When it comes to fishing, Minnesotan Justin Watkins is a romantic.
He writes poems and short prose about it. He’s a natural-resources professional who cares deeply about healthy watersheds and the fish that inhabit them. And, as something of an adventure-seeking vagabond, he travels hundreds of miles (by air and over the road) to chase big fish with a fly.
But Watkins is different from most state anglers for whom the sainted walleye (among other common, storied game fish) reigns supreme: He has an abiding appreciation for rough fish — a loosely defined class of piscatorial offering often derided as bottom-feeding trash fish. Unfit for human consumption.
“There’s a cultural prejudice surrounding carp, gar, redhorse, bigmouth buffalo and many other species of so-called rough fish that should not exist,” said Watkins, 43, of Rochester. “The voices are often loud, but at least anecdotally, I think some attitudes are changing. I would say there’s a little more openness to fishing these ‘other’ species now.”
Indeed, Watkins and other rough fish aficionados say Minnesota’s dominant fishing culture — the aristocracy of sameness, as one angler put it — is missing out in a big way.
Their pitch is persuasive: Rough fish, they say, are incredible sport fish. They’re abundant, grow large (as compared with common game fish) and often put up a hellacious fight. They’re often found in lightly fished waters that do not require a designer fishing boat and new-age electronics and other helpful gadgetry. Many species of rough fish are actually native fish, such as white sucker and freshwater drum, and often indicator species of watershed ecological health. They also have fascinating histories that hark to when dinosaurs roamed Earth. And shockingly to some, rough fish are often ... delicious to eat. Even the term rough fish is losing favor because of its misplaced pejorative overtones, fish researchers say. State environmental agencies, including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, have or are considering getting rid of it.
“What’s not to like?” said Watkins of rough fish.
“Rough fish is a term generally applied to species that are large enough to provide angling sport but have characteristics that make them less desirable than common game fish,” said Tom Dickson, co-author of “Fishing for Buffalo: A Guide to the Pursuit and Cuisine of Carp, Suckers, Eelpout, Gar, and Other Rough Fish,” published in 1990.
Dickson said no one knows the term’s American origin, thought to be coined in the mid-1800s. “It may derive from a description used by early commercial fishermen on the Mississippi River for ungutted fish sold in markets,” he said. “These ‘in the rough’ big-river species commanded a lesser price than dressed fish.”
Or, Dickson said, it may derive from “coarse fish,” a term used by European anglers to describe any catchable freshwater species other than trout or salmon.
“What we do know is that historically, rough fish have not gotten a lot of love — or respect,” said Dickson. “They’ve been held in disdain by many … and called odd-looking, lipped, bony, dirty fish that pillage game-fish populations. Historically, they’ve been the outcasts of the angling community.”
Historical American attitudes aside, rough fish are celebrated in other countries. Dickson said carp are a symbol of nobility in Asia and deemed the apex of achievement by many European anglers. Worldwide, Dickson said, more people eat carp than freshwater fish.
Prejudicial attitudes toward rough fish began to seep into the consciousness of U.S. anglers near the turn of the 20th century as industrial, agricultural and municipal waste killed off many popular game-fish species. What remained, Dickson said, were carp, bigmouth buffalo, gar, bowfin, and other durable species, leading some to equate rough fish with nasty, despoiled waters. Another reason is the myth, Dickson said, that some rough fish harmed prized game-fish species by eating their eggs (biologists say it happens with some species, but not enough to lower game-fish numbers).
Slowly, attitudes about rough fish are changing, Dickson said. “If you include rough fish, you can double, even triple, the number of hard-fighting fish you catch on a trip,” he said.
Watkins understands the gravitational pull: Over the last 18 months, he’s traveled to the Gulf Coast of southern Louisiana four times to chase alligator gar and black drum, two species he’s caught in excess of 35 pounds. That doesn’t include near-annual trips to the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest and annual forays to Lake Michigan for common carp — a nonnative species introduced into U.S. waters in the 1880s. Some fisheries biologists claim the carp has the fastest terminal velocity — that zero-to-60 speed — of any freshwater fish.
