ALS fishing tournament goes virtual due to virus
Contestants will fish on their home waters with the winners in big fish categories determined by fish photos uploaded to an app.
Just as it was for the first 24 years of the Kolar Toyota ALS Fishing Tournament, there will be prizes for the biggest fish caught, auctions and a ton of money raised to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis when the 25th annual event happens on May 30.
But just about nothing else will be the same for a fishing contest that, except for the actual fishing, will be conducted virtually.
With all sporting events that draw crowds of people together now canceled due to COVID-19, including traditional fishing tournaments, ALS organizers had to get creative. Instead of being held on Island Lake north of Duluth, as the first 24 tournaments were, participants this year can fish wherever they want and are being asked to fish close to their home under the state’s COVID-19 guidelines.
Big fish caught will be photographed on a smartphone while on a ruler and then immediately released. Anglers will then upload the photos to an app called FishDonkey with the longest fish winning walleye, bass, northern and crappie categories. Longest fish in each category will win a plaque. All prizes will be awarded randomly by drawing. (Other rules and details, including prize details, will be announced soon.)
Under Minnesota’s COVID-19 guidelines, in addition to fishing near their home, anglers are asked to keep their social distance from others at boat landings. Angling hours for all participants will be from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tournament results, winners and door prizes will be announced on Facebook Live at 6 p.m. the same day.
The News Tribune in 2018 reported how catch, photo and release tournaments are catching on across the nation, including those held locally by the Twin Ports Walleye Association. But this year’s ALS tournament may be the first in the Northland where contestants — even teammates — might never even see each other.
“We went round and round on what to do with COVID-19 out there,’’ said Sandy Judge, development director for the ALS event. “We didn’t want to cancel because the people (suffering from ALS) still need this money. We also didn’t think it was fair to say only local people could come up to Island Lake to fish … But then we came up with this plan. We don’t care where you fish. It doesn’t matter if you are in Minnesota or Wisconsin or Canada, you can still submit a fish you caught that day.”
Anglers must donate or raise $200 each to enter, or $400 per two-person team. But unlike past year’s you can enter and fish alone. If your usual partner is in another town, you also can enter as a team but still fish on different lakes, Judge noted.
Registration for the tournament will be entirely online at kolartoyotafishing.com and all drawings and auctions also will be conducted online the day of the event.
New this year is an option for non-fishing participants, who either do not feel comfortable going to a lake or who don’t fish, to get involved. Non-fishing participants will have their name in the drawing for door prizes and fundraising incentive prizes. (Non-fishing participants also must, like anglers, donate or raise a minimum of $200 to be eligible for prizes.)
While anglers will still get to fish and compete, they won’t get to meet up for the annual pre-and-post fishing parties as usual. The camaraderie of those events, culminating with a Saturday night banquet at the University of Minnesota Duluth, will be missed by many.
“We know that half the fun is getting together and looking at the auction items and talking with friends from past years," Judge said. “We can’t do that part this year. But we can still help the people in need.”
ALS is an always-fatal disease that affects about 500 people in the region at any given time. Although there is currently no cure or treatment, advances in medical technology are allowing people with ALS to lead more independent and productive lives.
The first ALS tournament was held in 1996, organized by Duluth’s Kolquist family and friends in honor of Kevin Kolquist, who was diagnosed with ALS in 1995. The first effort raised $40,000. Last year 180 two-person teams raised $220,000. This year’s tournament could top $250,000, and all told, the fishing effort has raised more than $3 million heading into this year’s event. All proceeds go to programs and services for individuals living with ALS and toward research to find a cause and cure.
Kevin Kolquist died in 2007 after nearly 12 years battling the disease, but the family and friends keep the tournament going.
Local nonprofit formed
Money raised in the fishing event previously went directly to the regional ALS Association. But local ALS advocates recently formed a new, non-profit organization called Never Surrender, Inc. The nonprofit exists solely to organize and collect funds from the fishing contest and a winter snowmobile event called the Black Woods Blizzard Tour that has raised $12.4 million over the past 21 years to battle ALS.
“The local people who organize these (events) wanted to have more control to make sure the money raised went to the people who needed it most, not to overhead costs, so they formed Never Surrender,” Judge said. “The end result is the same, the same people are benefiting.”
This story was edited at 11 a.m. on May 12 to clarify how tournament prizes will be awarded.