Angling in the Twin Cities

You never know what you’ll catch when you cast a line into the weird and wondrous world of angling in the Twin Cities.

Photos by Sara Rubinstein
Urban angler Matt Taj tries his luck on the Mississippi.

It was hot that day, and the Mississippi was low enough that from certain angles you could see its sepia-toned riverbed—the rocks, the bits of trash, and the carp that surfaced now and then like little ugly whales. It was mid-August, the armpit of summer, when the air can’t decide if it’s a liquid or a gas. I was standing on the riverside walkway in downtown Minneapolis, just north of the Third Avenue Bridge, watching a heavyset guy in a throwback Michael Jordan jersey pull bass after bass up over the safety railing. After unhooking each fish, he’d hold it for a moment with both hands, as if saying goodbye to a loved one, and then toss it back in the water.

I was transfixed. Baffled, too. I had learned to fish in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and had always used the sport as an excuse to flee the city for the monastic quiet of its lakes and rivers. Yet here was Michael Jordan casting peacefully in the chaos of downtown, oblivious to the chirpy lunchtime power-walkers, the bums napping on nearby benches, and the midday traffic doing its best improv jazz impression for the crowd of skyscrapers. By simply wetting his line in this funky stretch of river, he seemed to be transcending time and space. Michael Jordan was my new hero. And though I never addressed him—I didn’t want to harsh his piscatory buzz—I did note his lure and technique.

Less than 24 hours later, I hiked down to the same spot on the river on my lunch break, tossed something shiny near a downed tree, and instantly felt that familiar nudge. I set the hook and reeled up a smallmouth bass, my first city fish. He was wearing a suit and asked me where a guy could get a steak and scotch. I kid, but he looked good! He was a pretty shade of hazel and appeared as healthy as his out-of-town cousins. When I returned to my office, I was as happy as Gollum at a fish fry (and smelled like him, too). None of my coworkers seemed impressed, but no matter. I had found my calling in the angling world, and it was a far cry from Lake Wobegon.

That was four years ago, and I’ve since fished more in the Twin Cities than anywhere else. Which doesn’t mean much considering that the seven-county metro area houses roughly 250 lakes managed by Department of Natural Resources fisheries, 200-plus miles of river, and 45 miles of fishable trout streams. In terms of accessibility and diversity of species, Minnesota’s urban freshwater angling scene is among the finest and most expansive in the country. (Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia rank up there, too.) You could spend a lifetime rummaging through our metropolitan waters and there would always be more honey holes to explore, more sociological and environmental implications to ponder. And given that our angling scene has enough oddballs to fill a Coen brothers film, the fish stories aren’t bad, either.

Urban fishing is the bastard son of Minnesota angling—the loud, crazy, dirty one overshadowed by Mille Lacs, Cass, and other pristine walleye factories. But if you can accept it for what it is (and is not), its scruffy charms emerge. Take the pond in Loring Park. Though ringed by restored wetlands and prairie plantings, it’s unmistakably urban, sitting at the foot of downtown and in plain view of Spoonbridge and Cherry and the Basilica. While fishing for crappie here a couple years ago, I accidentally caught a channel catfish—a homely little beastie with four pairs of barbels (fish whiskers) and eyes the size of nickels. I remember thinking how novel it was to be surrounded by city life while holding a fish whose ancestors swam with dinosaurs. “I didn’t know those were in there,” said a woman on skates who stopped for a look at my primordial pal. “I didn’t either,” I said and slid him back in the water.

A similar ecological dissonance exists at Mill Ruins Park adjacent to the Stone Arch Bridge on the west bank of the river. Though not the prettiest backdrop, the crumbling remains of Minneapolis’s once-mighty flour industry make for a unique (if not completely bizarre) fishing experience. At the base of the park’s historic brick walls, two massive drainage pipes outfitted with iron bars spit water into a canal, and after heavy rains the runoff approximates a babbling brook. It’s not exactly A River Runs Through It, but bluegill and bass congregate at these drainpipe rapids, creating downtown’s answer to stream fishing.

