Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Great Minnesota Fish Book by Tom Dickson

Do you know what an ichthyologist studies?

An ichthyologist is a biological scientist who studies fish. How many fish species are you capable of identifying? 5? 10? 20? Would you be able to identify the 161 fish species found in Minnesota?

See if you can Identify this fish (answer can be found on page 68 or at the bottom of this booktalk): It is shaped like a shark, you can find it in the St. Croix River, it can live over 100 years, was harvested for its eggs (made into a delicacy called caviar), its skin was used to make shoes, was called the “kind of fishes” by the Ojibwa, and sometimes reportedly reached monstrous sizes of 100, 200, and even 300 pounds.

How about this one (found on page 60): it creates a nest in an underwater cave, the male attacks, with its mouth open, anything threatening its young, some people in southern states can catch this fish by wading along river banks by reaching one of their hands into the fish’s underwater cave so the fish will bite it. “Once bit, they thrust that hand out of the gill opening and grab it with the other hand, locking fingers and pulling the fish from its den and wrestling it onto the shore.” (This technique is known as noodling. )

One more (found on page 20): it’s sometimes called the fish of ten thousand casts, sometimes it is cross-bred with a northern pike turning it into a “tiger,” and is sometimes caught by an angler after tipping the tip of the rod into the water and making a figure-8 pattern which mysteriously can trigger a strike.

Besides the game fish you are familiar with, aren't you a little curious about those other fish species that can be found in Minnesota lakes and rivers? Ever have the occassional rough fish at the end of your line, but couldn't exactly identify it? If so, then I highly recommend the book, The Great Minnesota Fish Book, by Tom Dickson. And, the illustrations in the book by Joseph R. Tomelleri are some of the best I’ve ever seen.

I had the opportunity recently to interview Tom Dickson. The interview follows below:

Author Interview with Tom Dickson:

1. Could you tell a little about yourself, your passions, and about your career experiences that relate to this book?

I grew up in St. Paul and received a degree in English at the University of Minnesota. When I graduated in 1983, I lucked out and landed a job at a hunting and fishing magazine in Minneapolis called Fins & Feathers. It was there I first started writing about fishing. A few years later I took a job with the Minnesota DNR as an information officer. For 14 years I wrote about fish and wildlife, hunting and fishing, and conservation.

2. What inspired you to write The Great Minnesota Fish Book?

In 1989 my friend Rob Buffler and I wrote a book called “Fishing for Buffalo,” about the natural history of roughfish and how to catch and cook these oft-ignored species. Over the next two decades I continued to gather information on Minnesota fish that people knew little about, such as dace, darters, chubs, and sculpins. About 10 years ago I’d written an article about oddball fish for the DNR’s magazine, the “Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.” An editor at the University of Minnesota Press saw the article and asked me if I’d like to do a book version, covering dozens of species. I didn’t have time then, but a few years later I had some time and when they asked me again I said sure.

3. Could you tell us a little about the illustrator and how you collaborated with him?

There wasn’t much collaboration. Joe Tomelleri is the top fish illustrator in the United States. A resident of Missouri, he has been drawing fish of the Midwest for 20 years and has accumulated a picture library of more than 500 species. UM Press went to him for the illustrations. He’d already been to Minnesota years earlier to do illustrations for other projects, so he had most of the species I wanted to cover. But he had to return to do the least darter, Topeka darter, and river redhorse.

4. How did you decide on the title?

I wanted it to be bold and catch people’s attention. The adjective “great” describes “Minnesota fish” and not “book,” though you could read it that way. I suppose we could have called it “The Book on Great Minnesota Fish,” but that’s a bit clumsy. I think all the fish I’ve featured here are great.

5.What was the most challenging circumstance you faced writing this book?

It was difficult to find information on many of the lesser-known species. So I had to dig through books on fish in Missouri, Ontario, South Dakota, and other states and provinces to rather enough information to write some of the profiles. You’ll see several are quite sketchy. The book I turned to most often was George Becker’s “Fishes of Wisconsin.” I also relied a lot on Konrad Schmidt, a good friend who is the Minnesota DNR ichthyologist. He has more knowledge about fish in his pinky than I’ll ever know.

6. What do you hope your audience takes away with them from the book?

That all fish are interesting and important, not just walleyes, bass, and other game fish.

7. What was the most important thing you learned while writing your book?

Writing a book is hard if you already have a full-time job and like to watch TV at night. I had to miss a lot of TV

8. Was there anything you left out of the book that you wish you hadn't left out?

There was one story about when my dad and I saw a fellow catch a 92-pound lake sturgeon on Lake of the Woods. The fish was just 2 pounds shy of the state record and was one of the largest fish ever caught on hook and line in Minnesota history. It was an amazing thing to witness, but there just wasn’t room in the sturgeon chapter to include the story.

9. What is your favorite fish (to catch, eat, or just to study) and why?

My favorite fish to catch is the channel catfish. It’s super strong, tastes great when taken from clean water, and you can fish for them with flies, which I like to do. My next favorite is the carp, because they are so incredible powerful and they too take flies. The most interesting fish in all of Minnesota is the American eel. You’ll have to read the book to see why.

10. What fish "secrets" or unusual facts from the book might interest our readers to know?

The most unusual fact is the spawning ritual of the American eel. Only females live in Minnesota, and only in rivers and streams in the southern part of the state. When they get to be six years old, they swim downstream to the Mississippi River and then head all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. There they pair up with the male eels, which live their entire lives in the gulf, and together they head out into the Atlantic Ocean to the Sargasso Sea, which is by the Bermuda Islands. The eels lay their eggs in the sea and die. The eggs hatch into larvae, and the larvae drift in the ocean current back to the Gulf of Mexico. Then they turn into small eels and only the females begin the long journey back to the waters where their mother eel lived. How do they know where that is? No one has any idea. Those tiny eels swim up the Mississippi River for 1,000 miles until they reach Minnesota and then move up tributary rivers and streams. They live here for six years until they reach spawning age. That’s when they get the urge to reproduce and, like their mother, head toward the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico. I think that’s about the most amazing migration of any animal in Minnesota.

11. Are you working on any new projects?

No other new projects at the time. I’m still exhausted from the fish book and am trying to get caught up on my TV watching.

12. Is there anything else that you would like to tell our middle school readers?

Contrary to what their dad or uncle or friends tell them, there are no “bad” fish.

Thanks Tom for being willing to participate in this interview. I would also like to thank the Chisago Lakes Area Rotary Club for donating a copy to our library and also to Tom's sister, Mary Linehan, for donating an additional copy and getting them autographed.

(Answers: Lake Sturgeon, Flathead Catfish, Muskellunge)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Upcoming Blog Posts and Summer Reading List

Please excuse me for not posting any booktalks lately. I've been reading some books that have been sitting on my book shelf at home for some time. I will be returning to middle school lit. in May. Until then, I will try to get out a summer reading list to recommend, both new and old books.

Also, the books that you see on the right side of my blog called "quick picks" will be replaced with some of my favorite books to recommend to middle school readers from this past school year.

I was happy to see some of my book talk recommendations were chosen as Newberry winners! Compared with recent years, I think the Newberry committee got back on the right track selecting books with creative merit, but also books that will attract a wider number of middle school readers.
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