Not long after we launch our canoe down the rushing river, we steer back to shore. Once the craft has carried us through some fast, deep water, we beach it, get out, and wade into the stream. Here at the bottom of a deep canyon, this St. Croix River tributary tumbles down 20 feet of elevation in less than two miles before spilling into the St. Croix.
This swift stretch is a holdout of the river redhorse (Moxostoma carinatum), an imperiled but overlooked fish that is emblematic of the struggle to protect species that have long been ignored.
The canoe lets us hop down the river, never going far between stops, from hole to hole where my companion, Tyler Winter, says the river redhorse like to lurk. We drift bait through deep runs, looking for the big flashes of feeding river redhorse. We’re not angling for a meal, but simply to see some special fish up close.
“A fishing pole is like binoculars,” Winter says. “It’s the only way to see some of these unique and rare species.”
Redhorse are one of several species typically categorized by anglers, lawmakers, and fishery managers as “rough fish.” The term has no scientific basis and is misleading at best. The fish are native, connected to clean water and healthy ecosystems, and have long been pursued and consumed by humans. But arbitrary decisions have made these fish second class species, usually managed with high harvest numbers and open seasons. Because some redhorse are also highly abundant, it’s easy to incorrectly assume they are overpopulated and unaffected by harvest.
Winter has been part of an effort the past few years that ultimately secured funding and action to better understand and protect Minnesota’s rough fish, from redhorse and bowfin to freshwater drum and white suckers.
In May, the state legislature passed what was dubbed the “No Junk Fish” bill, supported by the Department of Natural Resources, to help the DNR start thinking differently about fish like redhorse. A group Winter co-founded, Native Fish For Tomorrow, has played a big role in the rough fish revolution.
Shannon Fisher, Fisheries Populations Monitoring and Regulations Manager, says DNR staff started talking internally about management of rough fish a few years ago. Then came what he called a “huge outpouring of support” from the public, and the agency decided it was time to act. As the result of a petition from fishing and environmental groups last year, led by the Izaak Walton League, the agency has convened a stakeholder group with individuals representing conservation, angling, science, commercial fishing, and bowfishing to discuss issues concerning rough fish management.
“I would say one of the common themes that everybody seems to agree on is that we need more information. There’s just not enough data on these species now,” Fisher says. “From there, it splits out pretty quickly. You’ve got a handful of the members of this group who say we should be taking a precautionary approach because we don’t know what the impacts are that we’re having, we should put some more stringent protections in place. Then we’ve got the opposite side of that coin, which is, we don’t necessarily believe that we’re having an impact on these species. So why would we change anything from what we’re doing currently?”
It’s the DNR’s job to find the balance, based on the best available information.
Winter catches a small shorthead redhorse, perhaps the most common redhorse species. He puts it back and we keep fishing. Then I catch a shorthead. Time disappears, the water rushing in my ears, pushing against my legs, my eyes always looking for that golden flash, hoping for a heavy tug on the line. The bluffs reach 160 feet over our heads, yet the two sides are only a few hundred feet apart, framing a narrow ribbon of sky that matches the slender stream below.
I’m drifting my bait through another run when it stops moving. I pull back on the rod and set the hook in something heavy, and call out to Winter, who starts running toward me with a net through knee-deep water.
Based on the bend in my rod, he guesses it’s a river redhorse, which can grow to more than 10 pounds, larger than any other redhorse. As I reel it in to the shallows, we get a look at a red and gold beauty nearly two feet in length.
Winter moves toward it with the net, which the fish doesn’t like, and it makes a new effort to escape. I pull on the rod, and suddenly my hook comes flying out of the water and past me. The fish spit it, slipping back to the safety of the deep water.
Never horse a redhorse, I think. I’m convinced that was my one and only shot, and I blew it. We get back in the canoe and head downstream.
River redhorse are a poster child for the problems and potential of rough fish management. It’s one of six species of redhorse suckers in the St. Croix system, most of which are abundant, a common sight to anglers and other river users. But river redhorse are different. They get big, they’re sensitive to changes in the environment, and they are only found in certain waters.
In Wisconsin, river redhorse are considered threatened — by too much sediment in water, pollution, and dams. Anglers can’t keep a single specimen. Meanwhile, on the other side of the St. Croix, in Minnesota, they are lumped in with all the other redhorse as “rough fish,” and anglers can catch and kill as many as they wish.
