It was, admittedly, an obscure honor. Bowfin and other rough fish are rarely sought by Minnesota anglers, and even more rarely bragged over; instead, they are often exterminated. The most famous effort at ridding the state's waters of nongame fish came around the turn of the century, when commercial fishermen commenced a wholesale slaughter of lake sturgeon, the biggest and longest-lived of all native freshwater creatures. The sturgeon, blamed for fouled nets, were stacked like cordwood and used as fuel for steamboats.
"For decades, there was even a law that you couldn't release rough fish," Dickson explains. "People thought carp were destroying game fish populations." The law, which had little basis in biology, was rescinded in 1984, though many anglers remain unaware of that. Last year, on a birthday outing, Dickson found a pile of rotting carp on the river bank just south of the Ford Dam. "It was just disrespectful," says Dickson, who once wrote a gag opera--to the music of Carmen--celebrating the virtues of carp. "It's bad enough that people are bummed out to catch carp--then they exacerbate it by hitting it over the head with a log." He pauses, then adds, "It seems sort of grotesque, the antithesis of what fishing is all about."
But, he adds, attitudes seem to be changing, particularly among younger anglers and immigrants, who appreciate both the sporting and table qualities of rough fish. Carp, an Old World species that was imported to the United States in the 1870s, are the most widely consumed freshwater fish on the planet, Dickson notes, and now have the largest range of any freshwater fish in North America.
The carp was also among the few species that managed to survive the pollution that has ravaged the upper Mississippi for much of this century: Pool 2--which stretches from the Ford Dam just south of Minnehaha Creek to Hastings--once held more than 90 species, says DNR aquatic biologist Jack Emblom. But by the mid-1960s, gill-net surveys found only carp, white bass, and emerald shiners. Pool 2 has rebounded since, and now, with more than 33 types of fish, it is one of the most diverse fisheries in the state. In addition, recent surveys by the DNR turned up 14 species of clams and mussels that hadn't been seen in the waters for decades.
The recovery of the upper Mississippi is largely the result of the Clean Water Act of 1974, which ended the dumping of untreated sewage. Industrial pollutants, such as the now-banned synthetic oils known as PCBs, linger in the waters, though levels are dropping, Emblom says. Mercury, as well as various agricultural chemicals, remains a problem. Because the toxins can accumulate in the meat of predators such as walleyes and northerns, and fatty fish like carp and catfish, the river is among the many Minnesota waters for which the state DNR has issued consumption advisories: Trophy-size smallmouth buffalo are listed as "Do Not Eat," and women of child-bearing age and young children are warned against having more than a meal a month of most fish in Pool 2.
As Dickson works his way down the creek, though, such grim science seems beside the point. He eyeballs pods of redhorse suckers, their brightly colored fins breaking the surface as they struggle against the current. On this day the suckers--on a spawning run--are easily spooked and uninterested in food; by day's end the outing has produced nothing but northerns. Sometimes, Dickson says, you even have to settle for walleye.