Fishing to fight ALS

There was something missing Saturday from the 12th annual ALS walleye tournament. It wasn't the fisherpeople. Nearly 200 boats with two anglers each hit Island Lake Saturday morning trying for the largest combined weight of six walleyes and the t...

There was something missing Saturday from the 12th annual ALS walleye tournament.

It wasn't the fisherpeople. Nearly 200 boats with two anglers each hit Island Lake Saturday morning trying for the largest combined weight of six walleyes and the top prize -- four round-trip Northwest Airlines tickets anywhere in the U.S.

The rain certainly wasn't missing. That seemingly shows up nearly every year.

The fish were there. Walleyes were cooperating better than they usually do on this big reservoir north of Duluth.

And certainly the event's now-famous spirit wasn't missing. Dozens of volunteers and sponsors and the usual team of tournament celebrities were on hand -- despite cool weather, occasionally heavy rain and even some lightning -- to make the event among the best-run fishing contests and fundraisers in the region.


What was missing from the tournament and its banquets, however, was the original catalyst for what has become Duluth's largest

single-day fundraising event.

Kevin Kolquist died April 2 from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often called Lou Gehrig's disease, after nearly 12 years battling the disease. But his spirit was very much present at the event that Kolquist moved others to start.

Kolquist, diagnosed with the disease in 1995, inspired his brothers, David and Tim, and a host of other people, to organize the fishing tournament to raise money to find a cure.

Kevin Kolquist was almost always present at the tournament, even when confined to his wheelchair. He was often given a standing ovation at the event's Saturday night banquet as family, friends and even strangers looked on with support and a few tears.

This year, event organizers presented a video tribute to Kevin. And organizers vowed to keep Kolquist's spirit and inspiration alive, and keep the fishing tournament an annual event, until a cure is found.

"People come and go and things come up so that some people can't fish in the tournament every year. Everyone understands that,'' said Ray Higgins, who has volunteered to be the tournament's spokesman and co-organizer since it began. "But here's the sickest guy in the place, and he [Kevin] was there every year. He was the force behind it, and now he's not there ... But this will go on thanks to everyone else involved.''

Each fishing team paid $350 to enter, with virtually all proceeds going to fund research for a cure and to make life a little easier and better for Minnesota ALS victims and their caregivers. Over 12 years, the event has raised about $1.3 million from entry fees and auctions.


"It's fun. It's a great cause,'' said a soggy Bob Cannon of Duluth. Bob and his son, Rob, weighed six fish totaling a respectable 7.67 pounds to finish in the top 10.

But the Cannons, like most of the other contestants, know it's not really about the fish or the prizes.

"I hope they keep this going now, even after Kevin is gone ... It's a great event for a terrible disease,'' Cannon said.

More than 100 volunteers help each year, from packing lunches to launching and landing boats. Several local companies offer free meals, snacks and fishing tackle to the participants. Several businesses offer prizes for contestants and some even buy employees entry into the event.

"We have people volunteer every year, who step up and do this for no recognition, just because it's what they want to do to help,'' Higgins said. "We have a lot of unsung heroes who make this happen.''

That includes Bob Terry of Duluth, who tugged on a pair of waders early Saturday and was at the Island Lake boat landing at about 5 a.m. He and other volunteers launched and landed contestants' boats.

"It gets to be a long day. Especially in the rain,'' Terry said, still smiling at 3 p.m. "But it's a great cause.''

ALS weakens and eventually paralyzes muscles, making it impossible to move and, eventually, to breathe. It does not affect the mind.


Kolquist was diagnosed in September 1995 and lived far longer than the usual three- to five-year life expectancy of those diagnosed with ALS, thanks to a ventilator that helped him breathe.

In recent years, Kolquist communicated through a computer-activated voice machine that all Minnesota ALS victims can now receive, thanks in part to fundraising event's like Saturday's fishing tournament.

"Without events like ours, there's no hope," Kevin said in a 2004 interview, using the device. "As long as there's hope, there's a reason to fight. We just keep on battling."

On average, 100 people in Minnesota are diagnosed with the disease each year, and 100 die. Friends and relatives of ALS victims say efforts to focus funding toward ALS research, as well as efforts to find a cure, have been frustratingly slow.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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