Part of the problem is that river redhorse can be difficult to identify, especially as juvenile fish. Fish survey crews may have long misidentified other species as river redhorse, giving the Minnesota DNR an overly optimistic estimate of their population size.
“Even our biologists can’t necessarily tell them apart when small,” Fisher said. “We might have been looking at redhorse all wrong this whole time.”
The piscine pull
Winter and I stop at a few more spots, paddle through riffles and pools, catch shorthead and silver redhorse, a smallmouth bass or two.
There are only a few bends in the river left before it joins the St. Croix when we come around a corner and angle toward a gravel bar on the opposite bank. There’s a big, old dead tree laying in the shallows, and on a boulder next to it, a big, old snapping turtle laying in the sunlight. Winter says he’s caught good fish here before.
We once again run the boat aground and trade paddles for fishing rods, stepping into the water.
Winter heads upstream a bit and I wade straight out, fling my bait into the fastest current, watch as it is carried down. Then, it stops again. I set the hook again, and feel a similar heavy weight on the other end as the earlier river redhorse that got away.
I give this one some line, and some time. I let it stay in the current a little, where it slowly shakes its big head, a motion that sends distinct tugs up my line. The rod tip bounces a little over the water. Once again, I call out to my partner, and he comes with the net. This time, after I’ve tired the fish a little, he sneaks up on it from behind and scoops it up. I’ve been redeemed.
Having seen a few of these fish now, Winter tells me he likes how they have unique personalities.
“They can be big, smart, aggressive, and, sometimes, dumb,” he says.
The fish has a big fleshy mouth on the bottom of its body, like most species that feed on the bed of the river. But river redhorse have teeth, in their throats. While they eat bugs and other creatures like many other fish, they also eat mussels, and the teeth let them crunch up the shells as they swallow.
The St. Croix and its tributaries are renowned for being rich in mussels, including endangered species, and fish that eats them might sound like a bad thing. But redhorse and other rough fish also help mussels survive. The shellfish reproduce by attaching their larvae to fish gills, where they develop to maturity before dropping off. Without fish like redhorse, the mussels wouldn’t have made it this long.
Ultimately, people are a much bigger threat to the mussels, and redhorse, as both are sensitive to pollution, water flow manipulation, and increased sediment in the river.
River redhorse are hardly the only rough fish threatened by human activity. The DNR’s Fisher says he is particularly concerned about bowfin, also known as dogfish (Mia calva). They’re another special kind of fish, largely misunderstood, play an important role in their ecosystem, and are easily targeted by bowfishers, who can take advantage of the current unlimited harvest allowed by Minnesota fishing regulations.
“They’re a pretty darn unique species and they’ve got some really unique behaviors that I think make them potentially vulnerable,” Fisher says. “They are nest builders. They like to be up in the shallows at night. They’re very stand their ground kind of species. They don’t spook spook easily. Plus they protect their young for a period of time after they hatch, and so particularly the males spend a good portion of the late spring and early summer up in the shallows and then the rest of the rest of the open water season too, they’re coming up into shallow water to feed.”
Fisher points out that, because they feed on other fish in vegetated areas, bowfin may also be important in reducing stunted panfish that result from overpopulation.
With the new legislation, this summer the DNR is taking its first steps toward putting new fishing regulations in place to protect rough fish. They’re evaluating what they know (not much) and don’t know (a lot) about these fish species, from their food and habitat needs to how they reproduce, and how vulnerable the populations are to harvest.
There are many questions about rough fish, which have been largely ignored by science so far. One recent study found that 27 popular game fish species in North America accounted for almost 1,700 scientific studies per species each year. For 28 species called “rough fish,” just 149 papers were published per species.
The agency is also asking the public what they think through a new online survey. An interim report on the DNR’s work is due to the legislature in August, and a full report in December.
“We’ll take all this information and this fall, come up with recommendations on bag limits, season limits,” Fisher said. “We don’t know what it might look like yet.”
With funding in the legislation to hire a new rough fish research coordinator at the DNR, Fisher also says new regulations won’t be set in stone, but future scientific findings might lead the agency to revise them.
He also says it is likely the regulations won’t be a “one-size-fits-all” approach, pointing out that popular game fish like walleye and northern pike are managed differently in different parts of the state, or on different bodies of water.
After a few photos of the river redhorse, we return it to the water and watch it swim away.
Winter and I get back in the canoe and continue down the river, which soon spits us out into the St. Croix. The shady canyon is behind us, land and water lost to time, and the unique but underappreciated fish swim below the surface.