Most telelvision fishing shows are only marginally more exciting than watching paint dry. Since the time between bites doesn’t, as they say, “make good television,” we mostly see footage of anglers hooking and landing fish. Dialog rarely goes beyond someone in the boat grunting “Good one,” as the host admires his catch. Dramatic action only occurs if the host kisses the fish before releasing it. Hmm…maybe watching paint dry is more exciting.
A refreshing exception to the monotony of televised fishing is “River Monsters,” hosted by Jeremy Wade and airing on Animal Planet. Wade travels to the world’s greatest rivers seeking giant fish, some of which are considered dangerous to humans. During the hour-long show welearn about the river, the local people and the environmental issues threatening the fishery. Rarely does the sought-after fish come easy. Sometimes Wade is on location for weeks before landing and releasing a river monster.
Watching the show got me thinking about what monsters exist in Minnesota rivers and lakes. Nearly every angler day dreams about unseen creatures lurking beneath the surface of their favorite fishing hole. For kicks, I started thinking about all of the fish species reaching weights over 20 pounds you can catch in the state. These fish may not be maneaters, but many Minnesota waters do contain truly big fish.
Our best known “biggie” is the muskie, the one invasive species the DNR loves. Native to some waters and introduced through DNR stocking to many others, the muskie is Minnesota’s largest game fish. Considering muskies are known to occasionally nip at swimmers, they are likely the only fish in the state you could even remotely consider a man-eater. If muskies ever star on River Monsters, it’s fair to say Minnesota would be a prime destination for Wade to find one. Restrictive regulations and a strong conservation ethic among anglers allows our muskies to reach huge sizes.
Ironically, Minnesota would not be a good place to seek another monster that’s close muskie relative—the northern pike. Not so many years ago, it was possible to catch pike weighing 20 pounds or more in many lakes. Occasionally you’d hear of a 30-pound brute. In northern Minnesota, where I grew up, anglers took large pike for granted, which means they brought them home for dinner. Perhaps we ate them right out of abundance, because pike over 20 pounds are now a rare commodity in the state. Monsters still exist in the state’s largest lakes, but you’ll have to work pretty hard to catch one.
Other out-sized species have fared better. Consider the lake trout, which is found in a few far-north lakes and Lake Superior. Living in lake trout country, I hear of occasional whoppers coming from inland lakes. However, a friend of mine caught a 36-pounder trolling in Lake Superior off Grand Marais a few years ago. While sea lamprey still take a toll on Superior’s trout, some lakers are surviving long enough to reach huge sizes. However, the best bet for Superior’s monster lake trout is Isle Royale, which lies in Michigan waters.
Another Superior monster making a population recovery is the lake sturgeon. Native to Lake Superior and its large tributaries, sturgeon were nearly wiped out in the last century. As part of a restoration plan, Wisconsin and Minnesota fish managers began stocking baby sturgeon in the St. Louis River about 30 years ago. Now fish from the early stockings are starting to spawn. This native fish is also staging a comeback on Lake of the Woods, where there is now a special fishing season for them. These fish truly are monsters, because regulations require keepers to be 45 to 50 inches in length or measure over 75 inches. That’s more than six feet long. Lake sturgeon are on my fishing bucket list. Someday I hope to travel to Baudette around this time of year to try catching and releasing one.
In the southern half of the state, flathead catfish have a deserved monster status. They are enormous (the state record is a 70-pounder from the St. Croix River) and mostly come out at night. The best places to find them are in the Mississippi downstream from Minneapolis, the Minnesota River and the lower St. Croix. Flatheads are on my fishing bucket list, too. I have pursued a somewhat smaller cousin, the channel catfish. They’re found in all of the waters listed above, as well as in the Red River of the North, which is famous for its trophy-sized cats.
Sucker-lipped species are the most numerous and least pursued Minnesota monsters. Despite widespread abundance, the common carp has never moved beyond cult status with anglers. Challenging to catch and strong fighters, carp possess qualities most of us desire in a game fish. They also grow large enough to be bonafide Minnesota monsters. But instead of seeming monstrous, carp are more like cows in a pasture. And who fishes for cows? The same can be said for a couple of native suckers with monster status, the bigmouth and smallmouth buffalo.
While they may not be as large, ferocious or exotic as the fish Jeremy Wade catches on River Monsters, Minnesota certainly has its share of big fish. It would be fun to catch a Grand Slam of Minnesota Monsters, but very few anglers will ever do so. Even though monsters lurk beneath the boat, most of us are content to catch modest-sized walleyes, crappies and bass. After all, you can’t fit a monster in the frying pan.