In 1918, a young Swede named Claus Wallin decided he wanted no more of farm life, and ran off to America with the Ringling Circus, which was making an appearance there. When he arrived in Sarasota for the winter with the performers and other roustabouts, he fell in love with the picturesque little fishing village, and a feisty Indian-Irish woman named Irene Gallagher. He and Irene were married in 1920, and the young man, who was quickly mastering the English language, settled in to stay.
Irene’s brother, Jessie Gallagher, the best commercial fisherman at that time, fished the waters between Punta Gorda and Sarasota from 1920 to 1985 and taught his new brother-in-law all there was to know about the local waters. Jessie was married to Olla Roberts, whose family had settled in Immokalee and had acquired some 150,000 acres of prime land there; he was fiercely independent and wanted no part of ranching.
He favored working the open waters and keeping his own hours. Even at age 85, he was STILL pulling in his own nets and setting his own traps.
It was this kind of heritage and work ethic that Claus Wallin handed down through the family, first to his son Walter, followed by his grandsons, Walt and Tom Wallin. The boys grew up in Sarasota, attended local schools, and carried on the family tradition of working as commercial fisherman, learning the trade as young boys.
Tom says, “It was a pristine area then, and Sarasota was recognized as a commercial fishing village. We used to fish all night, poling our boats in front of the Ringling grounds and the Jungle Gardens looking for schools of mullet and other fish. All the fisherman were local then, and we were all friends. Gill nets were still legal there, of course, at the time. We had a few sidelines, too. We used to collect rattlesnakes on Siesta Key, then sell them to Texas Jim for between 2-5 dollars.”
The brothers tended their nets in a shack on the unspoiled waters of Whitaker Bayou, placing them on racks to dry and mend. Nets were woven from cotton in those days; nylon nets did not make an appearance until the 1960’s. The Wallin brothers also built and repaired their crab traps on the bayou, using slabs of wood.
“We were the real commercial fisherman,” Tom says, “working all day and sometimes all night, year round. We worked the seasons…clams, scallops, crabs, oysters. We knew all the little bayous, where all the grouper and snapper were. In those days, you could catch grouper only a few miles out on the Gulf. The waters were rich and productive, especially around Vamo Road, Blackburn Point and Siesta Key. We would get together sometimes, as many as 20 of us, putting out our nets. It was a kick to pull them up and see all the varieties of fish. We even caught sharks.”
In 1941, Walter Sr. and his half-brother, Harry, were operating a fish market on Whitaker Bayou. During these years, Walter went and served his country during World War II. When he returned, he decided to establish his business at a better location. With a stake of $250, he opened up the first Walt’s Fish Market on US 41. His two sons joined him in the venture a year later, and the men continued to fish at night. Taking turns opening up the market during the days. Enterprising, as well as hard working, Tom, with a little help from his brother, became the owner of some docks along a lagoon near the Siesta Fish Market. This is where he kept his boats and traps.
Walt’s Fish Market thrived from the start. In an answer to demand, Tom began frying fish for sandwiches for neighboring businesses with a makeshift fryer. He soon found the need for a commercial fryer, and business became so brisk that customers were called upon to fold their own carryout cartons! The Wallin family was astonished at the volume of orders.
It has been many decades between the first fish market on Whitaker Bayou and the present day Walt’s location at 4144 S. Tamiami Trail. Some things have changed since then. Tom and Linda’s (Tom’s beautiful and understanding wife) energetic son, Brett, rejoined the family business after graduating from High Point University in North Carolina. Since his graduation, Brett has been running the family business with his father. In August 2006, Tom succumbed to cancer after a valiant and long fight. Brett had not only lost his father, but his partner, too.
Since then, Brett Wallin has run Walt’s Fish Market and Restaurant full time. We guarantee that the fish you eat here is as quality as they were from the beginning, and the best you will ever taste. In 2012, Brett renovated the inside of the restaurant and built a Chickee Bar where Live Music is played throughout the week, and outdoor seating is available to drink and dine at one of Sarasota’s favorite restaurants, that is full of local flair and the freshest seafood in town! We’d love to have you stop on in and see why Sarasota is "hooked" on Walt's!
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