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Published: Friday, 12/31/2004

Port Clinton reels in New Year's tradition

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Eight years ago tonight, Dan Sedlak started a New Year's Eve tradition in Port Clinton by lowering a 127-pound papier-mache walleye by rope from a crane as the clock struck midnight.

Since then, this fish story has gotten bigger and bigger.

On New Year's Eve 1997, about 4,000 people watched the 17-foot walleye descend from 50 feet above Madison and Perry streets.

Tonight, a crowd of more than 10,000 is expected downtown as Mr. Sedlak helps lower a 20-foot, 600-pound fiber-glass walleye 120 feet to mark the start of 2005 in Port Clinton.

No one's more surprised at the annual gala's popularity than Mr. Sedlak, who suggested to Mayor Tom Brown that Port Clinton spoof other cities' New Year's Eve festivities as a way of drawing tourists to town in the winter.

He pointed to the annual Peach Drop in Atlanta and the granddaddy of them all, the giant ball drop in New York's Times Square.

"You see the peach in Georgia, New York's known as the Big Apple, even though they drop the ball. We're known for one thing up here, our sport fishing," Mr. Sedlak said. "Everybody comes from around the country to walleye fish here, so it just seemed like a natural match."

Mr. Sedlak, who owns the Windjammer restaurant in Danbury Township, said organizers hoped for a crowd of 500 at the first walleye drop and were amazed when eight times that many showed up.

Eight years later, "The walleye drop is now synonymous with the city's name," he said.

The event has drawn a bit of national attention to Port Clinton. Jay Leno and David Letterman have featured the city's "Walleye Madness at Midnight" on their late-night TV talk shows, and the Washington Post mentioned Port Clinton this week in a listing of quirky New Year's Eve celebrations. Other towns with offbeat celebrations include Dillsburg, Pa., which drops a giant pickle, and Lebanon, Pa., where a 100-pound bologna will descend in honor of the city's century-plus history of producing the smoked meat.

Valerie Stokes, president of the Community of Lebanon Association, which sponsors the town's annual New Year's Eve event, was impressed to hear about Port Clinton's fishy tradition.

"That's good," she said. "That's good food. Lebanon bologna is good, but walleye is just magnificent."

Mayor Brown, who has been the master of ceremonies for each of Capt. Wylie Walleye's midnight plunges, said the event has evolved into an important social and economic event for his city.

"It's really gratifying to see our own people together celebrating with us," he said. "And the businesses downtown have their biggest sales of the year on New Year's Eve," he said.

This year's festivities will include a 10:15 p.m. concert by Elvis tribute artist Dan Galbincea and a fireworks display immediately after Wylie drops into a giant net.

On a more somber note, the event's organizers will mark the May 30 death of Jeffrey Bodi, who had helped operate the crane that lowered Wylie each year since the first drop.

Mr. Bodi, 34, of Oak Harbor was killed when a friend lit a noisemaker that exploded, hurling a piece of pipe that struck him in the face. "We've kind of dedicated this year's whole drop to Jeff," Mr. Sedlak said.

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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