It’s the dead of night—1:00 maybe 2:00 am. A would-be thief grabs his bolt cutters and heads toward the barbed wire fence. Except this barbed wire isn’t protecting a bank or a jewelry shop. It’s protecting the winter home of the fish of the DNR’s State Fair fishpond.
Yes, our Minnesota State Fair fish require guarding as if they were priceless treasures, because they are roughly analogous to collections of other state-owned treasures, like the art at Mia. They’re our collectively owned collection of really big, really old fish. Muskies, paddlefish, longnose and shortnose gar, lake sturgeon—the big guys.
“Oh, yeah, plenty are 50 inches or more, easy,” says TJ DeBates, who supervises East Metro fisheries for the DNR. “They’re trophy fish, show fish, beauties.”
DeBates is tall, craggy, and handsome. He’s like the Hollywood version of a DNR guy, not a real one. But he is real. I know because he’s standing next to me inside the security perimeter of the pond.
While, for security reasons, I can’t reveal the exact location of the off-season home of the DNR’s roster of State Fair fish, I can say that our prize trophy pond isn’t much to look at, just a weedy wet divot among cottonwoods.
“Welcome to our retirement community for great fish,” says DeBates. “We feed them fathead minnows, 20 gallons at a time, and keep them safe. In return, they help us educate the public and get people excited about fishing.”
So excited that, in some cases, they try to poach them. Which typically ends with sirens as, aside from the fences, there are alarms, cameras, and countless anti-fishing floating screens. However, even if all that security weren’t in play, poachers still would be unlikely to succeed, because the pond’s internal architecture is a complex mix of levels, bars, and barriers, all of which allow the placement of special seine nets and the draining of water so that the big fish may be carefully lifted, like patients on stretchers, and transported by DNR water truck to the fair. Poaching here truly is like trying to drop a line through an Escher print.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” says DeBates. “You can probably get a 50-inch muskie out of Bald Eagle Lake if you try. They’re not trying what they ought to be trying.”
And you know the DNR eagle nest cam? The one we all watch in March for baby eaglets and glimmers of spring? That’s also by this pond. For the State Fair, the DNR supplements our mega trophy fish with maybe three dozen other species, rainbow trout and such, and over the course of the next year, our EagleCam eagles pick off each of the fish they can carry.
Poaching attempts are not limited to the secret pond. DeBates, who, like everyone in the two metro DNR offices, pulls regular State Fair duty, has repeatedly seen people bring fishing rods to cast a line into the actual fishpond at the fairgrounds, during the actual fair. Yep, each year, DNR fair staffers find lures dropped into the tank. One time, they even discovered a multi-hook lure lodged tight into one of the wooden piers around the State Fair pond, like someone was trying for a mighty cast—only to get stuck.
“Sir, you can’t do that,” DeBates recalls saying to one aspiring State Fair fisherman. “Your license does not allow you to fish these fish here.”
Our State Fair fishpond has truly seen some things since it started wowing fair crowds in 1905, after we bought it from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, AKA the St. Louis World’s Fair. One of the things it has seen is some of the same fish since at least the 1980s. Have you got a picture with your grandpa in front of the tank, and you can see a lake sturgeon behind him? It’s the same exact fish you’ll see this year, it was added to the collection in 1989; and lake sturgeon can live 150 years.
If that fact makes you want to fish, good! DeBates and his coworkers spend the rest of the year not just stocking lakes with walleye and rainbow trout but also stocking a website with the fish secrets of the state. Peek at the Minnesota DNR LakeFinder online and you can search by lake and species and call up any lake’s fish-census history. If that’s too much work, DeBates offers two fishing tips: St. Paul’s Como Lake is stocked with big, harvest-size walleye, and Lake of the Isles teems with fat largemouth bass.
The best part about those spots, unlike the one DeBates is sworn to protect? If you catch one of those fish, you can keep it! But if you ever find yourself at the State Fair and see someone drop a fishing line into the DNR fish pond, start hollering: “I own that prize retiree fish as much as you do, and we have plans to meet here again next year!”