Some Like It Rough

Dickson says he got into rough fishing largely for reasons of convenience: He didn't have a boat
Mike Mosedale

It is a pleasantly warm weekday afternoon and Tom Dickson stands hip-deep in a black pool of water at the foot of Minnehaha Falls in South Minneapolis. An eclectic mix of hikers, lovers, truants, and exercise fiends pass by on the winding trails above the gorge. Otherwise the setting feels downright rural, with the roar of the falls drowning out the din from the traffic on busy Hiawatha Avenue just a few blocks away.

Dickson works the backside of a small eddy with a fly-casting outfit. He moves nimbly over the slick rocks, whipping the rod back and forth in a well-practiced arc. It is a tricky sort of motion. The late author and noted trout enthusiast Norman Maclean reverently described fly-casting as "an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock"-- meaning that the angler must smoothly swing the rod back and forth, but never too far either way.

Dickson, however, is not going after trout; this is a more downmarket outing. "See that?" he exclaims, gesturing toward a school of minnows popping out of the water like tiny porpoises, in flight from some hidden menace that roils the water with a powerful flick of the tail. A good sign. Could be a carp, or any of the myriad so-called rough fish that inhabit the upper Mississippi watershed.

The first strike comes within minutes. Dickson sets the hook with a calculated jerk and begins reeling. The fish puts up a struggle. For a moment Dickson has high hopes, but his expression darkens as he pulls up the fish. "Oh darn. It's a pike," he says. Dark, slimy green skin glistens in the sunlight as Dickson hoists the northern up for inspection; its distinctive "hammer handle" profile is a familiar sight to most Minnesota anglers, who consider pike and about a dozen other "game fish" the only desirable prey.

But Dickson works the fly free and flips the northern back into the water. Under state regulations, game fish are catch-and-release only in much of the upper Mississippi's waters; besides, the official opening of the state's walleye and northern season, May 15, is still two weeks away. Today Dickson--writer, editor of the Department of Natural Resources' quarterly Fish and Wildlife Today, and stout advocate of the virtues of urban angling--is hoping to lay into something a little less predictable. Maybe a freshwater drum, also known as "sheepshead," an underappreciated fish whose flavor and sporting qualities, Dickson asserts, exceed that of the walleye. Or maybe a silver redhorse sucker--bony, but an excellent meal when ground into patties with celery, potatoes and onion. Perhaps even a long-nosed gar.

The gar, one of the great oddities of the Upper Mississippi watershed, is a sharp-toothed, prehistoric survivor of the dinosaur era with a hide so tough you need tin snips to get at the meat. "There's a lot of cool fish here that most people don't know anything about," says Dickson. "But there's not a tradition of river fishing in Minnesota. And a lot of people don't know how to fish a river, how to look for the eddies, the slack water, the current break."

Witness this stretch of Minnehaha Creek, from the falls to the confluence with the Mississippi. Most of the year it does not hold many fish. But in spring, when the water is high and relatively warm, a wide assortment of species migrate the quarter-mile or so toward the falls. They hazard rocks and swift currents in the pursuit of those two great animal goals, food and sex. Some, like the redhorse, seek out the relatively clean, silt-free waters to spawn; others come to feed on the plentiful mayfly nymphs. A few, like northerns, come to feed on the fish that feed on the mayflies.

Though he's not a biologist, Dickson is well-versed in the habits of rough fish--the general term for fish not valued as game. Back in 1990 he and a friend, Rob Buffler, collaborated on what many consider the definitive tract on the subject, Fishing for Buffalo: A Guide to the Pursuit, Lore and Cuisine of Buffalo, Carp, Mooneye, Gar and Other 'Rough' Fish. (The book is out of print, but copies may be obtained directly from Dickson, at P.O. Box 1845, St. Paul, MN 55101, for $18.)

Dickson says he got into rough fishing largely for reasons of convenience: He didn't have a boat or a lot of money for lake outings. As a veteran trout fisherman, he appreciated the pleasures of exploring rivers and streams, and the intimate way in which nature reveals itself to a wader. He also found himself turned off by the growing commercialization of the sport-fishing industry, with its relentless emphasis on high-tech gear--the global positioning system, the electronic fish finder and, most recently, the underwater camera. (Among purists, similar complaints have long standing. Back in 1940, naturalist Aldo Leopold complained that the sporting press had "turned into a billboard for the gadgeteer.")

As Dickson continues to work the pool by the falls, a second fish strikes, runs, and wraps the line around a log. Dickson's handmade fly rod snaps at the base, and the fish is free. Might have been a bowfin, Dickson says--another primitive river dweller, a smooth-scaled predator known variously as dogfish, buglemouth and, inexplicably, John A. Grindle. For a spell, Dickson held the record for the largest bowfin ever caught on a two-pound tippet fly rod (three pounds, eleven ounces).

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.

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