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Dayton hopes to boost the Mississippi’s image as a fishing mecca; Season kicks off with Governor’s Fishing Opener

By Kirsti Marohn

MPR News/90.1 FM

When most people think of fishing in Minnesota, they probably picture one of the state’s prized lakes.

But that could change. Next weekend, the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener will take place on the Mississippi River in St. Cloud, the first time this city has hosted the event in its 70-year history.

Organizers are hoping to spark new interest in the river, as well as a passion to protect it.

“The fishing actually can be incredible,” said Eric Altena, area fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and an avid Mississippi angler. “If you don’t catch something in about 15 minutes in a given spot, I would suggest moving.”

Altena said there are roughly 35 species of fish in the St. Cloud stretch of the river. Anglers can catch smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike and muskie, as well as the occasional channel catfish.

Yet somehow, the Mississippi seems to get overshadowed by the state’s many lakes, said Julie Lunning, executive director of the St. Cloud Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

“When we think about fishing in Minnesota, we think about northern Minnesota, resort country and all the amazing lakes that are in this state, when truly we have one of the best fisheries in Minnesota right here in our own backyard,” Lunning said.

Organizers of the governor’s opener are hoping to showcase the river with several days of events. Gov. Mark Dayton will be in St. Cloud on that Saturday to try his luck with a rod and reel along with an entourage of media.

“We will see an increase in river traffic here after this event because people just don’t know about it,” said Jerry Carlson, a longtime outdoors writer and chair of the host fishing committee.

One of the attractions of fishing the Mississippi is its unpredictable nature, Carlson said.

“There’s so many different species, you set the hook on something, you don’t know what it’s going to be,” he said. “I guess that’s one of the beauties of river fishing is that you just never know what you’re going to find.”

One reason why the Mississippi hasn’t gained widespread popularity could be its less-than-pristine reputation. Many people view it as a portal for commerce or a place where wastewater from sewage treatment plants are dumped, Altena said.

“So people have the impression maybe the fish aren’t as good or something,” he said. “But actually, it’s not the case at all.”

There’s no question the river does face environmental threats ranging from polluted runoff to aquatic invasive species. But fish caught in the upper Mississippi north of the Twin Cities are about as safe to eat as those from most Minnesota lakes, said Pat McCann, a research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Health.

The recommended amount varies depending on the person and the species of fish. McCann said most people can safely eat one meal of walleye a week. For women who are pregnant or could become pregnant, the amount is less, because an unborn fetus is more sensitive to mercury in fish.

River fishing does provide some challenges. Some anglers might be scared off by the hidden dangers of boulders and logs beneath the river’s surface.

“Rivers are never totally safe,” Carlson said. “You have dead heads that may float down, and just be under the surface. You can have high water or low water that exposes rocks.”

Still, Altena said underwater obstacles shouldn’t keep anglers away.

“You still have to be cautious,” Altena said. “But just like in an area lake, if you know a little bit and use common sense, you can make your way around and still be able to catch fish and enjoy recreation.”

Carlson says the Mississippi offers access to people who don’t own a boat, because you can fly fish or cast a line from shore. He hopes the governor’s opener will open up the world of river fishing to those who have never experienced it.

“We’re just hoping that we can get people to understand that the Mississippi River (in) St. Cloud is certainly one avenue that you can go,” Carlson said. “But there are rivers all across Minnesota and the Midwest that certainly have ample opportunity for people to explore.”

Altena hopes the attention will bring new appreciation for the Mississippi as a resource worthy of protecting.

“It is something unique and it is beautiful,” he said. “And hopefully, that will enable people to embrace it a little more and have a feeling that this is important to protect. We want this to be good quality and a great resource and continue to be that way.”