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A shore thing: Anglers find success below the Island Lake Dam -- for now

Under a foreboding sky on a May evening, Stephan Witherspoon stands hip-deep in the outflow below the Island Lake Dam. He's wearing waders and a rain jacket, all in drab green or camouflage.

Brothers Elijah Witherspoon (foreground) and Sebastian Witherspoon (blue sweatshirt) fish the Cloquet River below the Island Lake Dam with their nephew Quinton Witherspoon on Monday evening. Elijah and Sebastian grew up in Duluth and now live in Minneapolis. Quinton is from Duluth. Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com
Brothers Elijah Witherspoon (foreground) and Sebastian Witherspoon (blue sweatshirt) fish the Cloquet River below the Island Lake Dam with their nephew Quinton Witherspoon on Monday evening. Elijah and Sebastian grew up in Duluth and now live in Minneapolis. Quinton is from Duluth. Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com

Under a foreboding sky on a May evening, Stephan Witherspoon stands hip-deep in the outflow below the Island Lake Dam. He's wearing waders and a rain jacket, all in drab green or camouflage.

Witherspoon, 43, is fishing for walleyes in quiet water away from the current. The water is actually the Cloquet River, where it continues its journey downstream after being held up to form Island Lake Reservoir.

A yellow stringer dangles from Witherspoon's waders into the water. The stringer twitches occasionally, indicating that Witherspoon has enjoyed some success. Two walleyes are swimming in the dark water alongside his leg.

Witherspoon, of Duluth, isn't alone below the dam. About a dozen anglers, including two of Witherspoon's brothers and a nephew, are also fishing the outflow. It's a popular spot for shore anglers.

"We've been fishing here for 25 years," says Elijah Witherspoon, 46, one of Stephan's brothers from Minneapolis but originally from Duluth.

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Elijah and Sebastian Witherspoon, 41, also of Minneapolis, have come up to Duluth for a funeral on this May afternoon. They're squeezing in some fishing before returning to Minneapolis. A 16- or 17-inch walleye idles on a stringer tied off to the shore behind them.

The men have boats and fish elsewhere through the summer. But they like fishing below the dam for three reasons, Elijah says.

"It's peaceful," he says. "It's easy access. And you catch fish."

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Stephan Witherspoon of Duluth shows off a couple of walleyes he caught Monday evening below the Island Lake Dam. Sam Cook / DNT

Especially the latter, says Sebastian.

"It's productive," he says, nodding for emphasis as he watches his slip-bobber.

Many below-the-dam anglers will tell you the same thing. But within days, they will have to give up this spot for a time. Minnesota Power, which manages the dam, will close the area near the dam on Thursday for the rest of this year and from June 1 to Dec. 31 in 2018. The company plans to replace five gates in the dam, a major project.

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"That's extremely inconvenient for people who don't have boats," Sebastian Witherspoon says.

Across the water, his brother Stephan is philosophical about the closure.

"If it needs to be done - hey, do it," he says. "We need to preserve our environment. There are other places to fish."

According to Minnesota Power, the closure will include all facilities in the vicinity of the dam, including the boat launch, public beach, parking lots, canoe portage and fishing pier.

"We felt it necessary to close the area while construction is underway for public and employee safety," said Amy Rutledge, corporate communications manager for Minnesota Power.

Where they'll go

When the dam area is closed, some anglers likely will go to the Island Lake Bridge on St. Louis County Highway 4 over the narrows on Island Lake. Other anglers like fishing from the Fish Lake Bridge, where Lavaque Road crosses Fish Lake. Others prefer the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fishing pier at Boy Scout Landing on the St. Louis River. But anglers will miss fishing below the Island Lake Dam, where tannin-stained water comes charging through the dam.

The Witherspoons - and other anglers - catch a variety of species here. Walleyes. Crappies. Perch. Channel catfish. Northern pike. An occasional muskie or carp.

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Beyond the fishing, it's quite pleasant standing in the cool water or on shore listening to the rush of water descending through the dam into the river. The area is semi-wild, with grassy and willow-lined shores, some rock riprap and a minimum of concrete.

"It's beautiful," Elijah Witherspoon says.

The Minneapolis Witherspoons and nephew Quinton call it an evening. Quinton cleans the single walleye and bags the fillets.

Across the river, Stephan detects a slight twitch in his rod tip. He raises it sharply and reels up another walleye. It's a little one. Once it's airborne, he swings it pendulum-style to his waiting hand. He removes his hook and releases the fish. Reaching into a plastic bag secured to his waders, he pulls out a fresh leech. "It's good to get out here," Stephan says. "Of course, you got to know how to fish it."

A pail of fish

Along the grassy shore at the base of the dam, Mark McDonell and Bob Paul of Duluth fish on either side of a white pickle-pail. A few walleyes and four crappies swim in the pail of water.

McDonell, 58, has caught all of them on a small white jig tipped with a minnow. He proceeds to catch three more walleyes in the next several minutes.

"I love fishin' this way," he says. "This is where I get relaxation. If I couldn't fish anymore, that wouldn't be good."

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He takes a break from fishing to flick through many smartphone photos of big fish - walleyes, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, crappies, Kamloops rainbows - that he has caught.

His jig hangs up momentarily on the bottom.

"If you're not gettin' snagged, you're not gettin' down to the fish," he says.

After he tosses one more walleye in the bucket, he hollers to Paul.

"We better take a count, Bob."

Flipping walleyes onto the grass, he counts them out loud. Seven walleyes. Five crappies. At least a couple of meals. The men keep fishing.

A break from classes

Logan Rubeck casts in an eddy near the dam's outflow as dusk settles in. The evening cools. Rubeck, 20, is a chemical engineering student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Looking on as he casts a tiny white jig tipped with plastic is his friend Rylie Cornelissen, also 20 and a UMD student from Eau Claire, Wis. She is wrapped in a blanket.

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"This is prime time," says Rubeck, who also is from Eau Claire.

He hooks a small walleye and swings it in. Back it goes. He fishes here at the dam a couple times a week.

"Because the fish are here," he says. "And because I don't have a boat up here. It's good here for the most part, if you come in the evening."

Light rain begins to fall. Rubeck makes another cast and dances his jig to shore.

Not far away, the outflow thunders through the dam as if it can't wait to get back to the river.

It's prime time at the Island Lake Dam. At least for now.

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.
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