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Hmong families gather to fish walleyes

Published: Wednesday, May 30, 2012 12:02 p.m. CDT

ALONG THE ST. LOUIS RIVER, Minn. (MCT) — Just after the stroke of midnight, they began casting into the dark waters of the St. Louis River. One after another, the anglers tossed out heavy sinkers and minnows or leeches.

Ploop went the sinkers as they landed in the murky current not far near Jay Cooke State Park. Eight anglers had made the trip up from the Twin Cities, hiking at least half a mile down an obscure path to reach the river.

Fishing had just opened on this portion of the river at midnight, May 19, and these anglers, all members of the Hmong community, are always here when fishing opens above the Minnesota Highway 23 bridge.

“This is our sixth year,” said Sou Lak Thao, 28, of Vadnais Heights, Minn. “Fishing is phenomenal. We’ve never struck out yet.”

At the midnight hour, Thao and other members of his extended family were the only ones on the river’s bank. But more would be coming, he said. By dawn, more than 100 anglers, all Hmong and nearly all from the Twin Cities, would line the bank.

It was a warm night on the river. A hatch of small insects hovered in clouds along the water’s edge. An ore train rumbled in the distance. Two lanterns sat on the ground, and the anglers’ headlamps probed the darkness over the river. A small campfire burned nearby, and woodsmoke drifted down the shore. The men, who ranged in age from 17 to 48, talked and joked softly in their native Hmong language, but all knew English as well.

Touger Moua’s rod, propped on a stick, suddenly began to bow. Moua, 23, of Brooklyn Center, Minn., quickly grabbed it and began reeling. The beams of several headlamps scanned the tannin-stained current like search lights. The anglers anticipated the first walleye of the night. But when it appeared, it didn’t look anything like a walleye.

“It’s a catfish!” Sou Lak Thao announced.

And sure enough, it was about a 2-pound channel catfish in smooth gray skin, sharp spines protruding from head and shoulders.

Moua slid the cat onto the bank and deftly removed his floating jig head. The fish wasn’t a walleye, but it was food. The men put it in a shallow creek nearby, which they had dammed with rocks to create a small live well.

Harvesting from nature

Many members of the Hmong community are avid anglers and hunters, accustomed to living close to the land in the mountains of their homelands in Thailand and Laos.

“We believe in nature and fresh,” explained Duluth’s Cher Pao Vang, 52. He said there are about 15 families in the Twin Ports Hmong community, some of whom also fish the St. Louis River. “You grow or catch your own, use your own hands or ideas. That’s a big thing for the Hmong culture. The garden, we see it grow and we take it up. Sometimes in the wild, we see something edible. … We just gather things from the fresh.”

In years past, when Hmong families were beginning to settle in Minnesota, state conservation officers sometimes found Hmong anglers with more fish than their limits permitted.

“Where they come from, they find it, they catch it, they eat it,” said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Randy Hanzal of Duluth. “There are some issues when they’re coming from a country with no regulations.”

But the DNR trained members of the Hmong community as conservation officers, helping to spread the concept of limits. Fishing-regulation signs at landings are sometimes printed in Hmong as well as English. Now, over-limit problems are rare.

“Overall, their compliance is exceptionally high, maybe slightly more compliant than what I see in other anglers,” Hanzal said.

Hmong anglers know how to catch fish, he said.

“My experience is that they’re exceptional anglers,” Hanzal said. “They tend to go fishing as a group or as a family unit. That’s nice to see. They get the young ones involved. They’re very effective and everybody’s participating.”

Slower fishing this year

As it turned out, walleye fishing was not phenomenal for Hmong families along the St. Louis River last Saturday morning. Dan Thao, 17, of Brooklyn Center hauled in a 3-pound catfish about 1 a.m. And something big must have grabbed Richard Thao’s line soon after, because the fish hauled his entire rod into the river.

“My pole is gone!” Richard, 48, of Brooklyn Park, said almost in disbelief. “It was a sturgeon.”

Richard rigged an extra rod and tied a cord to it so it wouldn’t get away. Later in the morning, two anglers in a boat hooked and landed Richard Thao’s rod and returned it to him, Sou Lak Thao said.

By 7 a.m., members of the Thao family had a few catfish and one walleye in their creek livewell. Other anglers up and down the river had managed a few walleyes. Anglers in boats offshore put in their time, too, but caught few fish. Fish are often still above the Highway 23 bridge this time of year, but with an early spring, many walleyes already have moved downriver.

Small campfires smoldered along the rocky shore. Families fished in pods, stretched out for perhaps a quarter mile. Pakou Lee, 29, of Oakdale, Minn., was finally getting some fishing time. Her 19-month-old son, Nikolai Yang, had finally fallen asleep in his backpack, which was propped among riverside boulders.

Kou Song, 31, of Mounds View, Minn., has been coming up for this opener for the past six or seven years.

“This is the most crowded I’ve seen it,” Song said.

Just then, 10-year-old Cameron Song had a bite. He set the hook and began playing the fish. When he got it near shore, his dad landed it with his hands. It was a handsome walleye, 22 inches long.

“I’m so proud of myself,” Cameron said.

He said it with a tone of amazement rather than in a boastful way.

“All that hard work pays off,” he said.

Earlier, he had caught a 25-inch walleye. Now both were on the stringer, along with a couple of other walleyes.

Sometime soon, there would be walleyes for dinner in the Song home.

A meal from nature, fresh.

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