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Fish species make noted return to Minnesota River

SACRED HEART -- A cell phone call informed us we had some time to kill before the group we were to lead on the river arrived.

Tom Kalahar was prepared.

"Let's go fishing,'' he said, a smile betraying his excitement at the turn of events.

In minutes we had our canoes positioned near a snag of trees under the Renville County Road 9 bridge crossing and nightcrawlers dunked.

And almost immediately, Kalahar yanked out his first "fiddler," or small channel catfish he proclaimed as the perfect size for eating. Kalahar, with the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District office, is an avid Minnesota River fisherman who switches from pursuing walleye in spring to "fiddlers" in the summer.

My strike felt like something bigger, and a flash of brown had me thinking walleye.

Until we maneuvered the catch into Kalahar's net and saw a shovelnose sturgeon.

"You never know what you'll catch in the river," said Kalahar.

It was the first of four shovelnose sturgeons we would catch -- and release -- in less than an hour's time.

News of our success didn't so much as raise an eyebrow from Shannon Fisher, executive director of the Minnesota River Board and Water Resource Center at Mankato State University.

Fisher led a contingent of staff from the two organizations to join on us on a seven-mile paddle on the Minnesota River. It was in part a team-building exercise for the staff members, but the bigger purpose was the opportunity for the Mankato-based group to explore a new section of the Minnesota River.

Kalahar calls the upper Minnesota River the state's "southern'' Boundary Waters, and for a reason. Ancient granite outcrops punctuate a tree-lined corridor that has all the feel of a wilderness, and much of the excitement. Raptors watched us from above, while parent geese kept their eyes focused on clumsy goslings. We flushed up wood ducks and listened to the melodies of birds practiced from a winter of singing in the jungles of Central America.

It wasn't too long before we heard the tumble of white water as we navigated Patterson's and smaller rapids leading to our take-out at Renville County's Vicksburg Park.

We found all of this in the midst of Renville County's most productive corn fields.

Kalahar speaks to hundreds of schools and other groups in the area about the importance of taking care of the land to protect this river. He bemoans the fact that only the tiniest fraction of those he addresses -- young and old alike -- have actually been on the river to experience what we just enjoyed.

Fisher faces a different if tougher audience. He speaks to hundreds of elected officials -- local and state -- each year to enlist their support for cleaning up the river.

He often finds himself in meeting rooms and legislative chambers, hardly the best environments to conjure up images of the river's value as a recreation destination and measure of the landscape's health.

"There's lots of good work being done in the basin,'' said Fisher of the message he delivers.

Governor Arne Carlson's proclaimed goal in 1995 of making the Minnesota River "swimmable and fishable" in 10 years led to the creation of the Minnesota River Board as a joint powers agreement among the 37 counties in its watershed.

Today, 28 counties remain dues-paying members. New legislation approved this session revised the board's role, while also continuing state funding for it. The board will focus more on guiding overall policy than involve itself in specific projects, said Fisher.

The board and the Water Resource Center at Mankato State University are responsible for monitoring the condition of the state's namesake river and reporting on where we are succeeding and failing.

Enthusiasm for cleaning up the river tends to ebb and flow over the years, and the financial predicament that government faces today is responsible for the loss in supporting members, said Fisher.

Yet he remains optimistic about the prospects for the river.

He said the hard, scientific data being collected in the field show both gains and problems in cleaning up the river.

But, he quickly added, nothing tells the story of the river better than the anecdotal evidence he brings to all of the county board rooms and legislative chambers. Fish that need clean water are being caught and netted more frequently in the river, said Fisher.

Anglers in the Mankato area are no longer surprised to snag paddlefish, a sign that water quality is improving enough to attract them upstream from the Mississippi River, he said.

Kalahar made the Minnesota River his destination for the fishing opener in May, and was rewarded with a stringer of walleyes and two of the nicest northern pike he's caught in the river in many years. Year after year, he's seen better fishing for smallmouth bass in the river, too.

And sturgeon?

They were once very abundant in the Minnesota River, but by the mid-1980s reports of their decline led the Department of Natural Resources to conduct a survey of the river.

The DNR survey's authors concluded that conditions warranted their listing as a species of "special concern" in the river.

Today, Fisher is hearing more reports of sturgeon being accidentally caught again, suggesting that these prehistoric fish are faring better.

Our story of catching four sturgeons in a row didn't surprise him, he said. It encouraged him.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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