The Great Minnesota Fish Get-Together

It had an eerie sort of start. Like something out of “Jaws.”

Ever so gradually, I could make out a figure, slowly moving toward me in the glimmering, darkish waters — or at least toward the camera. Then, before I knew it, a good-sized musky was on top of us.

And so, for me, the Minnesota State Fair officially kicked off at about 9:30 Wednesday morning.

That’s when fish started showing up on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ live fish cam (http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/statefair/webcam/fish.html) at the DNR’s always-popular fish pond.

The state fair opens a day later and runs through Sept. 5 (Labor Day). A lot is crammed into the 320-acre grounds at the state fair, with something for virtually everyone.

Outdoors types included.

Approximately half-a-million fair-goers visit the massive DNR building and surrounding park area each year. This year, the DNR is embracing its theme of “Nature Rocks: Fish, Fossils, Forests, Oh My!” in and around the massive main building that includes, among many other things, indoor aquariums, the wildlife wing and land and mineral displays. Highlights of the sprawling DNR “campus” also include the fire tower (it was specifically built for the State Fair so as to provide a wildfire prevention message to visitors) and, this year, a stand-up paddleboard simulator, as well as a camper cabin for touring.

But the fish pond is the big draw — it’s one of the state fair’s most popular attractions, period. And, again this year, the fish cam offers an up-close, underwater view of about 45 Minnesota fish species.

According to the DNR, one of the most popular fish with fairgoers is the paddlefish, and the largest fish in the tank is again the lake sturgeon, which exceeds 50 inches — it was a gift from an angler who harvested it legally from the St. Croix River several years ago, the DNR said.

On Wednesday morning, stocking of the pond started slowly — that musky might have been the first fish released into the pond by DNR staffers and had the tank mostly to himself early on. But before long, walleyes, panfish, carp, paddlefish, even little-known gar were everywhere, swimming through clouds of bait fish in the 50,000-gallon, 100-by-50-foot tank located on the south side of the DNR building.

By late morning, fish crowded the tank, with walleyes and a few other species covering the pond floor. Earlier, the first walleyes disappeared into those heavy schools of bait fish, although I never saw a fish pursue any of the minnows — or other fish. They’re all no doubt a bit stressed in this new environment, at least right away, which likely impacts their eating habits. But, for the most part, the DNR has said that the fish are just fine in their temporary home.

During the fair, DNR staffers host “fish pond talks” at a quarter to the hour daily, from 9:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., with visitors crowding around the kidney-shaped tank to learn more about the fish that call Minnesota waters home. It tends to have an almost concert-like feel, with onlookers stacked a dozen deep and shorter, smaller pond-goers climbing on other pond-goers’ shoulders for a better look.

Yes, in Minnesota, fish indeed rock.

Last year, while visiting the pond and listening in during a “fish pond talk” session, I also watched the action underwater via the fish cam on my smartphone. It made an always-great experience even better.

I’m planning to attend the fair again this year and, as always, experiencing the fish pond will be at the top of my to-do list at the Great Minnesota Get-Together — right up there with eating anything fried and on a stick.

In the meantime, it’ll be a steady diet of the fish cam. Because, for me, walleye on the fish cam beats walleye on a stick any day.

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