Sitting in a local coffee shop, the jovial Rev. Don Wisner has just come from putting away his beloved oar-powered western-style drift boat, dubbed “Row vs. Wade,” for the season. It’s a ritual that leaves this highly-respected theologian and widely-admired fly fisher with a feeling of gratitude mixed with hope.
Despite unpredictable rains and water level fluctuations, “Da Rev” — as his auto license plate IDs him — confessed this has been a decent year of fishing reverently with friends on the great rivers of northwest Wisconsin, picturesque smallmouth bass and muskie infested waters with romantic names like the Chippewa, Flambeau, Jump, Namekagon and the Eau Claire.
“Mostly it’s on the Chippewa because the fly fishing can be so good (and) you rarely see anyone,” said Wisner, 79, of Eau Claire, a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., who has served Lutheran parishes in Wisconsin most of his adult life.
Since his youth, Wisner has lived, studied, worked and recreated along rivers. He fished conventional spinning gear as a boy. In 1970 Wisner started fly fishing for trout on Knight’s Creek between Menomonie and Knapp. Over the past half century he hast cast to everything from trout and bluegills to bass and muskies.
A longtime campus pastor and liturgical scholar, Wisner was ordained at St. John’s Lutheran Church at Pittsburgh in 1967.
Accepting a seasonal pastoral invitation to Little Chapel in the Pines at the fly fishing community of Last Chance, Idaho. Headquartered at Mike Lawson’s Fly Shop, Wisner spent nine faculty summers guiding on the Western waters of the Henry’s Fork, Gibbon, Yellowstone and Warm rivers while dodging rocks in a drift boat named “Sabbath” on the Madison River.
“All the parishes I’ve served are along rivers,” Wisner said. “I went to Henry’s Fork not as a guide but a pastor.”
For 22 years Wisner served as campus pastor of University Lutheran Church at UW–Eau Claire. For 11 years he taught worship and liturgical studies at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. For eight years he served Lutheran Campus Ministry at UW-Stout in Menomonie.
His angling, theological, stewardship and academic experiences along the rivers and characters and causes he’s encountered are skillfully and delightfully woven in his first book, “River Parish Tales,” a collection of 23 essays, Wisner writes in the foreword, “that provide some insight into my gratitude for the gift of moving water and the folks I have met in their currents.”
The catch to this book is that Wisner is giving it away free. (More on that later.)
What’s been the reaction from those fortunate to put a hand on its colorful, easy reading pages?
“They know I write sermons,” Wisner said. “But not anything else. Most people don’t see me in that light, and I don’t claim to be a great writer.”
Explaining his essays are derived from articles he’s authored, sermons and personal reflections, Wisner said: “ I’ve been carrying these stories around since 1977.”
Wisner said his wife of 55 years, Janice, helped assemble the 146-page book. The book is dedicated to her and the couple’s two adult children, Steve Wisner and Sarah Duerre.
“People see the cover (Don’s fly casting a tight loop on a stream) and think it’s a book about fishing,” Wisner said. “It’s not. But that cover shot is the best cast I’ve made in my life. I printed 200 of them and I hope people will enjoy, when they’re gone, they’re gone.”
But, why give them away?
“It’s really important to know that three years ago I had surgery for esophageal cancer,” Wisner said. “It was discovered early, I was in good physical condition because of my skiing and biking and no heart disease and I had the care of an extremely skillfull physician, Dr. Bob Wickman, and medical team at Mayo Hospital in Eau Claire, and I am filled with gratitude, I’m alive because of them. The book is in gratitude and it’s a gift, because my life is a gift.”
What if the book suddenly were to become much in demand, would he consider printing a second edition and charging something for it? Maybe write another book? His thoughts:
“Two things — I’m not going to be writing more, I’m 79, every day I’m on a river is a gift,” Wisner said. “The fact I can still row 5-6 miles a day, again it’s with gratitude.
“The other thing is hope — hope next April I can do it another year, so it’s a mixture of gratitude and hope.”
Carlson is a freelance writer from in Eau Claire.