First in a series about fishing for native redhorse suckers in the St. Croix River and its tributaries, and the future of these sensitive species.
I can’t stop catching smallmouth bass. Normally, this would be welcome, but today, my angling partner and I are chasing fish most people ignore: redhorse suckers. I’m fishing with Tyler Winter, an avid redhorse angler and advocate for these fish and the rivers where they live.
We can see the redhorse holding in a few feet of water, letting us target them carefully, and even see them take the bait — a thrill for any angler. Sometimes, we sneak a hook through the “defensive line” and catch one of six redhorse species found in the St. Croix system. They are interesting fish, each with its own brilliance — a bright red tail, a silver shimmer — and its own unique adaptations to the environments where they thrive.
We admire, photograph, and release them back to the river. For Winter, redhorse fishing isn’t really about food or trophies, but connecting with native species that are an essential part of these river ecosystems.
“I’ve always loved weird fish,” Winter says. Growing up, he says he was obsessed with strange species like hogsuckers and bigmouth buffalo. When he found out people fished for these so-called “rough fish” with hook and line, he joined a tight-knit community, began a lifelong pursuit, and became a vocal proponent for their protection.
In February, Winter testified in the Minnesota legislature in support of a bill to consider putting harvest limits on rough fish species. Last summer, he starred in a video about redhorse fishing in Minnesota waters produced by MeatEater, a digital media company based in Bozeman, Montana. He shares fish photos and his passion on Instagram. He has written about redhorse, appeared on podcasts, and taken every chance he can to introduce people to the sport.
I had to see it for myself. Winter graciously agreed to guide me for a day of fishing for some of his favorite species, and I caught a redhorse for the first time. I’d like to do it again.
This angling advocate clearly enjoys sharing the joy of redhorse fishing, and tries to publicize the value of these fish — beginning with the fact that they are not carp. It’s a common confusion, but redhorse are native species to North America, while carp are native to Europe and Asia. Redhorse are primarily found in clear, flowing rivers, while carp prefer murky and muddy lakes with lots of nutrients.
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The morning is already hot when Winter and I meet up at a small park on this small river, several miles above its confluence with the St. Croix. It’s one of his favorite fishing spots, where he can cast into pools full of fish but empty of people. The humid air and blazing sun make standing in a river especially enjoyable. The day reaches 100 degrees, but I never feel it.
At the first spot we fish, trees hang over the channel, offering shade and closing off the outside world so it is just us, the flowing water, and the fish. Damselflies flutter and dragonflies buzz across the river, birds sing from leafy limbs, and the redhorse hold in places where the bottom is rocks and pebbles, searching the riverbed for bugs, mussels, crayfish, and anything else living there.
A few minutes after the first cast, Winter hooks a redhorse. This one is a silver, with a metallic sheen. He unhooks it and then flips it over so we can look at the mouth.
The mouths set apart the different species, specialized for subtle differences in feeding habitat, and are possibly the reason many people are repulsed by redhorse.
“There is just something about dour, downturned sucker lips that people can’t handle,” Winter wrote on MeatEater. “But it doesn’t seem fair to discriminate against a fish for having full lips. When people have full lips, they get to be in movies.”
The lips are larger and smaller, thinner and fuller, depending on the species. The variations are determined by where and what and how it feeds, whether it is eating from big rocks or small, from smooth surfaces or tiny crevices. Often, those variables depend on how fast the water is moving, the local geology, stream health, seasonal changes, and more. It’s a closely connected natural network.
We are standing a ways apart, casting, waiting, pulling bass off the hooks, when a shadow crosses the water. High above, an osprey is soaring over the river, likely looking for lunch. Winter tells me that many redhorse he catches have scars on their back from the sharp talons of osprey or eagles. As an abundant food source, these fish transfer nutrients from diminutive herbivores on the river bottom all the way up the food chain to large, well-known predators. Redhorse are key links in delicate ecosystems.
It isn’t long before it’s my turn, and I set the hook on my first redhorse. It bends my rod and shakes its head. Any fish that lives most of its life in fast flowing water has some serious muscles. MeatEater host Joe Cermele says their fight is somewhere between a brown trout and a walleye. There is no leaping from the water and tail-walking the surface like a smallmouth, but heavy resistance that is plenty fun.
This one is a golden redhorse, one of the most common species. We go for a photo and I drop the fish into the river before Tyler presses the button. But I’ve now caught my first redhorse and it’s okay if I don’t have proof.
With the water pushing past my legs, the abundant bug and bird life, and the feisty fish, the life of this river is revealed in new ways. Redhorse are fundamental parts of the watershed, diligently performing their roles in the ecosystem, and do it without attention, much less respect. As I’ll write in future installments of this series, their fragile existence faces a difficult future.
We (Winter) catch a few more fish in a fast run. My guide adds another redhorse species to the day’s list: a shorthead. We have now caught half the redhorse species found in the St. Croix watershed in a couple relaxing hours. We just had to put up with catching a lot of smallmouth bass.
Future articles in series: Rare redhorse, threats, conservation efforts, angling tips. Subscribe here to receive St. Croix 360’s weekly email newsletter.
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