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Rough or flashy, former Minnesotan writes definitive fish book

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It's a fair question: Why is a Montana guy writing about Minnesota fish? But there's a fairly logical answer. Tom Dickson, editor of "Montana Outdoors" magazine, was a public information officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for 14 years before moving to Helena, Mont.

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Sam Cook

It's a fair question: Why is a Montana guy writing about Minnesota fish?

But there's a fairly logical answer. Tom Dickson, editor of "Montana Outdoors" magazine, was a public information officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for 14 years before moving to Helena, Mont.

When Dickson, 49, was a Minnesotan, he was fascinated with Minnesota's fish -- all of them, not just the flashy ones such as walleyes and bass and trout.

Now he's written a coffee-table book on those fishes illustrated with detailed colored-pencil depictions of each species by artist Joseph Tomelleri.

Dickson shared his thoughts on fish and fishing in a recent interview. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: What made you want to put this book together with Joseph Tomelleri?

A: When I was at the DNR ... I'd try to find information on fish, and there was very little out there. There was "The Fishes of Minnesota" and Tom Waters' book on the North Shore ["The Superior North Shore"]. But nothing where you could find out about an American eel or the long-nosed gar.

And that's because there had never been any really good fish illustrations. That's been the Holy Grail.

Q: And Joseph Tomelleri had been working on many of these illustrations already?

A: When I saw those illustrations, I freaked out. I thought, "Somebody has finally done it."

Q: You've always been partial to the lesser-respected fish, haven't you, the kind you've written about in "Fishing for Buffalo" (1989, co-authored with Rob Buffler)?

A: I was interested in "rough" fish. I became sort of an evangelist for rough fish. We'd tap into these anglers who said, "I've been catching these quillback carpsuckers and long-nosed gar and wondered what they were."

Q: Who do you think of as the audience for this new book?

A: I think of the audience as the readers of the "Conservation Volunteer" [a magazine of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources], people who fish and hunt and watch birds and camp. They want to know more than just how to catch a walleye on opening day. Each lake is its own world. Especially if you own a cabin on that lake, you want to know what's in that world. For me, writing this book was like putting on scuba gear and going down to see what's in all those lakes. Now I'm coming up and reporting to Minnesota: Look what's down there -- you won't believe it.

Q: You write about the American eel, whose life history is pretty fascinating.

A: It's absolutely mythological. It's basically the Bermuda Triangle, where this unknown reproductive activity is going on. They're coming from as far as Europe and South Dakota. It's a giant eel convention. They're all ... mating. Somehow, they find their way back.

Q: Your book includes not just game fish and rough fish but minnows, too.

A: Minnows are basically ignored. They're viewed as night crawlers with fins. But Minnesota has 161 species of fish, and minnows make up 46 of them. Look at the central stoneroller. It's got this lower lip made of hard cartilage, and it uses that lip to scrape algae off of stones. There are all these niches. Every [fish] has adapted to occupy some niche in the natural world. I find that fascinating.

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