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Photo of anglers with photos of their big catch.

Paradise Found

Many Twin Cities metro area anglers endure bumper-to-boat-prop traffic in the northbound lane to find fish, but it isn't necessary to leave the city to find great fishing.

By Michael A. Kallok

Through the wall of windows that front a stylish Minneapolis restaurant, bartender Manuel Guzman can see Lake Calhoun.

"It would ultimately be my dream to be out on that water and fish every day," Guzman says about the chain of lakes including Calhoun, Harriet, Cedar, Brownie, and Lake of the Isles. Finding great fishing opportunities close to home has obvious advantages for the 32-year-old father and husband. And working in plain sight of trophy bass and muskie waters adds an entertaining twist. Guzman often has a story and a photo of his most recent big fish to share with patrons.

image of metro area fishing

Fishing in the City:

A gallery of Twin Cities anglers and their catches.

"Out-of-town businessmen always have to ask: 'Where did you catch that?' They expect to hear it was up north somewhere. But hey, it's right across the road," Guzman says. "A lot of people have a hard time believing that."

But it should come as no surprise to the 60 percent of Minnesotans who reside within the seven-county metro area that fine fishing spots aren't far away. Anoka, Ramsey, Washington, Dakota, Hennepin, Carver, and Scott counties boast 250 lakes, 150 miles of river, and four trout streams. Thirteen current state records have been pulled from metro waters -- a testament to their amazing diversity of fish species.

The Twin Cities metro area might not spring to mind when you're planning for any of the big three fishing openers: walleye, bass, or muskie. After all, city waters have borne the brunt of pollution caused by human activity. But more than 30 years of careful management has made metro lakes and rivers some of the best fisheries in the country.

Whopper Walleye

If Dick Grzywinski of St. Paul tells you he caught 91 walleyes, it isn't a guess. The renowned Minnesota fishing guide is famous for keeping a mechanical counter in his boat, and he has counted plenty of fish from the metro.

"I fished every day on Phalen, Gervais, Round Lake, 'Big' Bear, and the Mississippi," Grzywinski recalls of his early fishing experiences as a boy.

Grzywinski is a familiar face at walleye factories like Mille Lacs and Winnibigoshish, but today he chases big walleyes closer to home. "If I'm going to go after a trophy walleye, I wouldn't go north," Grzywinski says. "I'd take the metro over any place in Minnesota. If you want to catch a big walleye in a hurry, you can do it right in town." His favorite spot is Pool 2, a 35-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between the Ford Dam in St. Paul and Lock and Dam 2 in Hastings.

Had it not been for the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, there would be little reason to wet a line in the metro's portion of the Mississippi, according to Dirk Peterson, DNR metro-area fisheries manager.

"In the 1960s our nets didn't fill up with anything but toilet paper; now they just fill up with large walleye," Peterson says of Pool 2.

Prior to the Clean Water Act, storm water and wastewater were handled together. When large rain events occurred, capacity at treatment plants was overtopped, leading to the frequent discharge of raw sewage into the river. The resulting high levels of organic material often depleted dissolved oxygen levels in the river to zero, making aquatic life impossible.

Separate handling of storm water and wastewater, as required by the act, has led to the recovery of large rivers in the metro, according to Peterson. "At the Pig's Eye wastewater treatment plant, they discharge water that is cleaner than the river," he says.

In the early 1990s, after decades of improving water quality, a handful of anglers discovered that walleyes had staged a comeback. It didn't take long for word to get out, and anglers started arriving from all over the Midwest, recalls Duane Shodeen, retired DNR metro-area fisheries manager.

"Some were keeping big stringers of fish to show off at local bait shops," Shodeen says. "They figured they weren't safe to eat, so most of these fish were just being discarded."

This waste concerned a number of metro anglers, including Grzywinski and Dick Sternberg, once a fisheries biologist with the DNR. Grzywinski and Sternberg helped mobilize support from local anglers to stop the indiscriminate harvest of walleyes from Pool 2, and they assisted the DNR with the fish sampling needed for an official fishing regulation change. In 1993 their efforts helped establish a year-round catch-and-release-only season for walleyes in Pool 2. The regulation, which also applies to sauger and largemouth and smallmouth bass, remains in effect today.

"The best part of it is," Grzywinski says, "when I'm not around anymore, I know my two grandsons will still be able to go down [to Pool 2] and catch a 10-pounder."