Follow the canal south, downhill from the Guthrie Theater, and you might run into a middle-aged dude in a white tank top and denim shorts named Kurt. Kurt rocks a military-grade flattop and likes to shoot carp in the head with fiberglass arrows. The first time I saw him walking along the concrete riverbank, hunting bow in hand, I nearly called the cops to report a mad woodsman on the loose. As I got closer, though, I could see that he was aiming at the water. Suddenly, he tugged back the bowstring and let an arrow fly. Foop! He pulled in a large carp.

“Nice fish,” I said. “What do you call that rig?” He looked at me like I was crazy. “You’ve never seen bow fishing?” I shook my head. He waved me over and showed me the arrow, which was attached to heavy line spooled onto a reel on the front of the bow. The reel had a break on it to prevent too much line from flying out. “You gotta aim lower than you think,” he said—something about the refraction of the water—“and go for the brain. Even garbage fish deserve respect.” I’m not sure there’s anything respectful about shooting a steel arrowhead into an animal’s skull, but I knew what he meant.

In some ways, Kurt, an African American who fishes from the shore, is the antithesis of the traditional “outdoor” crowd. Hunting bibles such as Field & Stream and In-Fisherman tend to show white guys casting from expensive boats in far-flung waters, thereby perpetuating the myth that fishing is the exclusive domain of white guys casting from expensive boats in far-flung waters. The same goes for those how-to shows hosted by an assortment of bass masters and walleye wizards—in our case Al Lindner and Babe Winkleman, those demigods of Minnesota fishing. When the media covers other categories of angling and angler, it does so out of curiosity. Think redneck hand-fishermen, crab boat captains with a death wish, and, sadly, females (a 2012 blog post on fieldandstream.com was titled “Some Women Choose the Outdoors over Ritzy Vacations”).

Peddling such stereotypes might be good business, but if city fishing teaches us anything, it’s that the reality of who fishes and where is more complicated—and a hell of a lot more interesting. Whether for recreation, livelihood, or sustenance, people have long stalked urban shoreline. Anglers were among the groups that formed the ancient Sumerian settlement of Eridu, thought to be the world’s first metropolis. Dubai, Cancún, and Shenzhen all started as fishing villages.

The history of fishing in the Twin Cities begins with the Hopewell native people who inhabited the area some 2,000 years ago and caught dinner with crude bone hooks and line made from plant fiber. The Dakota Sioux arrived next, upgrading to spears and net-like traps, which they employed on sacred waters such as Mde Maka Ska (what is now Lake Calhoun) and Minnehaha Falls. Subsequent waves of Europeans, Hispanics, Southeast Asians, and Africans imported their own fish-nabbing traditions, and today the Twin Cities is home to nearly every stripe of angler.

Once, on the Harriet Island riverboat dock across the Mississippi from downtown St. Paul, I fished aside a lineup that looked like a United Colors of Benetton ad: two African American men, a white retired naval officer, and a Hispanic girl who I would guess was in her late teens. While Navy guy lamented the fact that he never fought in Korea and the two friends argued over the last of their minnows, the girl quietly out-fished us all, landing a dozen white bass with a simple egg sinker setup. Of course we gave her shit, because in fishing shit-giving equals endorsement. I’m pretty sure one of us accused her of chumming the water the way you would for a shark. She just smiled and kept reeling in fish.

Our Harriet Island quintet projected an odd, if fleeting, harmony. Overall, the convergence of cultures, ethnic and otherwise, makes city fishing a very different animal from its outstate brother. For one, rural fishing is pure escapism, and there’s an understandable desire among many country anglers to be left the hell alone. Solitude is rarely an option for those casting in town, which can foster a convivial we’re-all-in-this-together vibe. We have no choice but to play nice.

