DULUTH, Minn. -- It may well have been the smallest fishing contest ever held on the St. Louis River. And it had to be among the wettest. But it wasn't short of passion.
Twenty-six fly-fishers turned out during an all-day downpour Aug. 26 for the first "Paddle the Pads" Bass Fishing Contest on the river. The event, open only to fly-fishers using non-motorized watercraft, was an idea spawned by John Fehnel of Duluth's Great Lakes Fly Shop. The "pads" reference is to lilypads, where bass are sometimes found.
Duluth's Carson Spohn, 28, took home first place and a new fly rod for the 181/2-inch smallmouth bass he caught. He narrowly edged Hansi Johnson of Thomson and Leif Birnbaum of Duluth, who tied for second place with 171/2-inch smallmouths.
"Everyone I talked to caught fish," said Spohn, who fished from his specialized fishing kayak. "We had a good time even though it rained the whole day."
Fehnel held the event to celebrate fly-fishing for bass on the St. Louis River, known best for its walleyes and muskies, and also to celebrate the recent habitat restoration work at Chambers Grove Park in Duluth.
"Mostly, we wanted to get people to recognize how awesome and how fun it is to fish for bass, and what a better venue than down on the St. Louis River," Fehnel said. "Fly-fishing for bass is a hoot. Those river smallies are the baddest of the bad."
Fehnel said he also wanted to recognize the habitat improvement work that was done recently along the waterfront at Chambers Grove.
All of the fish caught in the contest were released. Anglers had to measure their fish on tapes provided by the fly shop. An angler could measure as many fish as he caught (all competitors were men) but could enter just one in the contest. Once an angler officially entered a fish, his fishing was over for the day. And Fehnel kept all entries secret until 6 p.m. when the contest closed.
During the soggy day, competitors would come ashore for food and beverages and to warm up around a fire at the Chambers Grove picnic shelter. After recent rains, the river was flowing at 3,230 cubic feet per second -- somewhat high -- early in the day and came up several inches as a steady rain fell.
Anglers fished from kayaks, canoes, one Western-style drift boat and at least one raft. Most anglers' success came on sinking flies like streamers, Fehnel said. Spohn caught his winning bass on a streamer fly that imitates a sculpin minnow.
"I got (the winning fish) where they did some of the restoration that created spawning habitat," Spohn said, "at the tip of the island right across from the park."
The habitat improvement work, done in 2015, removed a 5-foot wall along the river and replaced it with a gradual slope, anchoring logs and boulders that provide good spawning areas for the river's sturgeon and bass. An arc of large rocks placed just upstream slows and redirects the river's current to prevent erosion along the shore at Chambers Grove.
Already, shore anglers at Chambers Grove are finding the river an easier and more productive place to fish, said Johnson, director of recreational lands for the Minnesota Land Trust.
The $1.2 million habitat project along 1,000 feet of shoreline is part of a much larger Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Congress-funded cleanup and rehabilitation of the lakes, their harbors and tributaries.
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