The Minnesota State Fair is back this week to remind us what we like about our state and about each other.

Minnesotans, it turns out, really, really like looking at fish.

Every year, crowds gather in the cool oasis behind the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources building. A concrete pond filled with clear water from the fairgrounds well swirls with schools of fish, from silvery minnows to a scaly sturgeon so huge that children mistake it for a shark.

Some of the newest stars and gars of the 2023 fair are swimming in a tank at the state fish hatchery in St. Paul, getting ready for their debut.

"I'm biased, but I think the fish are the best thing at the fair," hatchery supervisor Genevieve Furtner said. Judging by the huge crowds that circle the fish pond throughout the 12-day run of the fair, other Minnesotans agree.

She lifted the lid of a tank and studied some of the fish the staff pulled from the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers last week, looking for a good mix of sizes and species for the exhibit. Carp, smallmouth bass, a sinewy gar.

Some of the fish in the DNR pond have made more trips to the fair than your average Minnesotan. Returning the fish to the rivers after the fair would risk spreading disease, so the fair fish spend the bulk of the year relaxing in a secret DNR pond.

"They like living life without any of our interference," Furtner said. "So that's what we give them."

Yes, somewhere in the Twin Cities, there's a pond stocked 11 months out of the year with walleye, pike, trout, bass, catfish, paddlefish, muskie and at least one 50-inch sturgeon. No, the DNR will not say where.

Those are Minnesota's fish. And some of them have names.

Smokey, Glutton, Sheriff and Mochi arrived at the DNR hatchery last week, sloshing stylishly inside a red Yeti cooler. It's not just baby birds and fuzzy animals that state wildlife officials rescue.

The fish – bullhead, bluegills and a yellow perch — had been kept in a home aquarium for years by a young angler who was leaving for college. He couldn't bear to eat or euthanize his pets and was responsible enough to know that dumping a fish out of an aquarium into a lake isn't good for the fish or the lake. (That's how Burnsville ended up with an invasion of goldfish the size of footballs in Keller Lake.)

Perch are not pets, generally. But Minnesota fishing regulations have a kid-sized loophole. Children aged 16 and younger are allowed to bring smaller game fish — under 10 inches — home to display in an aquarium. These fish were large and colorful and had been well-tended for the past six or seven years.

"These are going to look great in our central Minnesota tank," Furtner said, admiring the magnificent stripes and coloring on Sheriff the bluegill.

T.J. DeBates, the east metro area fisheries supervisor, had made the trip to retrieve the fish and had used his own cooler to keep them comfortable on the trip back to the hatchery.

The two fish experts crowded close, watching the new arrivals. Looking at fish is fun even when you do it for a living.

"Underwater, it's a completely different realm," Furtner said. "When you go into it, you feel like you're stepping onto another planet. The fish are like aliens and it's just so fun to be able to interact with them and watch them."

The State Fair fishpond brings that alien world to Falcon Heights. You could go your whole life without making eye contact with a sturgeon or watching a paddlefish chase a minnow.

If you can't make it to the fairgrounds, you can tune into the DNR's fishcam:

Furtner, DeBates and other DNR staff members will be on hand to answer questions, share fun fish facts and listen to your fish stories about the One That Got Away. The DNR Building is on Carnes Avenue, near the Grandstand, across the street from the Star Tribune booth.

The fair opens on Thursday, Aug. 24. Grab a tube of this year's crop art-themed Star Tribune lip balm and tell Mochi the perch we said hi.