February fishing in Faribault is nothing new.
Ice fishing houses routinely dot Rice County’s lakes in this frigid month as intrepid outdoorsmen continue their Minnesotan search for the perfect fish.
Unusual in this deeply-rooted ice fishing culture is a semi-truck, left idling next to Cannon Lake in the parking lot of Shager Park outside Faribault.
On its side, the trailer reads simply, “FISH,” which is all one needs to know about the contents of its load.
While Faribault’s anglers are surely prolific with a line and a lure, nobody who takes their pickup on Cannon Lake on a Friday afternoon could fill this semi.
Bruce Geyer, a commercial fisherman from Waterville, can.
On Friday, Geyer took away an enormous load of carp, sheepshead and ictiobus, which are more commonly known as buffalo.
Earlier in the week, Geyer lifted 20,000 pounds of carp, 5,000 pounds of sheepshead and nearly 500 pounds of buffalo. On Friday, he estimated that the day’s load dwarfed that of earlier in the week.
With a team of four trucks and eight men, Geyer visits a number of lakes in the area. While his Department of Natural Resources-dictated territory covers mostly Le Sueur County, Geyer’s list includes Cannon Lake and Horseshoe Lake in Rice County, where he has sustained success this year.
The process, unlike the recreational ice fishing process, requires non-stop heavy lifting as the 25,000 pounds of fish must be removed from Rice County’s lakes and loaded into a semi.
Fall and winter are Geyer’s targeted times of year for commercial fishing. In the fall, he uses a boat. In the winter, his truck does the job.
To begin, he rings a fishing net out around a selected area, normally close to shore. On Friday morning, his crew did so in the shadow of one of Cannon Lake’s many homes.
He and his crew cut holes in the ice and run a board connected to the net around the area he hopes to fish. Once the net fills with the load he needs, they pull the net tight to where they will sort and crate the fish.
The sorting process involves two or three men lifting nets full of carp, sheepshead and buffalo onto a wooden table for sorting. Geyer stands atop the table to assist his crew with lifting the fish from the water.
Once on the table, the fish are sorted into crates based on species where they are weighed before being loaded into the back of a pickup truck.
About nine stacks of five or six crates fill Geyer’s truck as he cruises south along the frozen lake toward the “FISH” truck at Shager Park.
At the shore, a harsh bump requires Geyer’s passenger in the pickup to get out and secure the crates so as not to dump his catch onto the snowy beach.
A crew member and a DNR official are waiting at the truck where Geyer and his colleague lift the crates from the bed of his pickup onto the top of the trailer where another opens hatches into foamy, cooled tanks and dumps the contents of the crates inside.
The process is repeated for each crate until the pickup is empty and the semi full.
When asked where the truck will take those fish, Geyer said, “Michigan, and then New York, probably.”
Geyer noted that the majority of his fall and winter catches in Minnesota end up in the New York metropolitan area.
The whole process may come as a surprise to some who normally use Faribault’s lakes for recreation only. For Geyer, a second generation, Waterville-based ice fisherman, the process is familiar.
“My dad’s been doing it long before I took over,” he said. “He’s been at that 50 or 60 years.”
Waterville Area Fisheries Supervisor Craig Soupir oversees the permitting of the area’s commercial fishermen.
Soupir’s area consists of Le Sueur, Rice, Blue Earth, Waseca, Steele, Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn and Mower counties. Those nine counties are commercially fished by a total of three permitted men.
“They are permitted from just after Labor Day until the fishing opener,” said Soupir. “They go through permits and they each have water they can work on.”
When asked why Rice County’s lakes need to be commercially fished, he explained that the process provides a mutually beneficial outcome for fishermen and the DNR alike.
“Removing carp can actually improve water quality,” he said. “And then they get to sell them for profit.”
Soupir explained that, as long as protocol is followed, the process is a “win-win.”
“Removing carp is a benefit because they really are an invasive species,” said Soupir. “They are very prolific in systems where they are vacant of predators. They can really explode.”
Carp are bottom feeders. Their eating process sets off a chain reaction in Rice County’s lakes that causes large amounts of algae blooms. By removing a certain number of carp, Geyer is acting as that natural predator that the lakes need.
After Geyer’s catches, he puts together a report of how much carp he catches and how much game fish he releases, the latter of which is a vital step.
“Luckily, most of the game fish goes through the holes of the netting,” said Soupir. “So, he can focus on those target species.”
February fishing endures as a time-tested activity on Rice County’s lakes. As anglers return home from their fish houses on lakes this weekend they will surely be equipped with tales of their catches.
No matter what their haul, however, Geyer’s 25,000-pound catch will surely dwarf it.