Field Notes: Urban Legend
Just because there's more concrete than conifers on the shoreline doesn't mean you can't catch big walleye, at least according to anglers who fish the Mississippi River from the Ford Dam in St. Paul to Lock and Dam No. 2 in Hastings.
The 35-mile river corridor known as pool 2 is gaining a reputation as a walleye hot spot. Steve Dezurik, a part-time guide who fishes the river about 150 days each year, says the attention is well-deserved.
"It's not usually a fast and furious bite. But there are places you can regularly catch 3-to 5-pound fish," says Dezurik, whose biggest walleye from pool 2 weighed 13 pounds. "And there's always potential to catch a real trophy."
The walleyes in pool 2 are just as big as or bigger than the ones downstream near Red Wing, Lake City, and Winona; and per acre, there are just as many of them, says DNR metro area fisheries manager Dave Zappetillo. The difference is that pool 2 flows through eight cities and suburbs with about 2 million residents.
"There's probably not another place in the United States with this kind of fishing opportunity in such a populated area," Zappetillo says.
But it hasn't always been an urban angling magnet. The first European settlers dumped sewage and industrial waste directly into the river. By 1920 the pool, created by the construction of the Ford Dam in 1917, became notorious for decaying mats of floating scum, oil slicks, and organic sludge made up of human, animal, and industrial waste.
Construction of the Pig's Eye Island wastewater treatment plant in 1938 temporarily alleviated the problem. But urban expansion in the 1950s overwhelmed the treatment plant. Oxygen-consuming organic waste and toxic contaminants such as ammonia polluted the waters and devastated aquatic life. A 1964 fisheries survey by the Minnesota Department of Conservation found virtually no game fish and only a few carp, buffalo, suckers, and sheepshead.
The river's recovery began with the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, which requires waters to be clean enough for fishing and swimming. In the next decade, federal and state agencies spent $300 million to improve wastewater treatment in the metro area.
Progress continued when public outcry in both Minnesota and Wisconsin prompted a 1985 state project to separate antiquated sanitary and storm-water sewer lines in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and South St. Paul. This project removed raw sewage from the annual discharge of an estimated 4.6 billion gallons of storm water into the Mississippi.
By the early 1990s, anglers were catching game fish in the pool. In 1993 the DNR, at the behest of the Minnesota Walleye Searchers and the Minnesota B.A.S.S. Federation, established special regulations that allowed year-round fishing but required immediate release of all walleye, sauger, and largemouth and smallmouth bass. The regulations remain in effect today.
"With the high population in the metro area, anglers became concerned that the potential fishing pressure could overwhelm fish populations without special regulations," Zappetillo says. "The special regulations are probably one reason we see so many nice fish caught in the pool."
While the cleanup of pool 2 and the recovery of game fish populations has been a success, DNR river surveys project supervisor Jack Enblom says the metro area's ever-expanding human population could put the river at risk in the future as increased pollutant loads require cities to upgrade sewage treatment to even more rigorous levels.
"Water quality in pool 2 has risen and fallen with changing times," says Enblom. "We've had great success recently, but we need to continue to protect the river by reducing sediment runoff from agricultural fields and managing storm water from new suburbs and urban areas."
Jason Abraham DNR staff writer
Note: Fish consumption advice on the Mississippi River is available online at www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/fish/eating/sitespecific.html.