An Ol’ Miss tradition lives on
By Diana Hammell
The Caledonia Argus
Ed Strong of New Albin, Iowa has been fishing all of his life. He learned from his father, Lawrence Strong, and his father learned from his father, Merlin “Babe” Strong, before him. Strong also learned from an even larger faculty of fishing professors including Fritz Beckman, who Strong fished with in the 1960s and 70s in the township of Jefferson, Minnesota, John “T-Bone” Crowley, Petie May and Alvin Crowley – all now fishing in the great beyond.
From willow branch to nets
Strong doesn’t head down to the Mississippi with the willow branch fishing pole he used as a kid anymore. He fishes Ol’ Miss commercially now, using hoop nets in the summer and seine nets in the winter.
Out on the ice
Strong got a crew together and went down to the ice to fish last week. His crew usually consists of David Strong, Jerry Seitz and David Strong’s 14-year old grandson Marshall “Spike” Johnson. Depending on the amount of fish the catch can be, Strong can add on another four to the crew.
A crew member cuts a nice big hole in the ice with a chain saw and a 50 foot running board carrying a seine net is lowered into the river. They step off a certain distance, cut another hole, catch the running board and the seine net is reefed out. The process is repeated until all the seine nets are reefed out. There’s a clever strategy that goes with the placement of the nets, using a bank on one end and creating a bank on the other end. They run the fish into the purse, or the bag, of the seine.
If the work up to this point was difficult, it was a sunny day at the beach compared to what comes next. A long landing hole is cut into the ice using a chain saw. The ice from the cut is carefully sunk to one side underneath the river ice to create a barrier for the fish. Then they pull – and pull and pull.
Now there is an open river of flopping fish and more labor to get them out. A crew member with a fish net scoops the fish toward one end of the hole in the ice where another crew member scoop-shovels the fish up onto an elevator.
While there are a few crew members “dragging away” other crew crowd around a sorting table right there out on the ice, and all the pan fish – the walleyes, pike, blue gills, perch, crappies and the rest of the sporting fish are thrown back in the river. Strong keeps only the rough fish. There is no size limit on sheepshead, carp and buffalo. Catfish, which are caught in summer, must be 15 inches or more and bullheads nine inches or more.
If the ice is thick and strong enough to support it, the fish ride another elevator up into a gravity box. One gravity box can old 10,000 pounds of fish, and Strong has three of them.
During the winter, the fish stay live and good in the gravity boxes until a semi comes for them and then they’re elevated up into the semi for the trip to Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Ill. or Stoller Fisheries in Spirit Lake, Iowa. The fish are processed at those locations and from there can be sold all over the U.S. and the world. Buyers can also come with a truck to pick up live fish fresh out of the nets. These trucks can haul the live fish to places such as New York where there are rough fish markets.
Strong stores extra fish from big catches in his pond by the old rock building in Jefferson, Minn., just up the river from New Albin. The pond is fed with fresh, cold water from an artesian well and the fish are happy there until Strong needs them.
Sheepshead, catfish and buffalo, oh my
Strong keeps and markets sheepshead, catfish, buffalo, bullheads and carp. “I don’t store carp in the pond in Jefferson because they’re not worth double-handling,” Strong said.
Freshwater drum, also known as sheepshead, is known for the rumbling and grunting sounds the males make to attract mates. It is a large, round-profiled, silver humpbacked fish. It’s the only freshwater fish on which the lateral line, a sense organ used to detect motion in the water, runs right through the tail. They usually weigh about two pounds, but the biggest was over 35 pounds and was caught in the Mississippi. They eat insect larvae, with older fish eating crayfish, clams, snails and small fish. They use their noses to flip stones over in search of food. Sheepshead have particularly large otoliths, stonelike objects found in the ear to help them sense when it is oriented vertically in water too cloudy to see clearly. These otoliths can be more than an inch in diameter and have been used by humans for currency, jewelry and good luck charms. Recently, the commercial catch in the Mississippi River alone has been about 300,000 pounds per year. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, they are abundant and are in no danger of overharvest.
Catfish species live on every continent except Antarctica. Minnesota has two catfish species, the channel and the much larger flathead, and three species of bullhead: black, brown and yellow. The Minnesota state record for a channel cat is 38 pounds caught in the Mississippi, and 70 pounds for a flathead cat. All catfish and bullheads have a sharp spine at the leading edges of the dorsal fin and two pectoral fins that careless anglers can poke themselves on. When handling these fish, run your hand over the body from the head to the tail, thus folding the fins down so the spines can’t poke into your hand. The channel catfish is a slender, strong and tasty fish that is becoming more and more popular with anglers. They eat just about anything that comes in front of their noses.
Bullheads, like all catfish, have no scales and have barbels. They eat insects, snails, fish, clams, crayfish, fish eggs and plants – actually just about anything. They have 100,000 taste buds scattered all over their bodies, many of which are found on the barbels. These taste buds help bullheads find food in muddy, dark water. The DNR says they are abundant and in no danger of overharvest. They’re popular to catch because they put up a good fight and are good to eat. Fishing for bullheads is open all year long in Minnesota and the bag limit is 100. Beware the venomous spines.
The bigmouth buffalo is the largest member of the sucker family and lives in lakes and rivers in most of Minnesota. Unlike many fish, it can survive in cloudy, warm water and they look like carp without barbels. Buffalo are big. They can grow three feet long or longer and weigh more than 50 pounds. These big fish have a diet of tiny foods: zooplankton, algae, plants, insect larvae and other small invertebrates. They are abundant in much of Minnesota and are in no danger of overharvest, according to the DNR. Kandiyohi is Dakota for “where the buffalo fish come.”
Mississippi River health
The DNR asked Strong to keep an eye out and let them know if he catches any Asian carp or bighead carp. “They’ve come through here because they’ve caught some up in Pepin, but I haven’t caught any,” Strong said.
The catch changes every year because of conditions of water depth and ice thickness. There are places that Strong can’t fish anymore because the river is silting in below the locks and dams. Reno Bottoms used to be eight feet deep but is now only two to three feet deep. Strong said he feels that the water quality may be better, however.
E & P Fish Market
The Strongs sell fish from their market on Rogers Street in New Albin, which they began in 2009. Larry Knight is Strong’s right-hand man in the market. Catfish fillets and smoked and pickled fish which are smoked and pickled on the premises are sold there. If a person likes pickled herring, they’ll love Strong’s firm, flavorful pickled fish.
All of the catfish at Lansing Catfish Days are freshly caught by Strong using hoop or bait nets in June. Baseball is a huge deal in New Albin and Lansing, and Spike Marshall was playing in a baseball tournament in New Albin during the time when Strong was going to harvest catfish for Lansing Catfish Days. Spike told the coach that he had to be there to help raise the catfish, and he was sorry that he might have to miss some of the tournament. Strong appreciated the dedication, but he thought that baseball trumped fishing in this case.