World-Class Bass

Development in the seven-county metro has always presented a challenge for maintaining water quality and fish habitat, Peterson says, but the warm-water, aquatic-vegetation-loving largemouth bass is well-suited to the habitat in metro lakes. Regulations and a catch-and-release ethic among largemouth bass anglers help ensure plenty of opportunities for catching big bass. In 2005 pro bass angler Mark Raveling caught Minnesota's current record largemouth (8 pounds, 15 ounces) in Lake Auburn, a small west-metro lake near Victoria.

"I believe the metro produces some of the best bass fishing opportunities in Minnesota," says professional bass angler Scott Bonnema of Zimmerman. "It is one of the most underutilized resources we have."

Lake Minnetonka has long been regarded regionally as a premier largemouth bass destination. In 1995 the Twin Cities hooked the attention of bass anglers nationwide. During the first B.A.S.S. tournament event in Minnesota, 111 anglers caught and released 2,003 bass on Minnetonka -- more fish than any B.A.S.S. event in the traveling tournament's previous 28 years.

"In Minnesota it's not unheard of to make 30 casts and catch 30 fish," Bonnema says. "All around, it's a truly pleasurable angling experience."

Mighty Muskie

In 1966 St. Paul building contractor Gill Hamm founded the first chapter of Muskies Inc. Today it includes 47 chapters and over 7,500 members throughout North America. The Twin Cities' current status as the nation's premier metro muskie fishery owes much of its success to the partnership between the DNR and Muskies Inc. The nonprofit advocacy organization has encouraged catch and release and helped augment DNR muskie stocking efforts with financial assistance and donations of muskie that have been reared in licensed ponds.

Twenty-five years ago, Hennepin County's Lake Independence was the only viable metro muskie fishery. Today, the DNR actively manages 11 metro lakes for pure-strain muskie and another 25 for tiger muskie. While stocking continues to play a major role in the quality of the fishery, catch and release is the cornerstone for maintaining and improving it, according to Shawn Kellett of Muskies Inc.

"If you want to see a 50 incher," he says. "You have to throw that 48 incher back."

Trout Streams Too

Cities aren't friendly to trout, which need cold, clean, well-oxygenated water. Yet roughly 15 streams in the seven-county metro support at least a few trout. The Vermillion River is one of four metro streams with public access and fishable trout populations. It begins in east-central Scott County and flows 62 miles, mostly through Dakota County, before reaching the Mississippi. Just 20 miles south of downtown St. Paul, the Vermillion now holds trophy-sized trout in numbers comparable to some of the state's best trout waters, says DNR metro trout habitat specialist Brian Nerbonne.

By the 1940s, poor water quality had wiped out the Vermillion's native brook trout. In 1990, after decades of improved land-use practices by nearby farms and better wastewater handling by communities, the DNR began stocking the river with brown trout, which tolerate warm water better than brook trout do. By 2006 natural reproduction had become sufficient.

"The first time you visit the Vermillion, you might not catch any fish," Nerbonne says. "If you do happen to hook into one, there is a good chance it could be a memorable fish. For people who are willing to put in the time, it's a good place to target trophy trout."

With the exception of two miles in Farmington, the Vermillion River is open to catch and release only to protect this unique trout resource.

Family Friendly

The seven-county metro has 60 Fishing in the Neighborhood program lakes. FIN lakes are family friendly fishing spots with shore fishing for panfish, bass, pike, walleye, and catfish. Several have stocked trout ponds. Most have restrooms, picnic shelters, and playgrounds. Find FIN lakes.

Fish for the Pan

Last season the DNR stocked over 5 million fish in metro lakes to meet the demand from anglers. Whereas lakes in the Bemidji area see an average of 20 to 30 hours of angling effort per acre per season, Twin Cities lakes average 50 to 80 hours per acre per season.

Panfish are enthusiastically sought by anglers of all ages, but the popularity of sunfish and crappie has led to a scarcity of fish big enough to keep and eat.

"There are plenty of opportunities to catch bluegills in the metro, but the size of fish can be a problem due to the high amount of pressure on the fish," says Peterson. However, the problem isn't restricted to the metro, he says. In fact, the DNR recently revised bag limits statewide to improve the quality of panfishing opportunities.

To manage urban fisheries, biologists must continue to learn more about fish and their habitat requirements, community interactions, and the effective use of regulations. Examining how different human communities interact with the activity of fishing is also important to DNR efforts to retain and attract new anglers.

