All the Fish
Cayden Hutmacher started early on his mission to land all the catchable fish in Minnesota. He’s now closing in on his goal.
When Cayden Hutmacher was 7, he pulled a good-sized pumpkinseed from the depths of Marion Lake, not far from his home in Ottertail. The fish, at 8½ inches long, was big enough to win him the title of Master Angler in the Master Angler Program run by the Minnesota Fishing Museum and Hall of Fame. His dad, Chad Hutmacher, asked him which fish he wanted to go for next.
Cayden had a simple answer: all of them. Or at least all the species that are eligible for size records as part of the Master Angler Program. There are around 138 species of fish native to Minnesota. Many are tiny and impossible to catch with a rod and reel. To qualify for a state record, and for the Master Angler Program, they need to be at least a pound.
At that time, in 2012, there were 63 fish on the list. It included the usual suspects—bass, northern, sunfish, walleye. But most of it was a long list of rarely caught fish, little known outside the niche community of “rough fish” specialists. These were creatures like the longnose gar, the river redhorse, the mooneye, and the American eel.
Together, Cayden and his dad (and sometimes his older brother Chris) set out to work through the list. Chad set a few rules for his son’s quest: All fish had to be landed in Minnesota waters, and they had to be fairly caught with a hook and line—no snags.
And so they began. Whenever they had a chance, they loaded their gear and headed out for the four corners of the state, from Lake of the Woods to the Minnesota River, to the trout streams of the Driftless region. Now 18 and out of high school, Cayden is still checking fish off his list. When this story went to print, the young angler had caught 54 of his 60-plus targeted species.
“It’s spur of the moment,” says Cayden’s mom, Amber Hutmacher, about her son’s approach to his quest. “If they hear the fish are biting, the truck gets packed up and they’re on the road.”
On Otter Tail Lake in 2013, Cayden caught a shorthead redhorse. On the Minnesota River near Granite Falls in 2017, he pulled in a shovelnose sturgeon. That same year, in the Root River drainage near Lanesboro, he hooked a northern hogsucker. And in 2019, about 90 miles up the North Shore from Duluth—after a dozen such trips—he finally landed a longnose sucker.
Fishing wasn’t Cayden’s only hobby growing up. He liked to snowboard in the winter. He was in band and choir, and he played the guitar. (He still plays, and is especially fond of strumming Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.”) He did football for a while, until he got his second concussion and had to quit. And he also spent time working in the kitchen at his family’s restaurant in Perham. But when asked what he liked best—and what he still likes best—he doesn’t miss a beat.
“Fishing,” Cayden says. “I just feel like I don’t have a worry in the world when I’m doing that.”
Cayden was a born fisherman, says his brother. “He was the kid who, when there’s ice on the lake, would sit on a river that’s open and cast until his fingers were frozen and he’s crying,” says Chris. “He just loves it. And he’s kind of a natural.”
Of course, the Hutmachers weren’t the first ones to come up with the idea of landing all the catchable fish in Minnesota. Over the past decade or two, interest in species beyond your standard game fish has grown. In 1998, Corey Geving, a software developer at the DNR, founded a site called roughfish.com, which has become a hub of knowledge about obscure native fish. Reclaiming the derisive term “rough fish” as a point of pride, members call themselves “life listers.” Geving knows a few people who’ve reeled in all—or almost all—the catchable Minnesota fish species, though not always in the state.
“I think I’ve got 58,” Geving says. “But I don’t know if I’ve gotten them in Minnesota or not. I don’t know if I know anyone who’s got them all in the state of Minnesota. It’s doable, but it’s the work of a lifetime.”
Cayden and his dad also joined roughfish.com and started their lists. The community of around 2,800 people was key in helping them figure out how and where to catch—and more importantly, how to identify—lesser-known fish. Each year the site holds a June species contest where people try to catch as many different fish as possible in the month, and Cayden won the kids’ division three times before he aged out. It was fun, but the profile name he chose early on—“FishingPals4Life”—hinted at what Cayden loved most about the sport: doing it with his dad.
As the years went by, they knocked off fish after fish. Cayden caught a splake on a lake near Ely. He landed a bowfin on Boedigheimer Lake near Perham. He got a pink salmon in Duluth. In the Battle Lake area, he caught one of Minnesota’s underwater dinosaurs, the longnose gar.
In 2017, Cayden and his dad were fishing with minnows and bobbers on the Minnesota River when Cayden got a bite. He reeled a mystery fish through the murky water right up to the boat, but it got away. This happened five or six times before he finally pulled one in. It was another strange fish with a toothy snout: the shortnose gar. This one, at 5 pounds 4 ounces and 31 inches long, beat the state record set in 1984 and still holds the top spot.
The Master Angler Program has three levels of achievement. The most attainable is the Master Angler, who catches one trophy-sized fish in a year. Next is the Expert Angler, who catches three different species of trophy fish in a year. The top title is the Grand Master, who catches five trophy fish. For Cayden, nabbing that last title wasn’t difficult. He made Grand Master six times before his dad stopped counting. Of the fish on his list that he’s caught, 26 were considered trophy class on the Minnesota Fishing Museum and Hall of Fame website.
“It’s a challenging task,” says Tony Sindt, a DNR Minnesota River fisheries specialist, of Cayden’s quest. “Many of the species have pretty restricted distributions within the state. The American eel is right up there with one of the most difficult to catch, and certainly one of the rarest.”
Alex Orr is one of the best life list fishermen around. He won roughfish.com’s June species contest three times, once with 94 species. But he still hasn’t caught a black buffalo in Minnesota.
“Black buffalo is going to be tough,” says Orr. “I’ve only seen one ever caught in state, and I’ve only heard of maybe five or six. The blue sucker is also really hard. I tried for over 10 years in multiple states—Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota. I finally got mine on the Minnesota River last spring.”
One night last November, Cayden, Chris, and Chad Hutmacher were fishing on the Mississippi River south of the Twin Cities. It was about 10 p.m. when Cayden felt a bite.
Then the line came alive again and went slack.
Whatever was on the end of his line was a strange fish. When he got it to shore, Cayden was surprised to see an American eel. After five years of targeting the species, in at least 15 different spots, with some 30 to 40 hours put in, he’d finally gotten the elusive eel.
Cayden held the fish, which had traveled here all the way from the north Atlantic, past more than 25 dams on the Mississippi. The two-foot-long, snakelike fish wrapped itself around his arm. They took photos, got some video for Chris’ YouTube channel (@thingschrisdoes9779), then set the eel in the water and watched it swim away into the night.
One more fish off Cayden’s list, and one more memory of fishing with his family.
Cayden isn’t sure where his path will take him next. He thinks surveying fish around the state for the DNR could be cool. Or maybe he’ll go into underwater welding. He doesn’t know. But one thing he’s sure of: He still plans to catch all the fish.
“I don’t know if it’ll take the rest of my life,” he says. “It might take that whole time, but we’ll get it done. The biggest thing is that I hope I can do it with my dad.”