Korby's Connections: When the walleye came back
June 24, 2022
From writing golf stories for the fabulous award-winning Pine Knot newspaper and with my 50-plus years as a member of Cloquet Country Club, most readers likely associate me as a golf advocate and not an angler. It’s hard, but I try to do both. And I can’t let Pine Knot outdoors writer Bret Baker have all the fun.
This is a story about fishing. My parents had a cabin on Eagle Lake in Cromwell when I was a little kid, so I had exposure to fishing as a youth. I won a True Temper fishing reel and pole in a Cloquet Co-op Credit Union’s annual meeting raffle in the 1960s at the CHS gymnasium, and used it for many years. My dad, sister and I went stillwater fishing, anchored at Eagle Lake with bobbers and minnows in front of the infamous rock pile on the north shore. We’d catch fish, maybe a couple of small northerns and some “good-eating size” walleyes.
When I was in college in the 1970s, I bought my uncle Ed Klemovich’s boat, motor and trailer. It was a 14-foot Starcraft aluminum boat with a 7 1/2 horse Mercury outboard motor. It had been used so little, it was basically brand-new. My parents had sold the Eagle Lake cabin long ago, but my buddies and I would go to Split Hand, Pelican, Grand, Bob, Moose, Big, Chub, and other regional lakes. Nothing spectacular, but we usually had laughs and caught fish.
A recent article in the Minneapolis paper announcing $113 million more for cleanup of the St. Louis River reminded me of the fish story that I’m now going to share.
When I was a kid in Scanlon, hardly anybody went swimming or ate fish from the nearby St. Louis River. It was too polluted. Then, in 1978, the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District opened in West Duluth and brought back much-needed vitality and health — namely oxygen — to the river. Manufacturing facilities along the river, including Northwest Paper/Potlatch in Cloquet, spent millions treating and changing their emissions and improving river water quality. Shortly after that, the fish began returning to the river and replenishing themselves in large numbers.
Back then, I was working in human resources and labor relations at the American Hoist and Derrick manufacturing plant on the Duluth waterfront by the Port Authority.
My boss, Jay Henningsgard, loved fishing. One day he said, “Hey, Steve, you have a boat don’t you? Let’s plan on you bringing it to the plant some nice summer day and we’ll try fishing after work on the St. Louis River, OK?” Sounded like a good deal, so we initiated our plans. Henningsgard lived in Duluth and had been talking to fishing scholars on where best to catch these trophy walleyes.
Jay tied his own leaders in his basement. He used smaller hooks than I was normally choosing, and had chartreuse and other unfamiliar, new colors for spinners. The leader lines were about 3 feet long and had tiny beads by the moving spinners. Jay declared, “The fish won’t have a chance.” On the chosen date, he declared we’d get leeches, other bait and cold beer on the way to off-ramping the boat on the St. Louis River Boy Scout Landing on Commonwealth Avenue near Morgan Park.
It was busy when we arrived at the public water access. I lucked out and backed the truck and the trailer onto the ramp perfectly, like I was a pro (which I definitely wasn’t). The Merc, like usual, started on the first pull. Jay was impressed and said to go downriver toward Lake Superior and under the Oliver Bridge. We were one of the smaller fishing boats and most were passing us with a lot more outboard horsepower. It probably took us almost a half-hour to get to where Jay wanted to start trolling. We put leeches on our hooks and began our outdoors/sports section quest.
I don’t remember it taking very long for Jay to hook a fish. I’m not sure which was more fun to see, his pole bent to its extreme limit or the Cheshire smile on his face. After landing the fish in the boat, one of us used a cheap scale from a tackle box and determined the big walleye wavered at 5 pounds. I’d never seen, firsthand, the Minnesota state fish so big, powerful and beautiful. We put it on the stringer.
Jay said to circle around and retrace our route past Buoy 50. We were in the shipping canal with the Coast Guard buoy markers and had to be somewhat alert for ship traffic. This was by Spirit Lake, a wider section of the river. I trolled backwards and soon I had a fish on. Another whopper. Jay told me some trolling tactics, we used split shots, and basically bounced the bait along the river bottom. There was some skill, but mostly the fish hooked themselves. By going back and forth by that numbered buoy, we’d nearly catch a fish every time and even occasionally both have a fish on. It was exciting and tremendous outdoor entertainment … comparable to making a 20-foot birdie putt. Before long, we had our limit of walleyes, six each, almost all 5 pounds or more. We hardly had time to finish a beer.
In total comfort and satisfied with achieving our fishing goals, we cranked the Merc to wide-open and headed back to the Boy Scout landing. When we arrived, we had to wait for a couple of other boats to load up on their trailers. I remember another boat crew asking us how we did and Jay said, “Not bad.” Their boat was much larger than ours with downriggers and the like, obviously built for Lake Superior fishing. They said they did great and held up a stringer with a couple of walleyes and a bigger northern. They wanted to see our catch, so Jay reached under his seat and pulled out our catch of the night, all 12 of them. Their eyes just about popped out in envy … wish I had a picture. We packed up and headed home, knowing we’d have a fun story to share at work for days to come.
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. He welcomes ideas for human interest stories and tales regarding Carlton County residents, projects, history, and plans c/o [email protected]