Minnesota River is go-to destination for many

Apr. 28—HUTCHINSON — For many anglers in southern Minnesota, the Minnesota River is their go-to destination, no different than popular fisheries like Mille Lacs Lake or the St. Louis River estuary are to many others.

For good reason: A creel survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found that while catch rates were down some from a previous creel survey in 1998, anglers generally enjoyed good fishing thanks to a Minnesota River fishery that remains healthy.

This is among the many findings in a newly released report by Tony Sindt, Minnesota River fisheries specialist with the DNR in Hutchinson. "Minnesota River anglers are passionate," Sindt told the Tribune. Whether they are targeting channel catfish or walleye, or are just plain "river rats," they all share a love for fishing the river, he explained.

The creel census was conducted April 27 through October 31 in 2022, and involved daytime surveys with anglers along the 233-mile-long stretch of river from below the dam in Granite Falls to St. Paul.

* Fifty percent of the anglers targeted channel or flathead catfish, followed by "no particular species" at 27%, walleye and sauger at 23%, freshwater drum at five percent, and carp at 4%, according to highlights of the survey.

* Channel catfish, freshwater drum, and walleye and sauger comprised 79% of the fish caught and 89% of the fish harvested, according to the survey highlights.

The findings call attention to two changes in how the river is being used as compared to 1998. Sindt said it showed that more anglers are targeting and harvesting freshwater drum, known to many as sheepshead. He said that in part, it could reflect a change in thinking about freshwater drum. People are discovering that freshwater drum can make tasty table fare, thanks to promotional efforts by people like Chris Domeier, fisheries supervisor with the DNR in Ortonville, he explained.

The river specialists said he also suspects that the increased targeting of drum reflects an increase in the number of second generation immigrants who are fishing the river, although the survey did not provide data on the ethnicity of the anglers. The second generation immigrant anglers are more harvest oriented, and it is generally easy to fill a bucket with freshwater drum on any given outing.

Also, freshwater drum remain classified as a "rough fish," so newcomers to Minnesota's regulatory system do not have to worry about bag or length limits, making them a safe catch.

The other apparent change is that more anglers have adopted a catch and release ethic to the sport. Anglers targeting trophy flathead catfish, for example, have strongly adopted the ethic, Sindt said.

The survey also showed that many anglers are practicing the ethic for a variety of species, and not just culling so-called "rough" fish from their catch. Overall, the survey estimated that anglers caught 45,452 fish and harvested 12,701.

Other than drum, Sindt said he was surprised to learn that there was no noticeable increase in the anglers seeking other fish species that are lumped into the "rough" fish designation, such as gar or redhorse sucker. There is a small contingent of anglers targeting carp.

Shovelnose sturgeon were the sixth most caught fish in the survey, and became legal to target in 2015. Yet few anglers are doing so, according to the survey.

Yet it's also clear that many anglers are happy to catch "whatever is biting," and that could suggest that more so-called rough fish are being sought, he pointed out.

Calculations based on the survey estimate that angling effort on the river during the survey period was 91,463 hours. That is comparable to fishing effort on destinations such as the Mississippi River Pool 2, Big Stone Lake or the St. Louis River estuary.

The angling effort over the 233 miles amounted to 11.4 hours per acre, indicative of moderate fishing pressure. Anglers are dispersed on the river, though public access points and locations such as below the Granite Falls dam, the Upper Sioux Agency State Park, and the Renville County parks see more concentrations of anglers, according to the survey.

Importantly, the survey showed that shore anglers contributed 55 percent of the angling effort. Very few water bodies see that high a level of shore line fishing, Sindt said. The river is providing fishing access to many people who do not have boats, and likely, also serves to introduce young people and others to fishing who cannot afford the investment that watercraft represent.

Most of the anglers are coming from within 30 miles of the river. It's an especially important fishing destination for anglers in the southern one-third of the state, where the number of lakes is limited, Sindt pointed out.

Interestingly, anglers living in the upper reaches of the river are more likely to travel and explore the river fishing opportunities. Metropolitan area anglers tend to be homebodies and stick to their favorite spots, according to the survey numbers.

Sindt said he was surprised that the survey did not find the river to be a big destination for anglers from greater distances. The opportunity to catch trophy flathead catfish draws some anglers who are willing to travel a greater distance, but not as many as he was expecting.

Last year was not the best year for the survey. The year began with high water which quickly disappeared. It was virtually impossible in the upper portion of the river to launch a boat during the latter half of the survey period. Word about the low water conditions may have also adversely affected the number of anglers willing to make a long distance trip.

In addition, Sindt said the water conditions in June, normally a very good time to fish the river, were not favorable.

Put all of this together, and he suspects the conditions last year served to dampen down fishing interest and success, but that is impossible to quantify.

What was clear is that the harvest shows the river continues to support a "healthy, productive fish community," Sindt said. Natural reproduction of the popular game species remains strong. Management can continue to focus on monitoring, he said.