September–October 2021

Casting into the Past

For many Hmong American anglers in Minnesota, the white bass is a link to their Southeast Asian roots.

Youa Vang

It's early May, and the St. Croix River still has its winter chill due in part to a recent snow thaw. I’m on a fishing boat north of Stillwater trolling for white bass with Tong Vang, his friend David Heu, and photographer Mike Dvorak. Heu, an auto mechanic, has spent years on the St. Croix and other local waters, learning from his Hmong elders how to navigate and find fish. While we move along the river, he pulls in white bass after white bass. Dvorak and Vang (no relation to me) come up empty. “Everywhere I troll, the fish have no eyes, no ears, and no mouth,” jokes Vang, a former community liaison for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The connection between the white bass and Minnesota’s Hmong anglers is as strong as braided fishing line. It begins in Laos, the homeland of many Hmong immigrants, and carries the weight of generations that have made a new life in a new country, including my own family.

For Hmong Americans like Heu and Vang, white bass is a treasured catch thanks to its similarity in taste and appearance to a fish species native to Laos. “White bass is a good fish to eat,” Heu says. “It’s very meaty and doesn’t have too many bones. It tastes good fried, steamed, or in soup. I like mine best as a soup with some herbs. They’re also fun to catch. They fight very hard, and they’re very abundant in the spring.”

According to Vang, Minnesota’s Hmong anglers made the connection between white bass and the so-called flat mouth, a white fish found in northern Laos, in the late ’80s. Looking for an inexpensive source of food, Hmong anglers would fish from the shores of the Mississippi River. Any catch was acceptable, but the white bass became a coveted reminder of home.

Today, white bass fishing is ingrained in Minnesota’s Hmong community thanks in part to the efforts of Vang, who worked for years at the DNR as an advocate for Hmong anglers and hunters. In 2016, he played a key role in convincing the DNR to stock Lake Phalen in St. Paul with white bass—catering specifically to Southeast Asian anglers. Heu, meanwhile, hosts an annual bass tournament on the St. Croix and other waters to promote competitive fishing and catch and release in the Hmong community. 

Much of the history and culture of the Hmong people is shared verbally rather than through the written word. (When I ask my mom for the recipe of a certain dish, she’ll say, “You add a handful of this herb and a handful of that herb.”) It came as no surprise that the stories told to me by Heu and others deepened my understanding of the white bass–Hmong angler connection.

After growing up in Laos and fighting alongside the United States in the Vietnam War, Vang landed in Minnesota as a refugee in 1976. In the 1970s and ’80s, many Hmong families, facing persecution or death from the communist government in Laos, left their homes and dispersed throughout the world. The Midwest became a hub for such relocations due mainly to Catholic and Lutheran charities that helped support the refugees. 
During our St. Croix outing, Vang shares the difference in fishing in Laos as a young man and fishing on Minnesota waters. “In Laos, you didn’t have this technology that tells you the water depth or even a boat,” he says. “You were standing on the side of the river with a line and stick. When we were in our old country, the poor people were the ones fishing and hunting.”

Jobs were scarce in Laos, adds Vang, and many people lived hand to mouth. Families grew their food. In the old days, Hmong people didn’t eat much meat because it was expensive and there was no refrigeration. Thus fish became an important staple of the Hmong diet, as it could be easily shared among a family in one meal.

Hmong refugees brought their love of fish and fishing to the United States, eventually forming clubs to advocate for their interests. One such group, the Capitol Sportsmen’s Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunter’s Association, successfully lobbied Vang and the DNR to launch the white bass stocking program on Lake Phalen—considered the heart of St. Paul’s Hmong community.

The program has been successful. Since 2016, Phalen and surrounding lakes have averaged an adult white bass population of 800. In early 2021, the DNR stocked Lake Phalen with an additional 4,000 fingerlings. The agency works with a hatchery in Missouri to strip white bass eggs and raise them into hatchlings before driving them up to Minnesota in large trucks in the spring.

Silver in color, with six to eight black lateral stripes along its sides, the white bass is a freshwater bass in the Moronidae family. It has an underbite and a dorsal fin distinctly split into two sections. It thrives in the open waters of large lakes and reservoirs. Though native to northern habitats, the species is also abundant in southern states like Oklahoma.

As we continue north on Heu’s boat, he explains that white bass are different from largemouth bass in that they get stressed out easily. If you put too many in one space, they die. That isn’t the case on the river, where the fish are very much alive. But after three hours on the water, the bass stop biting altogether. It is as if they have collectively decided that chasing fake lures is a fate they don’t want to risk.

