SACRED HEART, Minn. -- Tom Kalahar grew up in Otter Tail County, home to more than 1,000 fishing lakes.
After a stint in the Navy and college, Kalahar landed a job with the Soil and Water Conservation District in Renville County. It’s home to one, maybe two fishing lakes.
“I planned to stay a year,’’ said Kalahar.
That was 42 years ago. He stayed for the fishing.
He showed us why on an early July weekend. The Olivia resident led this writer, along with John White, of Ortonville, and Bill Hillesheim, of Bird Island, on an eight-mile canoe paddle, fishing excursion on the Minnesota River.
“It’s not hard to have a 100-fish day on the Minnesota River for two guys, if you fish hard,” Kalahar said. “Normally we run out of bait.”
Hillesheim has been Kalahar’s regular fishing companion on the river, which slices through southwestern Minnesota, for about 15 years. They are avid anglers. They’ve pursued lake trout through the ice in Ontario in minus 40-degree weather. They’ve tangled with sturgeon big enough to tow their motorboat in the Rainy River.
But they keep coming back to the Minnesota River. How often? At least once a week, Kalahar said.
Kalahar often targets the river’s walleye and sauger. His advice is simple: Look for those locations where clear, cool water is running into the river, and start casting.
“It’s pretty hard to beat a white Twister tail,” he said when asked what to toss.
For all-around success, he advises using a snell hook with a blade, with a half- to three-eighths ounce weight about six or so inches above them. Add a crawler to the hook, and the taps on the rod will follow.
Channel catfish are abundant in the river, and we landed plenty, including many in the two- and three-pound range. Kalahar will occasionally do some fishing for flathead catfish. There are flatheads topping 40 pounds in the stretch of river Renville County borders.
There are large walleye in these waters too. White pulled in a 28-inch, 8.72-pound walleye just minutes after we dropped our lines behind a downed tree.
Despite these opportunities, the Minnesota River is underutilized as a fishing resource, seeing only light pressure, according to Tony Sindt, with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries office in Hutchinson. We encountered only two shore anglers on the eight-mile stretch of river we fished.
Having all of this to himself, Kalahar admits, is some of what made him fall in love with the river.
“Look around you,” he said to more fully explain his love for this river.
Although it slices through the heart of corn country, you’d never know it. We paddled along a corridor lined by oaks, silver maples and basswoods and towering cottonwoods. Outcrops of granite give parts of the river a feel like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Yet Kalahar is the first to say: “It’s a hard river to love.” Its waters are chocolate-colored from the sediment it carries. “You can’t help but come out looking like we do,” laughed Kalahar in reference to the mud on our clothing.
Kalahar, 67, committed 35 years to the SWCD to reduce the erosion that muddies the river. A flashy hydrology due to extensive drainage, and increasing water volumes due to a wetter climate, are also changing this river. What amazes Kalahar, he said, is this river’s resilience.
These were the topics as our canoes ground to a stop on a sandbar for our lunch break. The river sandbars are sprinkled with the shells of mussels, and glacial pebbles, occasional agates, and every so often, evidence of what once was. Bison skulls and even the antlers of elk have been found on these sandbars.
Our trip was a scouting run. In a couple of weeks, Kalahar will lead a larger group. We’ll pitch tents on a sandbar for an overnight fishing trip and the opportunity to catch some of the trophy flatheads.
The opportunity to catch trophy channel and flathead catfish, and its walleye and white bass, attract most of those who fish the river.
There are also plenty of what Sindt with the DNR calls “just anything anglers. ” They know that every fishing trip will be rewarded with lots of action from all types of fish. There are more than 70 species of fish in the river, everything from eels and paddlefish and prehistoric gar to freshwater drum, or sheepshead.
Lots of anglers still wrinkle their noses at sheepshead, but more are discovering that these native fish can make a tasty meal. The meat is firm, white and delicious, provided you remove the darker meat when filleting them.
Kalahar carried a cooler with ice and tossed the drum we caught in it. After soaking their meat in a salt brine, he’ll smoke them over hardwood with a dab of brown sugar.
Kalahar promised that the smoked fish will be our snack when we return to this river for an overnight run. No question what’s planned for the campfire supper. There will be fillets of channel cats and walleyes sizzling in the frying pan. If you love to fish, Kalahar said, it’s hard to beat the river.