Home / News / HAINES LANDING: How the 'walrus' became Minnesota's state fish

HAINES LANDING: How the 'walrus' became Minnesota's state fish

Oct 17, 2023Oct 17, 2023

Brian Haines

Hello there, and welcome to Haines Landing, a place for fibbers, liars, and pretty much any truth-stretching outdoors enthusiast. This is the place where the fish are always a little longer, the bucks are always a little bigger, and the one that got away grows more elusive with each telling of the story.

I’m Brian Haines. Some of you may know me as the "history guy" in the area, and rightfully so as I’ve written hundreds of historical columns that have appeared in regional publications over the past few years. What some of you may not know, however, is that I love to write about the outdoors. Many of my articles have appeared in nationwide publications such as Ducks Unlimited and Sporting Classics. Proudly, I can now say that I’ve been given the opportunity to share them here as well. With that said, let's get to some fish tales!

You might think you have a walleye story, but it's nothing like this one…

It was just "one of those days". It was Memorial Day weekend, and I forget the year, so I’ll simply say back when I was younger. I was with family, fishing walleye, and we were trolling lindy rigs along a flat on Lindsey Lake, a small backwater lake in Northern Minnesota. Fishing had been good up to that day. We were two boats, six fishermen, and had snagged a respectable number of walleyes. On the last day of our trip, however, a cold front swept south, and the wind shifted to the east – the fish that so eagerly bit all but disappeared. It was as if someone turned a giant switch from fish on, to fish off. After a few hours of fishing, our live wells were empty and our prospects for the day looked grim.

My spot was always in the back of the boat, and on a slow day, it was the best spot to be. I’d lean back in my chair, put my feet up on the outboard, and nod off under the morning sun. That morning I was nearly asleep when I felt that old familiar tug on the line. I snapped awake in a flash, straightened out my pole and waited for the follow up tug that meant Mr. walleye had the hook in his mouth. It came, and it was a strong tug, followed by another of the same. I set the hook, my line went tight, and my rod bent to a near 90-degree angle. Whatever I hooked was pulling out line like mad. I knew I wasn't hooked on the bottom. I could feel a strong tug every couple of seconds, like a steady head bob that pulled on my drag each time. All I knew was that I had something very large on the end of my line.

The fight had the full attention of our boat as well as our partners that trolled 30 yards behind us. I yelled for my uncle to grab the net, which he did, and then leaned over the boat waiting for the monster to come to the surface. Unfortunately, I could make any headway. My line just kept dragging off the reel and I was almost to the end. My heart raced, and just as I thought my line may break, my grandfather began raising the motor out of the water to reveal that I hadn't hooked a fish after all, but rather, was tangled in the trolling motor mounted on the outboard – the steady tug was simply my line wrapping around the pin that held the prop on. A hearty laugh erupted in our boat as well as our partners. The ribbing continued all day on the lake, during supper (which was not walleye), and around the campfire that night. Like I said, it was "one of those days".

Catching the motor is easily my favorite walleye story, and like most Minnesota anglers, I have plenty of them to go around. I guess you could say few fish have made as memories as the walleye, and that being the case; there's a reason as to why it's Minnesota's state fish.

When you think of the land of 10,000 lakes, you think of the walleye. The natural layout of our lakes, especially those in the north, make for perfect walleye habitat. They grow big, they fight hard, and they’re easily one of the best eating fish in North America. In fact, the walleye is so popular among anglers that the Minnesota DNR stocks nearly roughly 900 lakes a year to make sure the fish population remains high. As admired as the Minnesota walleye is, however, there was a time when it took a back seat to other, less elusive fish.

Minnesota's lakes are home to several fish species, 162 according to the DNR. There's no doubt that the large array of fish, combined with 14,380 lakes, was an attractive selling point to the settlers that flocked to the region back in the mid-1800s. The pioneers who settled the North Country certainly knew that walleye existed in the waters, yet being driven by food availability, their sights were often set on capturing fish that were easier to obtain in high numbers by way of netting or spearing. In later years, as leisurely "sport" fishing became popular, anglers were apt to target bass, northern pike, panfish, bullheads, and other species that typically bite more aggressively. In fact, it wasn't until the mid-20th century that walleye fishing began to increase in popularity.

Prior to the 1950s, fishing line was most often made of braided cotton that was dark in color. Science and technology began to improve after World War II, however, and part of that technological revolution was the advent of synthetic, or monofilament fishing line. This new line was strong, flexible, inexpensive, and most importantly, translucent. Being clearer than its braided ancestor, the monofilament line was much harder for walleyes to see. In addition, advances such as the fish lo-k-tor, slip bobbers, and carbon, graphite, or fiberglass rods, made it easier to catch the elusive fish.

Technology alone wasn't what brought walleyes to the forefront of Minnesota fishing. The postwar years saw a surge in auto production and prosperity. It wasn't long before middle class Americans had time, money, and cars. As a result, lake resorts began opening all over Minnesota and became top vacation destinations. Unlike years prior, when fishing was done for food after a long day of work, these vacationers were looking to target specific fish, and their favored species quickly became walleye. Armed with the latest technology, and looking to fish for bragging rights, the popularity of walleye fishing soared.

By the 1960s, Minnesota was in the grips of walleye fever. Walleye statues popped up at roadside bait shops and several lake communities declared themselves "Walleye Capital of the World". In May of 1965, with the state in the grips of fish mania, and to boon tourism, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill, signed into law by then Governor Karl F. Rolvaag, that designated the Walleye as the State Fish of Minnesota. The rest, as they say, is history.

— This story was originally published in Outdoor News.

-- This story was originally published in Outdoor News.