Click on any of the thumbnails below to see a larger image.

sauger
Darren, from Jordan, Minnesota, holds up a decent-sized channel catfish caught in the Minnesota River. (From www.fishingminnesota.com. For a sidebar on this interesting local fishing forum, click here.)

walleye

Darren with a walleye from the river.

man w catfish 1

Fine summer day, June 2005, to reel in a 46 1/2 pound catfish from the river. (This photo and the three below courtesy of Terry Hennen, Sport Stop, Shakopee.)

monster cat

Close-up of the same monster cat, now reposing on the bank.

man w cat 2

Look what I caught me here! Unidentified man with a nocurnal river prize. The proof's in the pudd'n, no?

man w cat 3

Three buddies have just hauled in another monster nocturnal cat. Whooooeeeeee!

 

Fishing the Minnesota River

It's Healthier and Funner than You Might Think

The gospel according to Arne is panning out nicely these days for fishermen, if not yet for swimmers, on the Minnesota River

For a glimpse into a local online forum on fishing the Minnesota River, click here.)

In 1992, Governor Arne Carlson famously called for the Minnesota River to be cleaned up enough so it would be “swimmable and fishable” within 10 years.

Fifteen years later, the governor’s river initiative has raised public and government consciousness quite a bit — and helped lower pollution in the river.

In fact, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) report shows that if we consider progress over the last 30 years or so, we’ll see that pollutants such as sediment, nitrogen, phosphorus, and ammonia have all gone down and that more oxygen is available to aquatic organisms. Mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) have also been reduced.

The fishing on the river, meanwhile, has rebounded nicely since Carlson’s call, though swimming is not for humans, just yet, and we still have a way to go in our efforts to clean up the river.

The Bad Old Days

Not too many years ago, tributaries pouring into the Minnesota River near Shakopee and Chaska would be foaming, says Terry Hennen, of the Sport Stop bait shop in Shakopee. “We don’t have that anymore. Nor do we have the real bad odor that was there.”

Terry Hennen, owner of the Sport Stop bait shop in Shakopee with his wife Marilyn (background), has seen personally and through customers the comeback of the Minnesota River as a prime fishing haunt.

The foam was visual and olfactory evidence of more than a century of pollution in the river owing to heavy farming and urban development. More specifically, the foam indicated chemicals from lawns and gardens, farmland, industry, electricity generation, and wastewater treatment plants.

Like many impaired waters in the state, the Minnesota River is contaminated by two chemicals, principally — PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and mercury. The first of these, a product no longer manufactured, is not of major concern at the moment. The second, deposited in water bodies primarily from coal-fired power plants, still concerns us, as do excess phosphorus, from farmland and urban runoff, and bacteria, from feedlots and unregulated sewage systems.

Methylmercury accumulates, or bioaccumulates, in fish, and the higher up we go in the food chain the more mercury a predator can accumulate. That’s why fish consumption advisories apply principally to larger fish, for they feed on smaller creatures that have also been accumulating the substance.

Because of the work of governmental organizations and activist citizen groups, however, the health of the river has improved appreciably. Another recent MPCA report, by Larry Gunderson, points to watershed organizations like the Lower Minnesota River Watershed District as one major impetus for the river clean-up, responsible as we are for installing best management practices (BMPs) for septic systems, building capital improvement projects at wastewater treatment plants, restoring wetland, fallowing cropland by the river, and monitoring water quality — to name just a few restorative projects.

Fish Consumption Advisories

Yet despite the dramatic improvement in river water quality, some people are still worried about eating fish taken from the river. If you’re one of them, you should realize, first of all, that it’s impossible to see the difference between a fish taken from the river and a fish caught in a Minnesota lake. Mark Briggs, an expert with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Division of Ecological Services, suggests that the only visible differences might be in coloration, as some walleyes caught in bog-stained lakes in northern Minnesota might be darker and browner than river walleyes.

Second, and more important, Minnesota’s Fish Contaminant Monitoring Program (FCMP) says that fish from the Minnesota River, which “are an excellent source of low-fat protein,” are safe to eat as long as the Minnesota Department of Health's consumption guidelines are followed.

A joint project of the DNR, the MDH, the MPCA, and the MDA (Minnesota Department of Agriculture), the FCMP collects and analyzes fish samples from the state’s lakes and rivers. The most recent data for the lower Minnesota River suggest that most people can eat an unlimited number of under-15-inch walleyes — the most prized game fish in the river — and one such walleye per week above that size.

The program suggests limitations principally for pregnant women and children under 15, who should eat no more than one under-20-inch walleye per week and one per month if it’s over 20 inches.