A guy I know who’s fished the Minneapolis-St. Paul stretch of the Mississippi since he was a kid describes it as “the friendliest fishery in the state.” I would agree. Even the homeless-seeming anglers are cheerful. While trying my luck on the shores of Lake Nokomis one early autumn morning, I gave a couple worms to a man with jaundiced eyes, beer breath, and a Karl Marx beard. In the city, nightcrawlers are bummed like cigarettes. He thanked me repeatedly and added one to a rig that would make MacGyver proud: string for line, metal washers for sinkers, and what appeared to be a rusty paper clip for the hook. I followed him to the end of the fishing pier on the north side of the lake and watched as he carefully lowered the string into the water and jigged it up and down a couple times, then a couple more, and then, like, 78 more. I was about to give up hope when he jerked the string hard, reached down, unhooked the smallest bluegill I’d ever seen, and tossed it into a five-gallon bucket. I asked him what he planned on doing with his haul. “I eat ’em,” he said with finality in his slur.

Which begs the question: Should we eat city fish? Each year, the DNR, the Minnesota Pollution Control agency, and the Minnesota Department of Health team up on multiple fish consumption guidelines. According to the “Fish Consumption Guidelines for the General Population, Lakes” list, my worm-bumming friend can eat an unlimited number of bluegill from Nokomis. But on the off-off-off-chance that he starts landing walleye with that string and paper clip, he should consume just one a week due to Nokomis’s mercury levels. (Thanks to the 1972 Clean Water Act and subsequent legislation, metro lakes and rivers have bounced back after some tough decades, but most still contain a cocktail of chemicals.) A pattern emerges with many of the lakes on the list: binge on pan fish; watch it with the walleye, northern pike, catfish, and bass.

River guidelines are more complicated because you’re dealing with different stretches of moving water, so I’ll defer to Kurt, who once told me that he had no problem frying up a Mississippi River keeper because of the lack of large cities north of Minneapolis. “Would I eat a carp from St. Louis?” he said. “No way. But why not up here?” I still haven’t gotten up the courage to eat a city fish, but when I do, I’ll toast to Kurt’s beautiful, deeply flawed logic.

If the urban angling population sometimes feels like a disparate band of freaks, geeks, loners, and amateur water pollution experts, drive north on St. Paul’s Rice Street until you hit Maryland Avenue. Across the street from Tin Cup’s bar sits Kathy’s Live Bait. Mile Xiong bought the shop with his family six years ago and renamed the 50-year-old institution that was Gimp’s Bait after his youngest daughter. Kathy’s has since become a meeting place for the area’s Hmong fishing community. The Minnesota DNR estimated in 2009 that there were 40,000 Southeast Asian anglers in Minnesota, most of them living in the city.

When I visit Kathy’s on a Saturday morning in May, Asian men and women are browsing the small but well-stocked aisles and placing orders for fatheads, suckers, leeches, and other live bait swimming in sinks behind the counter. I ask a kid with a peach-fuzz mustache what he plans on targeting that day. “White bass,” he says. “It’s all I go for.” He’s not alone. Morone chrysops is the fish of choice for many Hmong anglers because it resembles a species found in Laos. The boy is heading to the St. Croix River with his uncle but says that you can find the fish in Sucker Lake in Vadnais Heights and the Mississippi (as I’ve already learned from a certain Harriet Island regular).

Xiong and his wife, Sophia Yang, are both working that day, and they run Kathy’s like a true ma-and-pa outfit, dispensing smiles and fishing tips in equal measure. Yang points me to McCarrons Lake a mile up the road in Roseville proper. I don’t have much luck there, but I do overhear some fishermen speaking in Spanish and Russian, which confirms my totally unscientific theory that Southeast Asians are the lumbar of local angling while Latinos and Russians form the rest of its backbone.