Like a bass moving to a different part of the river, Vang moved on from the DNR a couple of years ago when he retired from his role as liaison—a position the DNR intends to fill in some shape or form. I ask Vang who would be the ideal candidate for that role. 

“They have to be someone who is passionate about the outdoors but also has strong ties to the community,” he says. “I am hoping it will be someone young, so they can advance in their role. Plus, young people adapt easier, and they’ll be able to keep up with the ever-changing technology.”

Meanwhile, the likes of Heu and DNR interpretive naturalist Kao Thao are helping usher in the next generation of Hmong hunters, anglers, and naturalists. Thao works at Fort Snelling State Park, and part of his job is to expose Hmong youth to the outdoors and activities such as fishing, snowshoeing, and hiking. “A lot of time they’re not exposed to the outdoors,” says Thao of the kids he works with. “But if you show them . . . it continues and spreads.” 

While it’s one thing to talk about the importance of outdoor education, it’s another to see it in full display in real life. On a Saturday afternoon in June, fishing stories and skills are getting passed down to the generation that has never seen the jungles and rivers of Laos. I watch as Seng Lee and his grandson, Tony Lee, sit on the side of the lake fishing for the elusive white bass. While teaching Tony how to properly tie the lure, Seng tells his grandson about the silver-colored fish that spends most of its time hiding at the bottom of the lake. 

“You won’t see anything . . . but you’ll feel the tug on the line and see the silver belly as you reel it in,” Seng instructs Tony in Hmong. “Don’t pull too hard too fast, or you might lose it. It has got to be steady and with confidence.” I didn’t wait around to see if they caught a white bass, but I hope they did. 

For a lot of Hmong people, it was not our choice to flee our homes and find solace in a strange new land. And while many, including my family, were not able to bring a great deal of material possessions to the United States, they were able to carry stories and traditions with them. As the first generation that settled in Minnesota grows older and passes on, their stories become patinaed while the next generation further assimilates into Western culture. There is a fear that the Hmong culture will eventually become lost to time.

Fishing for, and eating, white bass, offers Hmong Americans a link to the past that can be forgotten if it’s not shared and remembered. With my father and grandparents gone, my mom is the last remaining link to a past I know only in stories. She shares these stories with me through her cooking, and when I bring home the white bass that Vang and Heu generously shared with me, she marvels at the bounty.

“These are beautiful,” she says, as I put them in the sink. My mom is not traditional in her cooking. She is the kind of cook who can throw a few herbs in a pot, and it will be delicious—something she has learned to do by knowing which flavors work best together. While some Hmong foods can be simple in flavor, my mother’s dishes incorporate Thai and Laotian flavors, which are more herb-heavy.

She cuts open one of the fish and carefully scales it before going out to her garden to gather herbs to stuff inside the bass. Using a mortar and pestle, she mashes cilantro,  green onions, mint, Thai chili peppers, and lemongrass with sea salt and olive oil, then puts the mixture inside the belly of the fish. My job is to start the fire on the outdoor grill as she preps. Her last steps include cutting one fresh banana leaf off the tree she grows inside to protect it from the Minnesota winter and laying it on some foil. On top of the leaf, she carefully positions the white bass that had been feeding at the bottom of the riverbed earlier that day, then cuts slits on the side of the fish and inserts lime leaves into the incisions. She then closes the fish packet and instructs me to put it on the hottest part of the fire and let it steam for 40 minutes.

My sister, niece, and I set the table with sticky rice and cucumber salad, the latter my mom’s version of papaya salad. When the fish is ready, I take it off the fire and set it in the center of the table, still in its foil wrapping. After saying a quick prayer, we open the foil packet and divvy up the meat for each family member. I silently ponder how this fish gave up its life for our meal. The umami of the fish mixed with the herbs creates a flavor that is, as my niece describes it, Hmong. It’s spicy, salty, dense, slightly sweet. It’s all of these things blended together. It tastes like home. 

Side bar
Grill-Steamed White Bass
3 cilantro leaves
3 green onions
4 sprigs mint
1 Thai chili pepper
1 sprig lemongrass, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 whole white bass, cleaned and scored on the sides
3 lime leaves
1 banana leaf (optional)

Bring a grill to medium heat. Put cilantro, green onion, mint, Thai chili pepper, lemongrass, salt, and olive oil in a mortar and pestle and pound to lightly bruise. Rub mixture on the fish and tuck some of mixture inside the belly of the fish. Tuck the lime leaves into the scores on the fish’s sides. Wrap the fish in the banana leaf, if using one, and then foil to create an airtight seal. Place on the grill for 40-45 minutes.