Many of the estimated 40,000 Southeast Asian anglers in Minnesota prefer to catch and eat white bass -- a fish native to the state's large rivers. Southeast Asian Americans covet white bass because this species is similar to one in their native lands, according to Pajtsheng Vang, president of the Hmong chapter of Capital Sportsmen.

"Fishing brings the family together," Vang says. "We fish for fun and to feed the family."

Because current consumption guidelines set by Minnesota Department of Health recommend no more than one meal per month of white bass from metro rivers, each season thousands of would-be Minnesota anglers head to North Dakota's Devils Lake, where white bass are safe to eat.

"We saw that, and we thought we needed to do something to bring these people back to fish in Minnesota," Vang says.

Meetings between Capital Sportsmen and the DNR have led to discussions about the possibility of stocking white bass in a few metro lakes. White bass are abundant in Lake St. Croix, an 8,209-acre portion of the lower St. Croix River in the east metro. Like the Mississippi, the St. Croix has benefitted from over 30 years of protection under the Clean Water Act. The DNR plans to test white bass this spring from Lake St. Croix in hopes that the fish might be cleaner today than they were when last tested 20 years ago.

Safe to Eat?

"I hear many people say they don't eat fish in the metro because they think the water is dirty," says Pat McCann, Minnesota Depart-ment of Health fish consumption advisory coordinator. "It's a common misconception."

Statewide, mercury poses the most significant health risk if consumption guidelines aren't followed. However, mercury levels in fish are no greater in the metro than they are in outstate lakes, McCann says.

Regardless of where fish are caught, McCann recommends anglers, especially children and pregnant women, follow fish-consumption guidelines.

Untapped Resources

Lake St. Croix is a premier metro angling destination for a number of species, according to Gerald Johnson, DNR east-metro fisheries supervisor. Creel surveys indicate walleye, sauger, freshwater drum, and white bass make up 80 percent of the reported catch from Lake St. Croix. Smallmouth bass, muskie, pike, sauger, bluegill, and crappie are all present in good numbers. It is also one of two places in Minnesota where anglers can legally pursue lake sturgeon.

"Our big rivers in the metro are still underutilized for angling," Peterson says. "Many anglers are aware of the big channel catfish and flathead catfish in the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix rivers, but very few people choose to pursue them. There are some real trophy opportunities for catfish in the metro."

A recent survey conducted on Lake St. Croix found 30 fish species present, but all major metro rivers offer an opportunity to experience the incredible diversity of Minnesota's fish. With nothing more than a basic rod, reel, sinker, hook, and bait, a river angler has a chance to catch a host of fascinating native species such as gar, mooneye, smallmouth buffalo, bowfin, quillback, and even the elusive, mysterious American eel.

Waiting for the Opener

Back on Lake Street, Guzman finishes up his shift at the bar and is joined by his fishing partner Chris Thalhuber. Their boats are still in storage, awaiting the opener, so they do the next best thing: tell fishing stories.

"My father gave me a 17-foot Coleman canoe," Guzman says. "Back then I couldn't find anyone who wanted to spend the whole day on the lake, so I had to put two 5-gallon buckets of water up front to keep it from popping wheelies."

"So what you're saying is, you were using me for ballast?" Thalhuber asks.

They share some laughs over challenges faced when it actually came time to land a muskie from the canoe. Then talk turns to more recent seasons.

"Every day is different. To put patterns together, to get the right color schemes. That lure I threw all day probably went by four or five different muskies, but the fact that they didn't bite: What was it? Was it the color? The speed? So many variables play a factor, and that is what most intrigues me," Guzman says. "In 2007 I really struggled to catch fish, and I told Chris I was going to take up golf."

"He lied," Thalhuber says.

"Yeah, I'm back," Guzman responds. "We only got skunked one time last season."

First Metro Opener

On May 9, White Bear Lake becomes the first metro destination to host the annual Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener. Communities from Red Wing to International Falls have hosted the event during its 60-year history.

Often regarded as one of Minnesota's first resort communities, White Bear Lake "is a great site for the opener," says C.B. Bylander, DNR Fish and Wildlife outreach chief. "It's a reminder that some of the best urban fishing in America is in the heart of the Twin Cities and the waters that flow around its edges."

The 2,400-acre lake holds walleye, northern pike, bluegill, yellow perch, pumpkinseed sunfish, and black crappie.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has caught a walleye every year, except his first opener on Detroit Lake in 2003, when he bagged a pike. About 5,500 people are expected to attend the community picnic on May 8.

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