For Watkins, it’s about sight-fishing and casting to genuinely large fish that aren’t easy to catch. He conducts hours of study before each trip. “Sight-fishing is a form of hunting,” said Watkins, author of “A Mark of Permanence,” in which he wrote a poem about the drama of carp-fishing on Lake Michigan. “It’s addictive. Being able to watch the fish at or near the surface is part of the allure. It’s hard to beat and even harder to get out of your mind.”
Watkins admitted he gets some quizzical looks from onlookers. One year he couldn’t get on the big water of the Gulf Coast so he decided to fish the ditch drainage system in New Orleans. “So I’m fishing in this urban landscape because I know the system has big gar, and cars are driving by and I’m getting all these looks,” said Watkins, laughing. “It was a different kind of experience, to say the least.”
Corey Geving, 47, is the founder of Roughfish.com. He started the site with his brother in 1998 to educate people about the joys of catching rough fish and to dispel misinformation. “They’re just as great a game fish as bass or walleye,” said Geving, adding roughfish.com has 2,100 active users across the country. “And, in some ways, better.”
Geving has caught and photographed 129 different fish species (65 in the Midwest). When he catches a new species, he checks it off his fishing life list. This summer, Geving said he’s is traveling to western Montana to pursue two rough fish species he hasn’t caught: the northern pikeminnow, a native minnow species that can grow to 10 pounds, and the large-scale sucker, the western version of the native white sucker found in the Upper Midwest.
“Here in Minnesota, I’m trying to catch the great blue sucker (on the Mississippi River), which is very rare and hard to catch,” said Geving, of Minneapolis. “I’ve been trying for that fish for at least 30 years.”
In 2001, Geving started the Roughfish Roundup, a weekend of fishing and celebration on the Root River in southeast Minnesota. “We hold the roundup on the weekend of the walleye opener,” said Geving. “It’s a good spot because the Root has a number and diversity of fish species. It’s a lot of fun.”
While most anglers admit that many rough fish species aren’t easy on the eyes, they can be ugly delicious. Dickson said they’re the world’s most widely eaten fish, whether they’re carp as stir fry in Beijing, or freshwater drum (or sheepshead) passed off as walleye or panfish in Minnesota. “I know guys who have done it and most anglers don’t have a clue,” said Dickson, adding rough-fish recipes occupy the finest cookbooks in Asia, Europe and the United States.
At the Roughfish Roundup, Geving said preparing deep-fried sucker balls — typically made of ground sucker meat, Ritz crackers, eggs and Old Bay seasoning — is a beloved annual tradition. “People love them,” he said.
Dickson said it’s hard to quantify, but interest in rough fish has increased since his book was published nearly 30 years ago. Depending on the state, he said the old fish “hierarchy” of walleye and bass and rainbow trout as top species and everything else — including rough fish — as “lesser” and “trash” doesn’t seem as prevalent.
“I think there’s more interest in fish diversity in general,” said Dickson. “Honestly, I think the acceptance of fish diversity by anglers reflects a greater acceptance of diversity of people themselves. I think there’s just a greater social tolerance out there.”
The case of the bigmouth buffalo
The largest member of the sucker family, the bigmouth buffalo lives in lakes and rivers in most of Minnesota, except for the Lake Superior watershed. Unlike many fish, it can survive in turbid, warm water. Unlike other members of the sucker family, the bigmouth buffalo has a mouth at the front of its face. It looks like a carp without barbels. The fish can grow 3 feet long or longer and weigh more than 50 pounds.
Recently published research by North Dakota State University fish researcher Alec Lackmann found the bigmouth buffalo is one of the world’s oldest age-verified freshwater species, often living 100 years or more. One Minnesota fish he studied was 112, with most of the others in their 80s. “They’re one of the world’s most exceptional freshwater fish species, but they get a bad rap because they’ve been lumped in with invasive fish species,” he said. “We need to start recognizing bigmouth buffalo and other native species for the ecological assets that they are. They should not be called rough fish, which carries a negative connotation that’s undeserved.”
More on the research is online.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org