Tom Dickson might just be the "Guru of Gar" or, perhaps, the "Royalty of Rough Fish Writers," thanks to "Fishing for Buffalo" a book he co-wrote in 1990 with Rob Buffler.
A St. Paul native, Dickson, 49, recently released his second book, "The Great Minnesota Fish Book." Richly illustrated by renowned fish artist Joseph R. Tomelleri, the book published by the University of Minnesota Press offers a look at the natural history and culture of the piscatorial plethora that inhabit the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Dickson graduated from the University of Minnesota and spent 14 years as an information officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at the DNR's Central Office in St. Paul, where he also contributed stories to the DNR's Minnesota Volunteer magazine.
Dickson, who now is editor of Montana Outdoors magazine, recently talked about his new book and Minnesota fishing experiences with Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken.
Here's an edited version of that conversation:
Q. How did "The Fishes of Minnesota" come about?
A. I became interested in rough fish -- carp and gar and buffalo -- and that led to writing "Fishing for Buffalo" with Rob Buffler, and this book is kind of an outgrowth of that. I broadened my interest and became enchanted with all these smaller species. I had never read anything about brook sticklebacks or tadpole madtoms. As I started to learn about these fish, I just thought there were great stories here and great natural history.
That sort of all occurred during the 1990s, and about that same time, Joseph Tomelleri was creating these incredible fish images for a number of publications around the country. I guess one of the reasons no one has written much about these other fish is there has never been any good illustrations until Tomelleri's illustrations became available.
A couple years ago, University of Minnesota Press called and asked if I'd be interested in doing a book. They'd seen me profile some of these fish in the Volunteer and said, 'We think there's the makings of a real good book.' It's not often you have a publisher come to you. I was really lucky.
Q. How did you decide which fish to include in the book?
A. I wanted to be as inclusive as possible; 161 species live in Minnesota, and I wanted the book to be a real complete look at the fish of the state, so I included all the game fish -- 27 species of game fish and roughly 35 species of rough fish -- and had already gathered a lot of information on them. I didn't include some of the suckers and minnows because they're so similar it didn't make sense.
I tried to have each fish in the book be a distinctive species. There's 105 fish in the book, and they really do represent all the fish in the state. I didn't miss any cool fish.
Q. How did you go about researching each fish?
A. I had a fair bit of information already gathered. I just had to go in and do original research. There really wasn't a lot of information available on a lot of these fish. The only book was "The Fishes of Minnesota," which was originally written back in the '30s and updated a few times. It only covered a handful of species, and a lot of the other information I got was from other states and provinces. I did a lot of research on those and had to go online about a lot of these strange fish that even those books didn't' cover.
Q. If you were to pick the oddest fish in the book, what would it be?
A. One that has long fascinated me and I would consider the weirdest fish is the American eel. People have a hard time believing an eel is a fish, and the fact that the eels in southern Minnesota actually are born in the Sargasso Sea in the Bermuda Triangle in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It's almost unfathomable to comprehend the mating and reproductive cycle of the American eel. It really defies comprehension.
I've actually eaten one from the Mississippi River and they taste fantastic.
Q. In the book, the channel catfish is listed as a rough fish. I know some people who might take exception to that.
A. That's a vestige from the "Fishing for Buffalo" days. The channel cat, that one is right on the edge. For a lot of anglers, that's a prime game fish, but there are a lot of anglers in Minnesota, a channel catfish is just a big bullhead to them. (The channel cat) really is a game fish.
Q. What's your most memorable Minnesota fishing experience?
A. In (1999), when I was fishing with my dad and (Baudette DNR fisheries biologists) Dennis Topp and Mike Larson on Lake of the Woods, and we were trying to catch a lake sturgeon because I was doing a story for the Volunteer.
We'd caught a couple of small ones and this boat comes by with these kids. We asked them how the fishing was, and one kid stood up and brought his arms wide, then he bent down and brought up this fish he couldn't lift. Dennis said, 'Bring that in, it might be a state record.'
He brought it in to the DNR office in Baudette and hoisted it up on the big deer scale and I just remember being so excited. I'd read about lake sturgeon my whole life and was always fascinated by these gigantic monsters of Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River system. And reading about them, I just never thought I'd see a big lake sturgeon. And when it went up on the scales, it went to 96 and then back to 88 and then up to 94 and it settled at 92 pounds. It was 2 pounds short of the state record -- not just the state record, but the biggest fish ever caught on hook and line in Minnesota.
I was almost witness to Minnesota angling history there.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org