It's time to gawk at the gar, stare at the sturgeon

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2012 - 7:54 AM
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Spectators watch the big fish at the DNR fish pond at the State Fair..

Photo: Darlene Pfister, Star Tribune

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It's one of the most popular fishing holes in the state, though no one catches a thing.

An estimated 500,000 people will flock to the Department of Natural Resources fish pond at the State Fair beginning Thursday to gawk at about 45 fish species -- including some monster sturgeon, muskies and catfish, as well as trout, walleyes, northerns and bass.

In a state with more than 10,000 lakes and 1 million anglers, the fish pond is a star attraction.

"The most popular fish every year are always the paddlefish,'' said Roland Sigurdson, DNR aquatic education specialist with the agency's MinnAqua program. "Most people have never seen one.''

The odd-looking river fish, rarely caught because they feed on plankton, have a long paddle-like snout and a shark-like tail.

Another river fish and stranger to many anglers -- the long-nosed gar -- draws gawks. The species, covered with hard, diamond-shaped scales and with a mouth full of sharp teeth, has been around since the dinosaurs.

This year, the biggest fish in the pond likely will be a lake sturgeon pushing 60 inches and a pair of flathead catfish each weighing about 70 pounds.

Several hundred fish will swim in the 50,000-gallon pond filled with 55-degree well water. The 45 species reflect just a portion of the 163 fish species found in Minnesota, though some others -- including perch, crappies and sunfish -- are on display in aquariums inside the DNR State Fair building.

"If we put those in the pond, they'd be quickly eaten,'' said Sigurdson.

Though the DNR puts minnows and small suckers into the pond as food for larger fish, sometimes display fish such as smaller brook trout disappear, too.

"The muskies aren't shy about taking one of those now and then,'' Sigurdson said.

So where does the DNR get the fish?

The brown, brook, rainbow and lake trout come from DNR fish hatcheries. But most of the fish were caught over the years by DNR fisheries staff during surveys and are kept at a small DNR pond in St. Paul, which will be drained Wednesday so the fish can be captured and moved to the fair.

"There's always some mortality in our pond,'' Sigurdson said. "An eagle's nest has developed nearby, and we're pretty sure they help themselves.''

In the past, poachers have snuck into the fenced pond and stolen fish, too.

So the DNR occasionally supplements its collection with catches from DNR fisheries staff or even the public. The big sturgeon at the fair was the gift of an angler who caught it legally in the St. Croix River several years ago.

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