Underwater world: Tom Dickson’s great big fish book

Call him Tom Dickson. Some years ago — never mind how many exactly — having little time and too many other creatures on his mind, this writer, editor and angler turned down the opportunity to write about the finned inhabitants of the watery part of the world.

Wait — turned down a book deal? Really?

Yes, he said no. The editors at University of Minnesota Press approached him with a book idea that they wanted him to write. (No, it doesn’t usually work that way.) Dickson said he would love to, but he was just too busy. (No, writers don’t usually do that.) So those patient publishers waited. (That never happens.) And they asked again. And this time he said yes.

“I couldn’t take it on at first, since I’d just moved to Montana to become editor at Montana Outdoors [which is similar to the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, a publication to which Dickson also contributes], and I was too busy settling in there,” he says.

Fishing around Twin Cities
Dickson grew up in Falcon Heights and began fishing right after college, when he worked for Fins and Feathers magazine. Unglamorously, he admits, “Most of my fishing was around the Twin Cities, primarily the Mississippi River below the Ford Dam and on the St. Croix below Taylor’s Falls.”

Tom Dickson
Photo by Tim Bremicker
Tom Dickson and friend

That lack of showoffsmanship is part of what drew UMP to Dickson. “The Great Minnesota Fish Book” is not an ode to the delectable walleye or the sporting northern pike; it’s a book in which all fish are created equal, including the tiny sunfish, the lowly carp and minnows. As in, bait. Dickson’s ability to appreciate Minnesota’s most humble fish and the overlooked or maligned waterways that support them made him a natural choice for this comprehensive natural history guide to Minnesota’s 161 game, rough, and little-known fish. (His first book, “Fishing for Buffalo,” (co-authored with Rob Buffler) celebrates, among other “garbage fish,” carp.)

The Fish Book is fascinating. Dickson profiles the habits and history, natural and human-influenced, of each fish, and mixes in a little advice to anglers. (Want to catch a bullhead? Bait your line with a piece of hotdog.) He throws in a few of his own fish tales (mostly self-deprecating), like the time a St. Paul neighbor brought over a bucket containing an eel caught in the Mississippi. “I filleted the handsome brown fish, which felt like soft velvet, and cooked the fillets using a recipe from ‘The Joy of Cooking’: Grilled Teriyaki Eel. It was superb.”

Gorgeous illustrations
The book is gorgeous. So gorgeous, in fact, that I suspect a majority of copies will live on coffee tables in lavish northern Minnesota cabins. Each fish is illustrated by Joseph R. Tomelleri, a Kansas City biologist and artist who is to fish what Audubon is to birds. “His artwork is just amazing. His fish are so accurate and so detailed and alive. Better than photographs,” says Dickson. “You actually cannot take a photo of a fish that captures what it really looks like, because as soon as you take it from the water it is already dying. The color is not the same, it loses so much. But he gets it right.”

So does Dickson. His appreciation and outright love of Minnesota’s fish come through in every page.

“Most people have no idea how many different kinds of fish we have in Minnesota,” he says. “They are all around us, in these hidden underwater worlds, and we pass them every day. Even in your commute, you’ll drive over the river or past lakes, and those places are filled with all these beautiful, amazing fish.”

So what’s this guy doing in Montana? His wife, also Minnesota-raised, wanted to live somewhere else for a while. And he heard the fishing there was good — although he notes that Montana has fewer than 100 different kinds of fish, making ours the richer state. Dickson recently visited the Ely area on a fishing trip. “It was so beautiful. All of a sudden I missed it so, so much, and just being there again in that wilderness, I just about cried.” 

Fish tales and book signing
Where: Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19
Phone: 612-822-4611 (Magers & Quinn)
How much: Free

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Comments (1)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/27/2008 - 12:08 pm.

    Enjoyed your article on “The Great Minnesota Fish Book” as well as the book itself that Santa brought this year!

    One question though regarding page #64 and the Brown Bullard State Record of 7# 1 oz. vs World Record of 6# 5 oz. … is the Minnesota record greater than the World record? This is confusing, do you think it was a typo or how might I find out the correct answer?

    Thank You!
    Tom O’Gorman

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