts and filleting-knife sheaths. "One company in the U.S. figures the filleting-knife cases will be bigger than the wallets," Boyd said.

He has even struck deals in Canada and the United States to manufacture pink walleye wallets to fundraise for breast-cancer research.

"I can sell one wallet and have 10 to 15 people phoning about them," he said.

Boyd, 56, trapped his first beaver when he was seven years old. He learned to prepare hides at his grandfather's knee. He experimented over the years with different hides, often wondering how others managed to make salmon and shark skins into products. "I always figure if you can eat something, why can't you wear it?"

Then he found a way. "I was just playing with it. I've tanned frogs, mice, you name it."

His tanning process, which is a trade secret, includes removing the fish scales, which leaves the skin with its unique pattern, while keeping its incredible strength.

The tanned walleye skin is so light it feels like you could easily tear it in two -- but just try. Louis Cyr, the famous strongman, couldn't rip it. Dominion Tanners tested it and found it stronger per ounce than leather. However, the fish skins have to be laminated onto a leather backing to make wallets because they are so thin.

Boyd gets up at 4 or 4:30 every morning and doesn't stop until about 9 p.m., seven days a week.

He buys fish skins from the Manitoba Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. by the tonne. Otherwise, the marketing board sells them as fish meal for cat food or fish stock for soup.

The biggest problem will be producing enough product to meet demand. A sewing house was under construction and nearing completion when the Free Press visited Boyd. His production line is expected to be up in a month or so. He hopes to have about 10 in-house sewers initially and build up to 20.

That doesn't include all the people around La Rivière, 150 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, already doing piecework from home. He has no intention of outsourcing jobs offshore to somewhere like China. "I'm keeping this stuff made in Manitoba, Canada."

He keeps inventing. He makes products out of beaver tail and turkey-feet skin for their unique patterns. "I've had this beaver-tail wallet for 22 years. It's just starting to fall apart," he said. Other products include beaver-tail or walleye change purses, turkey-leather drink coasters and a beaver-tail fly swatter. "I can't wait to get up in the morning and see what I'm going to be doing next," he said.

"We've had people in the fashion industry approach us. We've had people in Nashville wanting turkey leather embroidered into their guitar straps," said Dave Johnson, Boyd's marketing manager.

The wallets retail for $44.95 at Cabela's. They are also at The Forks and Chip and Pepper in Kenora. They come in black, grey, brown and natural.

"Big Eye" is a slang term for walleye that Boyd heard on a fishing show.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2012 A6

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