When Gov. Mark Dayton heads out in the early hours of May 13 in hopes of hooking into a big fish, he'll be doing something only a few governors have done before: Marking the opening day of Minnesota's angling season by fishing on a river.
While the Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener has taken place on the Mississippi River three times before, it's been on the lower, broader, deeper parts of the river between Red Wing and Winona, that resemble lakes because of the dams and locks that impound the river to facilitate barge traffic. Dayton will see a much different Mississippi in the greater St. Cloud area, a shallower, more lazy river that calls for different angling techniques than those used on lakes and big rivers.
"Rivers are dynamic and always changing, with different flows and stages," said Eric Altena, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager for the area. "That can affect your fishing a lot."
The portion of the river that's the focus for the Governor's Fishing Opener this year is about 200-400 yards wide, and averages less than 3 feet in depth, with several deeper pools. Altena describes three different sections of the Mississippi River around St. Cloud, separated by dams where early American explorer Zebulon Pike would have encountered waterfalls when he first visited the area in 1805.
Nearly three dozen species of fish can be found in this portion of the Mississippi River, including smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, channel catfish and the occasional muskellunge. The river's diverse and robust fishery relies wholly on natural reproduction and is largely the product of a healthy watershed. It receives relatively low angling pressure and catch rates can be high, in excess of five fish per hour for smallmouth bass.
Below St. Cloud, the river is recognized as a world-class smallmouth bass fishery that's maintained by a special regulation with a 12- to 20-inch protected slot and a three fish daily bag limit. Anglers fishing the opener on any stretch of the river around St. Cloud are likely to run into some bass action, Altena said. The season is catch and release for bass until May 27.