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Korby's Connections: Dream fulfilled as captain of fishing boat

At the ripe old age of 21, former Cloquet standout Riley Leslie has been an award-winning high school athlete and scholar, then a hard-working college student, and now you can call him “Captain.” Leslie recently acquired his own boat as part of the Happy Hooker Charters fleet in Duluth on Lake Superior.

Sports were always a big part of Leslie’s life. As a junior, he played on the undefeated Lumberjacks football team, which lost for the first time in the state championship game. Although the team lost in the section finals his senior year, the following April Leslie was back at “the Bank” being recognized as one of the top scholar athletes in Minnesota. Leslie was the point guard on the Lumberjacks basketball team and competed in the 4x100 relay and triple jump in track. He helped with school plays and youth functions. He praised the coaches and the opportunities he had at Cloquet and being pushed to reach his full potential.

But this is not a high school sports story — it’s the tale of Leslie and the Happy Hooker.

After the eighth grade, Leslie decided to take a summer job working for his great-uncle Jon Dahl on the Happy Hooker fishing charter boat. Jon’s father was the founder of the Happy Hooker charter fishing business in 1976. The soon-to-be high school freshman was a first mate and Dahl was the captain.

Leslie worked part-time, at the start.

“My biggest challenge was getting to work in Duluth,” Leslie said in an interview last month. “At 14, I didn’t have a car — or a driving license, for that matter.”

Fortunately, his mom, Jessica, worked in Duluth and often arranged her schedule to drop Riley off at the fishing pier early and pick him up in the late afternoon.

As Leslie got older and was able to drive, he worked more hours on the boat each summer, usually every day. He loved being on the water.

Leslie worked with Jon Dahl for five summers. Unfortunately, Dahl became ill with cancer in 2019 and passed away in 2020.

With aspirations of following in the family business, Leslie decided to become a captain himself. Two years ago, he enrolled in an online captain training program. The U.S. Coast Guard requires the operator of a vessel carrying passengers for hire to have a boat captain’s license. Getting that requires training in navigation, water safety and boating rules, first aid, mapreading, and boat operation and maintenance. Operators also are required to have a Department of Homeland Security transportation worker identification and they are subject to random drug screens. Licensing also requires “on the water” hours, which Dahl could certify. With much studying and preparation, Leslie passed the test.

With Dahl’s passing, Riley is now the transitional owner and operator of the Happy Hooker, which is docked in the slip right next to the William Irvin tourist ship attraction in Duluth during the season.

Leslie says the newer boats, all 32 feet of them, are equipped with radar, two big diesel engines, and other safety and communication devices. Fishing equipment has also changed since the 1970s when his relatives started the fishing charter business at the mouth of the St. Louis River. The first down riggers were powered by tricycle wheels.

Not often, but occasionally, Lake Superior will “change” and show its mighty force. “I was out with a group in May,” he said. “It was in the 80s and people were in shorts and T-shirts. Suddenly, the water turned dark and within 15 minutes the temp dropped into the 60s. Of course, then fog can be an issue too.”

He said 2021 was a great summer for fishing on Lake Superior. Even with rain, which was rare, the Cloquet grad was able to bring customers out daily through the Duluth harbor, under the Aerial Lift Bridge, to fishing hotspots out on “Gitchi Gummi.” The McQuade Small Craft Harbor up the North Shore is about his most northerly destination.

It’s a lot of fun for him. The Happy Hooker is part of a six-boat fleet that advertise together and share a website. The charter fishing business is doing quite well in Duluth.

“To get a Saturday fishing reservation can require three to six months lead time,” Leslie said. “Usually, the boats have two 5-hour cruises a day.”

Going out daily, and with experience working on the boat for years, Riley can nearly always — knock on wood — find and catch fish for boat clients. He said his customers’ fishing experiences vary widely. For some, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, while other customers fish nearly daily. Anglers have caught lake trout, steelhead (rainbow trout), salmon, walleye and brown trout. This is some of the best freshwater fishing in the world.

For now, the Happy Hooker is on a well-deserved break. With Riley’s dad Ron’s help, she is out of the water, stored in Cloquet for the winter. And Captain Leslie is back in school, in his third year of attending the College of St. Scholastica pursuing a Biology Major and chemistry minor.

The CSS track coach “chased” him but he’s stayed away from organized sports. He’s plenty busy and truthfully has not missed the action much. After all, fishing is a sport too.

For more charter fishing information, go online to fishinduluth.com or call 218-409-4744

Steve Korby’s interest in writing goes back to when he was in fourth grade and editor of the Scan-Satellite school newspaper in Scanlon. Steve loves sports, especially golf. He welcomes human interest stories and tales regarding Carlton County residents, projects, history, and plans.

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