Eat, fillet, love: Advocates seek more respect for Minnesota's underappreciated fish

a boy smiles and holds a fish
Christopher Winter smiles while he holds a shorthead redhorse fish next to the Mississippi River. His father, Tyler Winter, is director of Native Fish for Tomorrow. The non-profit is campaigning at the Minnesota Legislature to change how so-called "rough fish" are classified in the state.
Courtesy of Tyler Winter

Prized game fish such as walleye and northern pike have long received the lion’s share of attention, research and supportive management in Minnesota.

Other fish species that are less familiar to many Minnesotans — including redhorse suckers, bigmouth buffalo, gar, bowfin, mooneye and goldeye — have been designated as rough fish, considered less desirable and left unprotected by state fishing regulations.

a man holds a fish
Tyler Winter holds a bigmouth buffalo fish next to the Mississippi River.
Courtesy of Tyler Winter

But now there's a movement to provide more protections for native rough fish that benefit lake and river ecosystems. These species are also growing in popularity among many anglers.

"It's kind of become this sort of derogatory term for fish that the dominant culture doesn't like, for whatever reason,” said Corey Geving about the rough fish designation. He is a software developer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and an expert on what he calls “odd and underappreciated fish.”

He started a website called roughfish.com about 25 years ago. 

Geving and other advocates want these fish to get the respect they deserve, starting with a better name. They say the term “rough fish” isn't accurate, and implies that they have no value.

It lumps together invasive species, such as carp, with fish that are native to Minnesota, said Tyler Winter, director of a nonprofit called Native Fish for Tomorrow.

“It's so completely unscientific and unrelated to anything,” he said. “And frankly, it's confusing, because they're not rough.”

The term is thought to date back more than a century to commercial fishermen, who rough-dressed some bonier fish instead of filleting them, because they brought a lower market price. 

Valuable resource

Winter's group supports a proposal at the state Capitol known as the “No Junk Fish” bill. It would fund a report recommending changes to how rough fish are classified.

Winter and others say the designation overlooks the ecological value of native rough fish. Some are a food source for game fish or birds of prey. Suckers fertilize streams where salmon and trout lay their eggs. Some compete with or even eat invasive species.

a boy happily holds a fish
Christopher Winter holds a freshwater drum fish next to the Minnesota River.
Courtesy of Tyler Winter

“People don't read past ‘rough fish,’ so they don't know that there's 26 species of native fish,” Winter said. “Then they don't appreciate the resources that are right in front of them. What if it's a native fish that's eating zebra mussels for you? Or attracting the eagles that nest across the river from your house?”

Some native rough fish act as a host for native freshwater mussels. The endangered spectacle case mussel relies on the mooneye fish to carry its larvae upstream.

Some river-dwelling rough fish grow very large and live a long time. In 2019, a researcher discovered a bigmouth buffalo in Minnesota that was 112 years old, the states oldest known freshwater fish.

a girl holds a fish
Lillian Winter holds a shorthead redhorse fish next to the Mississippi River.
Courtesy of Tyler Winter

Shannon Fisher, manager of fisheries populations monitoring and regulations for the DNR, said the term “rough fish” brands species with negative connotations.

“A lot of people think ‘well, they're rough fish, so they're not valuable. They're not important to the ecosystem,’” he said. “And that's not necessarily true.”

For a long time, people thought getting rid of rough fish meant there would be more sought-after species, such as walleye, Geving said. But now, he said, there’s a better understanding of the importance of biological diversity for a thriving ecosystem in lakes and rivers.

“If we have a robust, healthy, native fish community, it can act as a bulwark against invasive species, like the (invasive) carp and the common carp,” he said.

Growing popularity, threats

Respect for native rough fish is growing, including among anglers, who consider them accessible, fun to catch and tasty to eat.

“There's a certain recreational value there that you just can't get from some other species,” Fisher said. “As a result, people have really started to pay attention to these, and want to make sure that the populations are sound.”

Many Indigenous tribes and communities of color also have long valued native rough fish as important for food and cultural reasons.

But the fish face threats, including pollution, dams that block their passage upstream, warming lakes and rivers and people killing and dumping them because they're perceived as a nuisance.

In 2021, a YouTube video of people spearing more than 80 gar through the ice on the Minnesota River aided by sonar technology sparked outrage. Fisher said their actions didn't break the law, but raised ethical questions.

“It just didn't settle right with people, because they're not eating these fish,” he said. “They're not really doing anything with these fish other than harvesting them.”

Brent Getzler
Brent Getzler, 33, of Roosevelt caught this 19 pound, 10 ounce burbot on Dec. 19 2016 on Lake of the Woods.
Courtesy of Chad Thompson

Some native fish, including the eelpout or burbot, have been treated as the butt of jokes.

For years, the annual Eelpout Festival drew thousands of people to Leech Lake in Walker, where the burbot was labeled “the state’s ugliest fish.” It touted events such as “eelpout curling” with fish frozen in blocks of ice. 

Over time, attitudes have changed, thanks in part to anglers sharing tales of their catches on social media. Burbot are now a popular target for many anglers. Some refer to them as “poor man's lobster.”

“Nearly every person you talked to about eelpout or suckers or drum or one of these species, they’d be like, ‘Well, you should kill those. Those are nasty, dirty,’” Geving said. “As more and more people got online and shared stories and pictures, I think it’s kind of changed the culture around them.”

Shifting values

A couple of years ago, the DNR changed burbot, whitefish and cisco designations from rough fish to game fish, meaning they're now subject to fishing seasons and catch limits. The agency is still working to develop those.

The DNR also has formed a working group to look at whether other species warrant more protection. Those changes could face opposition from bow-fishing or commercial anglers who target rough fish.

Changing the name “rough fish” would be challenging, because it’s listed more than 70 times in state statutes and rules, Fisher said.

The momentum to reevaluate native rough fish is part of a larger shift of people wanting a different kind of fishing experience that’s closer to home or even from shore. More people are also interested in the foraging movement, or finding local and sustainable food sources, Fisher said.

“Maybe they don't have the resources to own the big fancy boat and travel to other parts of the state,” he said. “When you start looking in your backyard for fishing opportunities, there's almost always rough fish opportunities.”

Winter hopes more people will start to appreciate native fish as impressive creatures and an important resource. 

“I want people to go down to the river and catch a fish, and have a little bit of marvel that maybe they don't even know what it is,” he said. “And be like, ‘Hey, there's still some mysteries left in Minnesota for me.’”

Correction (Feb. 21, 2023): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the year a researcher discovered a bigmouth buffalo in Minnesota that was 112 years old.