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The fishing life

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The sun has yet to clear the horizon on this May morning, but Robert Spurlock already has driven his battery-powered wheelchair past the dry-docked boats at Spirit Lake Marina. Past Fan-Ta-Sea. Past Alluring Proposal. Past Hi-Life. Past Lady Liberty.

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Spurlock, 60, is going fishing. Nerve damage has claimed the use of his legs, but Spurlock rarely misses a summer day on the water. He rises at 2:30 a.m. He makes coffee in his room. He leaves Garden House Estates, an assisted-living home in Duluth's Riverside neighborhood, about 4 a.m. and heads for the St. Louis River.

But before he fishes, he pulls his wheelchair up to a small table near a fire ring. There, as cobalt becomes gray in the east, he smokes one of his hand-rolled cigarettes and drinks his coffee. He watches the river "just to see what's bouncin'."

At about 5 a.m., after sizing up the river, he drives his wheelchair a few feet farther toward the river. This is where fishing gets tough for Spurlock. He slides out of his wheelchair and crawls behind it, where he grabs his two rods, a landing net and his backpack. Then, alternately dragging himself on his arms and scooting on his rear, he descends a muddy embankment to the timbers at water's edge.

There, he hoists himself onto a splintered timber and gets down to fishing.

Spurlock's legs used to work fine. That was before 37 years in "high steel," walking girders hundreds of feet above ground doing riveting and welding. That was before the two falls -- one of two stories, another of one story.

"When I fell a couple stories, I busted about every bone in me," he says.

And he had overdone the lifting through the years, too. Finally, in the 1990s, nerve damage rendered his legs nearly useless.

"My legs want to go east, and my brain wants to go west," he says.

He resigned himself to a wheelchair. He became depressed. He went through therapy.

"I thought, 'I'm not giving up,' " he says. "I've never given up on anything else in my life. I started pulling myself out of it."

Early setbacks

Spurlock's challenges in life began long before his legs quit working. His mother died from diabetes shortly after he was born in McCartney, Texas. He was raised by his dad, who was a truck driver and farmer.

"Most kids were going to school. I was standing on a pop crate on the back of a poppin' Johnny [an early John Deere tractor]," Spurlock says.

When Spurlock was 13, his dad died. He had no brothers or sisters. An aunt and uncle took him in. Late in his teens, he was working in Houston as a riveter when a St. Cloud, Minn., contractor offered him his job in high steel.

"Are you afraid of heights?" the man asked him.

Spurlock said he didn't think so. But he was wrong. He learned that on his first job, a skyscraper.

"At first, I got scared as hell. But by the time I finished the job, I had no problem at all," he says.

He traveled the world working high above ground. The Philippines. Japan. France. Panama. England. Vietnam.

It was a high-risk job.

"I've seen five different guys die," he says. "It makes you think. All it takes is one slip, one wrong step."

During those years as an ironworker, he drank hard. The drinking would eventually bring him down.

"I'm an alcoholic," he says. "An old, die-hard drunk."

He is no stranger to Duluth's Detoxification Center. He has been through treatment for alcoholism. He suffers an occasional relapse, he says.

A friend found Spurlock a place at Garden House Estates in October 2006, and he's been there since. He likes it there. The staff puts up with his odd hours. The kitchen crew prepares him a sandwich he can take with him to the river each morning.

"He's a character," says Garden House Estates administrator Dori Haapanen.

For all his hardships, including those brought on by his own doing, Spurlock is not a bitter man.

"I don't have any complaints," he says. "God's given me a pretty good life."

Sunrise on the St. Louis

Spurlock has settled in for another morning of fishing now. He has tossed out a night crawler on a floating jig head. He pulls another cigarette from his Altoids tin. He lights up, and the smoke wreathes around his head.

Friends have made his fishing easier, Spurlock says.

"Ol' Hiawatha, he came up with this chair," Spurlock says of his motorized wheelchair.

He received it just before Christmas last year from Duluth's Dave Hom, who operates the Hiawatha Boat Brokerage and keeps a refurbished fish tug at the marina. He could see Spurlock suffering as he made the climb up the hill each day after fishing. It took Spurlock 45 minutes to get home after fishing, Spurlock says.

"I got tired of watching him try to climb that hill with the hand wheelchair," Hom said.

The electric wheelchair also makes it easier for Spurlock to get to Grand Avenue to catch the bus for his weekly bait run to Gary Bait.

More recently, Tom Pfister, director of the Grand Slam Walleye Fishing Tournament based at the marina May 17-18, came to know Spurlock and bought him a new net.

Spurlock gives most of his fish away because he has no way to cook them. Hom and a man Spurlock calls "Kayak Jim" say they're going to rig him up a way to cook his fish down at the marina soon, Spurlock says.

"Ain't nothin' better than having a couple of crappies on the stringer and fryin' 'em up with some eggs, potatoes and onions, all together," Spurlock says.

He loves to eat fish.

"I've ate shark, marlin, tuna, cod, cats, walleye, perch, crappies and sunnies," he says.

Scrappy sturgeon

His line tightens now, and Spurlock sets the hook. It's a rock bass, which goes on the stringer. He's hoping for about a 20-inch walleye, but these recent cool mornings have made fishing tough, he says. Later, he hooks a 10-pound sturgeon that puts up a spirited fight. Spurlock nets it in his new net and hauls it ashore, beaming as he holds it up to admire it.

"My biggest sturgeon was 5 feet long," he says. "And I got a couple 4½-footers."

Spurlock may be rounding up on that 5-footer. The longest sturgeon most people have seen on the St. Louis River is 54 inches. Spurlock said it took him two hours to land the big sturgeon on the 15-pound-test line he uses.

Besides sturgeon, Spurlock has caught nearly everything else that swims in the river. Walleyes. Northern pike. Bass. Catfish. Crappies. Two muskies. Carp. Even pesky exotic ruffe.

Watching him fish, listening to him talk, one senses that there are a lot of untold stories in Spurlock's life. And it seems possible that fishing from these timbers on the St. Louis River may be even more important to him than he lets on.

If you ask him what his favorite place in the world is, thinking maybe it's some far-off land, he just shrugs.

"Country like this," he says, looking across the river, "where you can sit back and watch nature. I don't hunt. I'd rather watch a deer move around than shoot one. I like to watch the baby mallards come out, the baby geese."

He fishes until about 10 or 11 a.m. most days. He has to get back to the Garden House to take his medicine. He gathers his gear. He slides off the timber. He drags his legs up the embankment, breathing hard by the time he reaches the scooter.

He stows his rods, his net, his pack. With the power left in his ironworker's arms, he hoists himself onto the wheelchair. He flips the switch on. Off he rolls, down the gravel drive

Past Fan-Ta-Sea. Past Alluring Proposal. Past Lady Liberty. Past Hi-Life.

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