I’ve tried to fact-check this with the DNR, but it could only tell me how many licenses are sold each year (about a million). Turns out when you request census data from natural resource nerds, it’s related to natural resources (not the people who use them). A call to Jim Levitt, an east metro fisheries specialist for the DNR, reveals that the majority of fish populations in the metro area are stable and healthy, thanks in no small part to DNR management. Levitt and his fellow fisheries managers periodically stock area lakes with tens of thousands of fish, including walleye, which can’t reproduce on their own due to an unsuitable habitat. Bluegill and crappie are also stocked because they’re easy to net and move. Most of the other species reproduce naturally.

“My biggest challenge isn’t managing the water—it’s managing people’s expectations,” says Levitt with a laugh. “The DNR can create a fishery in the metro, but it’s harder to create these phenomenal fisheries like you get up north because the pressure is so much higher in the Twin Cities.” Levitt estimates that metro lakes receive 40 to 50 angler hours per acre per year, which results in fewer trophy fish. I can vouch for that. I visit the BWCA every year and have rassled some prehistoric-sized northern up there. Unless you target areas of the city with tighter restrictions (e.g., Pool 2 of the Mississippi near the Ford Dam in St. Paul), you’re going to have to leave town to find the lunkers.

To help manage these expecta-tions—and to get the word out about city fishing in general—the DNR does a fair amount of outreach, including its 12-year-old Fishing in the Neighborhood (FiN) program, which introduces angling to kids and families via free clinics and equipment rental, fishing pier installation, and other projects. It’s tough to quantify the program’s impact on city fishing participation, but Levitt says that FiN has been popular and the number of lakes and communities it serves continues to grow.

It’s a cool May evening, and I’m fishing for carp and channel cats on the Mississippi with my friend Tyler and his pal Matt Taj. We’re standing on a small island of concrete jutting from the water just downriver from the St. Anthony Main business district and the belching smokestacks of the Southeast Steam Plant. To the north, cars rumble over the Third Avenue Bridge. To the south, a young couple sits on the pilings that line the riverbank, their poles perched over the water, which is foaming up in places and smells like a pile of old, wet towels.

Taj—a Mexican-Iranian St. Paul native who’s fished around the world—is holding forth. He’s an intense, delightfully profane character in his early 30s who, with his goatee and ponytail, looks a little bit like rocker Dave Grohl. Anecdotes spill from his lips like the runoff in the nearby drainpipe. There was the time he was propositioned near the old Meeker Dam on the St. Paul side of the Lake Street-Marshall Bridge, an area known for great fishing and—surprise!—gay cruising. Another time he had an assault rifle put to his temple while on an angling adventure near the Azerbaijan-Iran border. Oaxaca, England, the Caspian Sea—it seems he’s fished everywhere.

We eventually land a couple of carp and a walleye, but I’m more interested in the stories. Even if he’s just self-mythologizing, Taj has clearly mastered my favorite byproduct of sitting with a pole in your hand and waiting for something to happen: riffing. This ancient tradition is alive and well in city fishing circles, and almost every angler I encounter has a tip, secret, rumor, or tall tale to impart. Like the guy I met at a Caribou Coffee who claimed to have dropped a line in the Euphrates near the site of the Garden of Eden while serving in the second Iraq War. Or the old-timer who described fishing in the Mississippi with a Forrest Gump-ian proverb: “That river is a junk drawer. Throw a hook in and you never know what’ll come out—gar, sturgeon, the Loch Ness himself!”

My own riffs aren’t nearly as dangerous or entertaining, but I will say that you can’t beat the Walmart on University in St. Paul for low, low prices on tackle. Also, there’s a spot on Minnehaha Creek just upstream from where it meets the Mississippi that, when dappled by late evening sun, is a dead ringer for a Montana trout stream (another happy byproduct of city fishing is that it often tips your perception of “urban” on its ear). Finally, if you ever find yourself skunked in a broken-down old fiberglass boat on the lonely industrial stretch of river that splits Minneapolis’s northernmost neighborhoods—don’t worry. Just crack another beer and drift through the darkness toward the giant lighthouse that is downtown. The boat will start again, and the fish, well, you know they’re down there.

Chris Clayton is a Twin Cities writer and editor.