Two brothers, ages 7 and 10, stand on a patch of sunburned cabin grass in northwestern Minnesota. They've just returned from a panfish hunt with their father's cousin—a widower with a heart of gold, a Teddy Roosevelt mustache, and a 14-foot Lund. The old-timer kneels between them and hands each boy an end of a stringer. Hanging there like jackets on a coat rack are 18 bluegills the trio caught that morning on a glorified pond near Detroit Lakes. As captain and crew squeeze in for a photo, the rope sags under the weight of the fish. For a moment, time stands still.
My dad took that photo in the summer of 1990, and it shows in the neon colors worn by my younger brother and me. But replace our surfwear with cuffed Levis and it could be 1950 thanks to the sunny's longtime status as the starter fish of choice for Minnesota anglers. Its small size, indiscriminate palate (hot dog bait, anyone?), and bright coloring make it especially popular with children. Parents love them, too, if only because cute fish plus cute kid equals photographic gold. In this way, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and other sunfish species might be the most documented fish in Minnesota history—timeless symbols of slow-cooked summer days and childhoods spent outdoors.
But symbols are often taken for granted. As Scott Mackenthun reports in "The Sunfish Myth," the characteristics that make sunfish so beloved can put them at risk for overharvesting. If our lakes were buffets, sunnies would be the all-you-can-eat special, an attitude shared by generations of Minnesotans. As a result, the number of large sunfish has declined, leading to special regulations intended to reverse this trend.
Mackenthun's article rewired how I view panfish and made me think more broadly about how and why we use animals as avatars. Sometimes what we project onto a particular species can aid in its survival, a well-known example being the common loon. Perhaps the most evocative symbol of the northern wilderness, the loon became Minnesota's official state bird in 1961, cementing its status as a focal point and icon of the growing conservation movement.
But not all critters are as universally adored as the loon. Some are divisive. What they stand for can change over time. Take the coyote, revered as an intuitive prankster in a number of indigenous mythologies but villainized by the livestock industry for much of the 20th century. According to the National Geographic story "How the Most Hated Animal in America Outwitted Us All," a federally funded extermination plan wiped out some 6.5 million coyotes in the western United States between 1947 and 1956. But the species survived, due in part to unlikely advocates like Walt Disney, who launched a pro-coyote PR campaign in the 1960s. The adaptable canine now inhabits most of the United States, including urban areas like the Twin Cities. Yet it remains a controversial creature, and how you feel about it likely depends on where you live and what you value.
During a free-wheeling conversation in February, Sarah Strommen and I discussed how one's principles can impact the outdoors. The new commissioner of the DNR talked about her role as the first female to lead the agency. She also touched on environmental issues and acknowledged the unique, often emotional, relationship each of us has with nature. I'm glad she went there. As sunfish and other animals show us, public perception and personal values are as relevant to the conservation puzzle as good science and management.
Chris Clayton, editor in chief