DULUTH, Minn. — Jimmy McLellan has a ritual he adheres to on most summer weekday mornings.
“I go by Kwik Trip,” says the spunky 69-year-old. “I fill my mug with coffee. And I say, ‘God, we’re going to the river today. You know what to do.’”
The river is the St. Louis River in Duluth where, on most summer mornings, you’re apt to find McLellan at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fishing pier at Boy Scout Landing in Gary-New Duluth. He’ll be fishing alongside his longtime buddy, Robert “Bob” Watkins, 65. Both men live in Duluth. They’re among many local and visiting anglers who frequent this popular pier next to the boat landing.
The DNR maintains about 50 fishing piers across Northeastern Minnesota. All are handy and accessible places to put a line in the water. Perhaps none, though, offers the quality and variety of fish that Boy Scout does.
“The best thing about this spot,” Watkins says, “is that when you cast that line out, you have no idea what you’re gonna get.”
It might be a walleye, a channel catfish, a sunfish, a northern pike, a sucker, a freshwater drum, a rock bass or a big sturgeon. A muskie is not out of the realm of possibility, either.
McLellan and Watkins, like other regulars at Boy Scout, typically get to the pier early. Space can be tight. McLellan has another reason to arrive early.
“I come here early because I want some time with the Boss,” he says, holding both hands to the heavens.
He and Watkins select a couple of rods from their nine-rod arsenals to use for the morning. Their tackle boxes are organized and complete, if simple. Like other anglers at Boy Scout, they typically rig a 1- or 1½-ounce weight, a leader and a night crawler on a stout hook. They give the ‘crawlers a fling and sit back to engage in lively conversation.
They were there on Wednesday, and the pier was hopping. Anglers came and went, jockeying for space.
Sher Mann, 56, and Lisa Wheelan, 46, of Two Harbors, Minn., were down for the morning. Pam Zylka, 59, of Duluth was there. She rarely misses a day. Buddies Dylan Kettner, 17, and Teng Xiong, 19, both of Duluth, show up soon. Keith Boshey, 26, also of Duluth, arrives with his black Lab, Brady.
Pier fishing is a communal experience. The anglers might not all know each other’s names, but they work together to undo the inevitable line tangles and to net fish for each other. They chatter back and forth.
It’s her job
Zylka takes the bus to Boy Scout Landing from her home in the West End every day — “even if it’s raining.” Her face and arms are deeply tanned. She’s been fishing here since she moved up from the Twin Cities in 1992. She had a stroke six years ago. She’s had one hip replaced. Zylka doesn’t buy night crawlers. She picks them in her yard by flashlight, feeds them Cream of Wheat cereal. She says she’s retired.
“This is my job — fishing,” she says.
She’s happy to tell you about her best days.
“I’ve caught two big suckers,” she says. “I pickled ’em. It softens the Y-bones. They tasted like pickled herring.”
She affixes small bells to the tips of her two fishing rods so she knows when a fish bites. Now the bell is ringing. Zylka takes up her slack and sets the hook. Kettner nets a 12-inch channel catfish for her. Onto her stringer it goes, dangling in the river.
On her last day of fishing last year, she caught four sturgeon. She tells the four-sturgeon story often.
“I didn’t want to catch any more,” she says. “I’d cast out, get a sturgeon. Cast out again. No way! Another sturgeon. The first two, there were people here to help. The last two, I was alone. I couldn’t get ‘em up to the pier. I broke the line.”
“They were like 45- to 48-inch ones,” she says. “Nothing really big. But big for me.”
One day she hooked a fishing rod on the bottom of the river while reeling in. She found a ready market for it.
“A guy gave me $5, some leeches and some crackers for it,” she says.
Sometimes, the pier gets crowded.
“You get 13 people fishing here, and then you get a family of eight that shows up,” she says. “The pier could be a little longer.”
Kettner, full of 17-year-old energy, constantly checks his lines and recasts his night crawlers.
“I’m in the mood for a nice, big catfish,” he announces. “I’ll give it to whoever wants it.”
But no nice, big catfish takes his bait. Instead, he pulls up a tiny, spiny Eurasian ruffe, an invasive species brought here courtesy of ocean-going freighters.
Zylka’s bell is ringing again.
She picks up a rod and begins to do battle. Kettner goes for his net. It’s a walleye. A nice walleye — 17½ inches long on Kettner’s tape. Walleyes must be 15 inches long to keep here on the river. Onto the stringer it goes.
When someone lands a fish, it perks up everyone on the pier. They all seem to share in the joy of whoever is doing the catching.
“What is it?”
“It’s a walleye!”
The biggest catch
There are hazards to pier fishing near a boat launch. At mid-morning, when a boater powers up leaving the dock, Lisa Wheelan’s line tightens. Momentarily, she thinks she has a bite. Oh, she has a bite, all right. About an 18-foot Crestliner. The line tightens and tightens and finally breaks.
“I got the biggest thing of the day,” Wheelan hollers. “I got a boat.”
Now one of Kettner’s rods is twitching. He sets the hook and is fast to a walleye. A very nice walleye. Finally, it’s flopping just off the pier. His friend Xiong tries to net it. Fails. And the fish is gone.
“I’ve got to replace that 4-pound-test line,” Kettner says, upset with himself.
Everyone agrees: That was a big walleye.
The flurry of action continues. Mann hauls up a rock bass. Kettner gets a kitty catfish. Xiong scores a rock bass. Mann lands a clam.
It’s a happenin’ morning at Boy Scout.