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Fishin' Magicians: DNR crew turns concrete pond into haven for game fish

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources compound is a haven for those who love the outdoors and others who need a respite from the fair's hustle and bustle.

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — You can always find a slice of nature wherever you are, whether it's a bird singing while perched on a skyscraper, a coyote wandering down an alley looking for food or a wayward deer cutting between houses in a suburban subdivision. 

The Minnesota State Fair is no exception. While the fairgrounds are teeming with hustle, bustle and elbow-to-elbow crowds during most of the 12-day run, tucked away on a plot of land across from the KARE Barn is the Minnesota DNR compound, a log-sided ode to the great outdoors and those who embrace the life. 

Most would readily say the centerpiece to the DNR showcase is a 50,000 gallon concrete pond that for the run of the fair is home to more than 40 species of fish indigenous to Minnesota. 

From giant sturgeon and the odd-looking paddlefish to the exotic, long-nosed gar, bass, bluegill, crappie and muskellunge, the fish are carefully transported by oxygenated DNR tanker trucks and trailers to their temporary late-summer home. DNR Fisheries Supervisor T.J. Debates says it is a sizeable task that requires the efforts of crews throughout the state. 

"It's a big job, I think a lot of these folks don't realize the work that goes into getting these fish, taking care of them, it's very important and it's a big part of what we do," DeBates says. "We take it seriously, try to do a great job with it."

On Wednesday, the day before the gates open, a parade of tankers lines the sidewalk as fisheries crews scoop the fish in large fabric cradles and handled net, then hand them to wader-wearing colleagues standing in the concrete pond who carefully release them.

Part of the job (and perhaps the most interesting) is caring for the legacy fish that come back to the fair year after year. Foremost among them are the lake and river sturgeon, which can live as long as 150 years. The granddaddy of them all is a lake sturgeon pulled from the St. Croix River in the 1990s and donated to the DNR. The monster is now estimated to be at least 60 years, and has been to the fair for the past 30 years or so. 


When they're not hanging at the State Fair, the giant game fish live in an undisclosed, secret pond near the DNR's East Metro office that Debates refers to as their "retirement community." He explains that they are fed minnows, bullhead and small panfish to keep them happy and healthy until they are netted and trucked to the fair. The more common species like northern pike, walleye, bass and panfish are collected during annual lake surveys and play more of a supporting role. 

DeBates has now been part of the fair fish pond process for 19 years and still relishes the task. "I like it cause I get to handle a lot of fish," he laughs. "All of us, that's why we get into this, but also you come here and you can sit at that pond, we come as a family, and just look at the fish, walk around, it's really relaxing."

"We've got a little piece of heaven here. A slice of heaven."  

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