Still, the health of the river has improved so markedly over the last 15, 20 years that the FCMP and other programs do not hesitate to recommend eating fish from the river, with certain understandable cautions

The Good New Days of Fishing the Minnesota River

Sadly, many citizens have not heard the good news about the river’s clean-up. It’s not just average citizens who turn up their nose at the river. Some fishermen, also, continue to insist that nothing they haul out of the Minnesota River can be edible. That the only edibles the Minnesota River harbors would have three heads and be chockfull of toxins.

An old joke goes that walters (walleyes) from the river are loaded with a secret substance that cures baldness.

Or that they’ll come flipping into the boat with a radioactive glow.

Nothing could be scarier, of course, or funnier, but nothing could be more untrue.

The river abounds in fish of all species, game fish like walleye and rough fish like carp, and they haven’t been so edible in a long while. Not to mention more fun to catch.

So while it’s true that many anglers stick to familiar lake waters, those who have fished the river know the thrill of the currents and the innumerable structures where walleye lurk, not to mention their sauger cousins, channel catfish, striped bass, silver suckers, sheephead, drum, and all such rough and too often disparaged folk of the muddy depths.

Bob and Carol Liebhard, who farm in Carver County, enjoy ice fishing for walleyes in the winter. They just walk out onto the ice, usually, and don’t shelter themselves in a fish house. They also enjoy flipping the walters out of the water in the summer — sometimes 15 to 30 in an evening, Bob says. “We throw the bigger ones back, of course, but we love to pan fry a few of the smaller ones.”

Scott Sparlin, executive director of the Coalition for a Cleaner River, upriver in New Ulm, offers an old-timer’s perspective when he suggests that just about all fish are edible “if you know how to prepare ‘em and what you’re dealing with.” Some old-timers, Sparlin suggests, can or smoke even the roughest fish. So if you’re too smooth or too suave company, you might not want to sit down at table with these gents. Though not the tastiest tidbit in itself, a silver sucker, for example, Sparlin claims, is nothing to scoff at — either in the catching (“they’re a hoot!”) or the eating.

Misconceptions about the river abound, says Jeff Bryne of the Cabin Fever bait shop in Victoria. Number one, that it’s so polluted you can’t eat the fish. This may be the common wisdom of city folk, he implies, but not of those “river folk” who’ve lived along or near the river for a while. Number two, that the river is too dangerous to fish, because of currents and navigation obstacles. Number three, that there’s just no common denominators between how you fish a lake and a river.

Sure, you have to use common sense, he says, in approaching the river. Currents can be dangerous. Techniques may be different. But there’s a rush — both literal and psychological — that comes with the river that you can’t get on the tamer, saner lakes.

Some years ago, for example, Bryne recalls, he and friends would fish a flooded area just upriver from Carver that they called Spearhead. “There’s a train trestle there, and when it floods it goes into Depot or Gifford Lake and floods all the way across to the river. We would take our boats and go way up into those trees and use jigs and minnows, flipping like we were fishing for bass, and catch huge walleyes.”

Terry Hennen, of the Shakopee bait store, talks about other favorite places to fish the river. “With walleyes,” he attests, “you jig right where a crick mouth comes in, what they call a clear line, probably a foot on either side of it. Crick mouths are the biggest place for walleyes, and there’s a fair amount of cricks coming in.”

Sparlin, of New Ulm, testifies to the “exotic” nature of river fishing. When he used to guide fishermen on the river, some years ago, they would tell him they were “bored with typical lake fishing.” But on the river, “you never knew what you were going to catch. Usually, it would be something with a pretty good girth.”

Could this be Fat Boy Walter we’re talking here?

Or Mama Muddy Bottom Catfish?

We could also catch something less tangible, Sparlin concludes. “Just the diversity of fish available here is amazing, the types of currents, the largeness of the water, how you’re stirred visually and by the other senses too.” While Leech Lake has 186 miles of shoreline, he offers, the Minnesota boasts 670. That’s just one yardstick of the lengths some fishermen will go to in order to get out of the rut of the usual.

A Way to Go

And yet, with all the optimism that cleaning up the river engenders, we'd be fooling ourselves if we concluded that we should rest on our laurels now.

About the best summation of our progress to date is offered in the MPCA report cited above. Author Larry Gunderson, who's done a lot of work on the river's water quality, suggests, "Some say that we have failed or that we haven’t made enough progress [in cleaning up the river]. In reality, the job is much more complicated and challenging than many people realized [at the time of Governor Carlson's 10-year challenge]. It’s about changing society, which will take time. The original 10-year goal may have seemed like plenty of time. But when we consider the many decades during which we used the river primarily for drainage, we realize that it will take more time to turn things around."

And to fish and, yes, swim the river, once more, with complete confidence.

* * *