It was a slow Monday evening for Doug Pirila and his fishing partner and son, Ryan, on the lower St. Louis River. The pike weren't where they were supposed to be. The perch didn’t show up. The bluegills were sparse. And time was running out.

So when Roger Healy and Dave Kohlhaas landed a keeper walleye just a few feet away from the Pirila boat — more points for the Healy boat in the weekly Monday night fishing league contest — they rubbed it in.

“Hey, Doug! If you want I can open up my livewell and you can cast in there and see if he’ll bite again,’’ Healy said with a guffaw.

PiriIa, usually not short for words, was silent.

That’s the kind of ribbing you might get on Monday nights if you fish in the Minnesota Multispecies Tournament Series, a high-brow name for a mostly laid-back fishing league that has been rolling now for 20 seasons in and around Duluth.

There are bass fishing tournaments and circuits and there are walleye fishing tournaments and leagues, and those folks usually don’t mix much. It’s specialized fishing with specialized skills and a single quarry in mind for each event. But on Monday nights, this group of anglers compete catching both bass and walleyes — and northern and crappie and rock bass and bluegills and perch and musky and catfish and rough fish and even trout and salmon.

The multispecies league was formed by Pirila and John Durward in 2000. Membership has waxed and waned between about eight and 20 teams. It’s like any other summer rec league — volleyball or softball, golf or sporting clays — participants make a commitment to make as many Monday nights through the summer as they can. Substitutes are allowed. Out of the 13 Monday night events between Memorial Day and Labor Day, teams use their best for final season scoring, so missing a couple for vacations isn’t the end of the world.

While it may seem like competition is the goal, many of the league members say they compete each summer to learn new things about fish, rivers and lakes.

As the name implies, the objective is for each team to catch as many different species of fish as possible. And they only have about three hours to do it. The league leaves the landing in a group at 5:30 p.m. and must be back at the landing by 9 p.m. Bonus points are awarded to teams that catch three species in a single night, with even more points for four, five or six species in one evening.

(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)
(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

Fishing for different species on one lake or river in one night requires anglers to think more, try new tactics and experiment with lures and locations. There are more decisions to make: Stay on a hot bite and fish for bigger walleyes, or try a new spot for a rock bass? (Adding a rock bass as a new species might mean more points than one more walleye.) Stay on the crappies or go for perch? Catfish? Carp? Bluegill? All are worth as many points as a walleye or a bass, if they meet the minimum requirements of the league rules (walleyes and bass have to be 12 inches to count, bonus points for over 15 inches; pike have to be 20 inches and crappie 8 inches.)

“In this league, you’ll actually see guys high-five each other over a rock bass,’’ Pirila said.

More points are awarded for each fish over a minimum size and for teams that land a “limit” of a certain species, with the limits set by the league (always at or below the state limit for that species).

“We got two muskies in one night last year, one was 49.5 inches, the other one was 47 inches. But they didn’t count. They have to be 54 inches to keep in the river and the state rules always trump, so no points,’’’ Pirila said between casts last week.

(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)
(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

Participants say part of the fun is getting together with like-minded folks each week (and checking out the competition's boats before launch to see what lures they plan to use.) After fishing, they gather at a local watering hole near the boat landing to tally up the winners and hand out the nightly prizes.

“One thing it does is give you a reason to go, every week, all summer. It’s a commitment. But once you're out there, you’re fishing, so it’s a good commitment,’’ said Jim Taraldsen, the league's official caretaker (nobody voted so he doesn’t want to be called president.) “If you don't have the Monday night (league) commitment, you know how fast summer goes by. You’d have some reason every week not to go fishing.”

Fishermen gather at Garfield avenue boat landing under the Blatnik Bridge before beginning their fishing competition on Monday, July 8, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Fishermen gather at Garfield avenue boat landing under the Blatnik Bridge before beginning their fishing competition on Monday, July 8, 2019. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

Taraldsen and his wife (and substitute league partner) Theresa keep track of the ongoing league standings and the annual records. The league is “low budget, low key,’’ Taraldsen noted, ”with a $15 entry fee each of the 13 weeks. The money is divided 70% to the first place team each Monday and 30% to the second place team. Marine General kicks in a $30 gift certificate to whoever gets the biggest fish in one category picked in advance for each lake.

This summer the league fishes Island Lake four times, the lower St. Louis River and Fish Lake twice each and once each on Chub, Big, Sturgeon, Rice and Boulder lakes. All fish are returned to the lakes after being measured at the end of the night. Teams can also take photos of fish on the ruler and release fish immediately, without spending time in the livewell.

“With all the different kinds of water we have around Duluth, going multi-species really makes sense,’’ Taraldsen said. “If you made it just for walleyes, you wouldn’t want to fish Big Lake ever, or Chub Lake. But when you make it multi-species, it gives you a chance to try different waters and different tactics.”

(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)
(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

Last Monday night the team of Ouitdee Carson and Zach Carson won the competition measuring a 20-inch pike, a 9-inch perch and four-fish limits of sunfish and rock bass. The big fish prize went to another father-and-son team, Ty and Lee Kruger, with a 22-inch walleye — the pre-selected big fish species for that night. The Krugers also took second place for the evening. Healy and Kohlhaas ended up in third thanks to landing fish of five species, including a 19.5 inch walleye.

(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)
(John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

Everyone asked agreed the Monday night multispecies league has made them better anglers.

“If all you do is fish for walleye in the river, and drag bottom bouncers and nightcrawlers and go around in circles, you really never learn new things. But this forces you to adapt and learn,’’ said Pirila, a tournament bass fisherman.

Each team in the Monday night multispecies league kicks in $60 per season, too, to pay a little prize to the seasonal champions who also get a traveling trophy nearly the size of the Stanley Cup. The season championship is based on each night’s standing, not total fish over the summer, so most of the teams can stay in the hunt all summer.

The fish trophy now resides at Taraldsen’s house — he and his partner, Ed Forrestal, won the 2018 season. They're also ahead this summer, but the standings are too close to call.

“The competition is fun. But it’s more the camaraderie, the friends,’’ Taraldsen said. “It’s a good group of guys. We have father-and-son teams, husbands and wives... we've had three generations in some families. It’s become a tradition for some of us.”

For more information on the Monday night Minnesota Multispecies Tournament Series, contact Jim Taraldsen at jimtaraldsen@gmail.com. The league always welcomes more teams.