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State Fair-goers are hooked on the fish pond

Donn Schrader, left, a fisheries specialist from the DNR, and Joe Braden from Ken's Bait pour fish into the pond at the DNR fish pond on the Minnesota state fairgrounds on Wednesday, August 22, 2018. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
Mario Travaline, left, and Ben Larson search for a short-nosed gar to fill out an inside display at the Department of Natural Resources fish pond on the Minnesota state fairgrounds on Wednesday, August 22, 2018. Both work for the DNR. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 2

ST. PAUL — Some of the biggest stars of the Minnesota State Fair showed up Wednesday, Aug. 22, to get properly settled in before the gates open. Media gathered. Police stopped traffic.

The fish for the Department of Natural Resources Fish Pond had arrived.

The finny Fair stars arrived in metal tanks in the back of pickup trucks and were lifted in nets into the clear, shallow pond near the DNR Building at the Fair. Cameras clicked and rolled.

There's a crowd gathered outside the wooden posts that ring the pond at almost any time during the 12 days of the Great Minnesota Get-Together. Sometimes they're standing two or three deep, says Donn Schrader, DNR hatchery manager who's been in charge of the Fish Pond for 30 years.

These are simple Minnesota fish, three dozen different species. They don't do tricks. They're not particularly colorful, and only a few (we're looking at you, paddlefish) are distinctive looking.

Schrader says it's like walking around a big aquarium.

"You just don't have an opportunity like this to see fish," said DNR media unit supervisor Steve Carroll. Huge lake sturgeon, paddlefish and gar are Fish Pond favorites. The sturgeon like to circle the edge of the pond — showing off, perhaps?

The scaly stars spend their offseason in a DNR-owned pond off-site. An enterprising eagle built a nest above the pond, Schrader said, and the non-wild fish were easy pickings for the eagle and her offspring.

The trout in the State Fair pond are outsiders, Schrader said, coming from a hatchery in southeast Minnesota.

Since most of the fish share water year-round, there's no fighting for territory. But occasionally a big fish will eat a smaller fish. (There's little chance of trauma for children, Schrader said, as fish do most of their feeding at night.)

Fourteen gallons of bait are dumped into the pond twice during the run of the Fair, Carroll said.

Fun fish pond facts are dished out hourly every day during the Fair starting at 9:45 a.m. and running through 6:45 p.m. The pond got a new sound system this year, so it will be easier to absorb info like:

The largest fish in the exhibit is the lake sturgeon, which is bigger than 50 inches. The fish was the gift of an angler who harvested it legally from the St. Croix River several years ago. (The largest sturgeon reported in Minnesota was a 215-pound fish found dead along the shore of Lake of the Woods in the early part of the 20th century.)

And, of course, there are plenty of stories to float about the pond, which has been at the Fair since 1971, Schrader says.

Not so many years ago, a man who had perhaps been over-served at the beer garden stripped to his underwear and jumped in to try to catch a fish.

On a dare, some kids once jumped in one end and tried to escape the other side. They were not successful.

A 30-pound muskie sent a woman screaming from the pond after it leaped out and nearly landed on her. A man hoisted it up and back into the pond. Schrader said muskie will often jump up against the clear doors in the walls around the pond. They're smart and they're trying to escape.

And, yes, people have tried to fish in the pond — usually at night, Schrader said. Lures have been found in the fish.