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.