Catfish po’ boy in hand, I’ve got sauce dripping down my wrist. Zydeco rhythms are dancing around the room and the smell of swamp hangs damply in the air. When Gary and I headed south to Louisiana for our first ever vacation together, we felt as though we had traveled to a foreign country, rich with sounds and tastes and experiences so different than those in the upper Midwest. We arrived at our hotel in New Orleans to find our room was not yet ready. “Pull up a chair and have a drink with us while you wait!” called two couples lounging in the hotel lobby. “It’s definitely not like Minnesota here,” we said to one another as we joined our four new friends for a pre-dinner drink, which inevitably led to dinner at a nearby restaurant and then a late night out on the town.
Throughout the week, we stuffed ourselves with Creole and Cajun food to our hearts delight. Spicy gumbo with andouille sausage and crawfish etouffee, alligator jerky and yards and yards of catfish; each new dish was a delicious challenge to our taste buds. By the time we returned home, we were hopelessly hooked on po’ boys and humming Dixie in our sleep.
It always amazes me that the river of New Orleans is the same Mississippi that starts from a trickle in Itasca State Park, Minnesota, 2,552 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. A working river by the time it reaches the Twin Cities, the stretch of the Mississippi between St. Cloud and Anoka is actually a state-designated Wild and Scenic River. With several fish species, including smallmouth bass and channel catfish, calling that stretch of the river home, the Minneota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates that the fishery is worth $2.1 million.
Closer to home for those of us in the East Metro, Pool 2 of the Mississippi River, which flows from the Ford Dam to the Hastings Dam, supports 125 species of fish, including an above average abundance of walleye, sauger and flathead catfish, as well as some lesser know fish like sheepshead, gizzard shad, white bass and the endangered paddlefish. In fact, the state record flathead catfish was caught in Pool 2 of the Mississippi River. Weighing an impressive 70 pounds, the record-winning catfish could have made a whole lot of lip smacking good po’ boy sandwiches.
As recently as the 1960’s and 70’s, Pool 2 of the Mississippi River was dead and lifeless, but improvements in wastewater treatment, along with restrictions on factories discharging pollutants into the water, have brought the river back to life. Whereas the rest of Minnesota must await the fishing opener each spring, Pool 2 is open to fishing year-round for those local residents with a little bravery and a lot of warm winter clothing. A catch and release restriction on walleye, sauger, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass along this stretch of the river has ensured that catfish aren’t the only giants swimming in these waters. In a recent sampling survey, DNR scientists found that a third of the walleye in Pool 2 were larger than 24 inches.
Although the Mississippi River has made a miraculous transformation in the past 40 years, water pollution is still a major concern. The stretch of the river within Pool 2 suffers from turbidity, suspended sediments and excess phosphorus and nitrogen, caused by too much dirt and nutrients washing off of farms and neighborhoods and into the river and its tributaries. The Minnesota Department of Health has also issued consumption advisories for some of the fish in the river because DNR researchers have found a chemical called Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in fish tissue. The primary ingredient in Scotchgard, 3M has since phased out the use of PFOS, although it is still produced in China. The Department of Health adivses people to eat no more than one meal per week of bluegill caught from the Mississippi, and in the short stretch between Cottage Grove and Hastings PFOS levels in freshwater drum are high enough that it may not be safe to eat drum caught along that streatch at all.
Ten years have passed since I bit into my first catfish po’ boy, wiped the sauce off my chin and inhaled the spirit of New Orleans. At the northern tip of the Mighty Mississippi, we may not have the bayou or the gators, but we do have the catfish. Hulking in the river off the shores of Newport, St. Paul Park and Cottage Grove these funny-faced fish weigh, on average, more than 50 pounds. The DNR is looking for people willing to keep “Catfish Diaries” about their experiences fishing for catfish on the Mississippi. If you fish this stretch or know someone who does, head to www.surveymonkey.com/catfish to share your experiences. If you’re looking for a taste of Louisiana right here in your backyard, head to southwest Washington County and catch the spirit of the Mississipi.