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Commentary: Minnesota’s roadside fish statues are a call to start casting

Minnesota might have — and, if it could be proven, probably does have — more highway shrines to all things finned than any other state.

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Willie Walleye, a large statue of the fish, stands at the eastern entrance to Baudette, Minn. He is not to be confused with Wally, the walleye statue in Garrison.
Alex Kormann / Minneapolis Star Tribune / TNS
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To catch fish in Minnesota you can pore over how-to books, devour biologists' detailed lake surveys and watch YouTube videos until you're blue in the face.

Or, you can just drive around.

As you do, keep an eye peeled for really big fish.

And cast a line near them.

Most of these monsters will be made of fiberglass: statues that run the piscatorial gamut, from a 15-foot walleye in Garrison on the shores of Mille Lacs to an outsized bluegill that greets visitors to Orr along U.S. Hwy. 53, about an hour's drive south of International Falls.

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Minnesota might have — and, if it could be proven, probably does have — more highway shrines to all things finned than any other state.

Some, like the ... let's call it a bass... harbored at the BP fuel stop in Clarks Grove, alongside Interstate 35 south of the Twin Cities, have fallen from their once lofty perches and now flop nearly at eye level with the countless tourist-shutterbugs who stop to photograph them each week.

No matter.

Like a beacon, this fake bass signals to alert traveling anglers that good fishing is close at hand — in this case in nearby Fountain and Albert Lea lakes, where walleyes, among other quarry, lurk.

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The first indication that you have left Iowa and entered the Land of 10,000 Lakes is a "Welcome to Minnesota" sign on I-35. The second, unmistakable indication is crossing Albert Lea lake, which is the centerpiece of our first Minnesota's Backyard destination of 2022.

Another roadside monument, the 65-foot muskie that rests alongside the Big Fish Supper Club on Hwy. 2 in Bena, no longer serves ice-cream cones and hamburgers through a window in its belly, as it did a few decades back.

But the huge fake fish nevertheless veritably road-blocks alert anglers and steers them toward some of Minnesota's — and for that matter, the world's — best walleye fishing, in nearby Winnibigoshish, Leech and Cass lakes.

So it goes in the state of 14,380 (let's get it right) lakes.

From the mammoth reproduction of a tiger muskie in Nevis to the outsized trout rising to an unseen insect while perched on a parade trailer alongside U.S. Hwy. 52 in Preston, veritable schools of fantasy-sized fish grace Minnesota thoroughfares north to south, and east to west.

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The monuments' primary intents are to advertise businesses and/or stoke community spirit.

But they are just as readily guides to some of Minnesota's best fishing waters.

True, Billy the Bluegill, who has been welcoming generations of visitors to Orr, is as much a testament to good panfishing times now past as he is to hot ''sunnie'' action anglers can expect today on nearby Pelican Lake.

But fish populations rise and fall, and, as much as Ol' Billy is a tribute to the gargantuan bluegills that Pelican Lake coughed up in the 1980s, he is a beacon of hope that someday soon anglers on that big, island-strewn lake will again chortle, "Bobber down!" and, "It's huge!"

Nearly since the beginning of time, sculptors and other artists have molded, painted and otherwise recreated animal likenesses to highlight people's relationship with nature, and to honor the subject beasts.

In the Boundary Waters, paintings originating 500 to 1,000 years ago of moose and other animals can still be found on rocks, notably on Hegman Lake, about 15 miles from Ely. The images are daubed in weather-resistant red ochre, believed to be made of iron hematite, boiled sturgeon spine and bear grease.

The establishment of "Wally," the walleye statue in Garrison on the shores of Mille Lacs, hearkens to a more recent era, around 1980, when the town first declared itself Walleye Capital of the World.

"In the late 1970s, the community got together and raised the funds to buy the walleye," said Win Carlson, vice president of the Garrison Commercial Club, which maintains the fish. "It was a way to bring tourism to the community and to get people to stop and take pictures. By now it's been around so long it's become a sort of trademark of Garrison.''

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But not only of Garrison.

Baudette, on the shores of Lake of the Woods, has a mock walleye of its own, also cast of fiberglass, this one named Willie. Like Garrison, Baudette has declared itself the Walleye Capital of the World, a designation — the world being a big place — also claimed by Garrison, N.D., and Port Clinton, Ohio, both of which also have bragging-size walleye statues.

As do, as it turns out, in Minnesota, the cities of Isle, Rush City, Kabetogama Township... and on and on.

Where are all of these big fish spawned?

At a fiberglass animal farm in Sparta, Wis.

Want a giant horse, cow or eagle to draw attention to your business or town? How about a statuesque Paul Bunyan? Or a replica of that cherubic guy who sits atop Big Boy restaurants?

How about a monster walleye, muskie or sunfish?

No problem.

Just call FAST Corp (for Fiberglass Animals Shapes and Trademarks) in Sparta, and Jill Schroeder will happily take your order.

"A lot of times cities want to be known for certain things and they'll order a big cow, or whatever," she said. "Turnaround time depends on whether we have a mold we can reuse or whether we have to make a new one. Usually, we can deliver in eight to 16 weeks. We just completed a giant flamingo for the airport in Tampa."

Doubtless for Floridians, and for visitors to that state, this new flamingo statue will, like Minnesota's giant fish replicas, celebrate and honor a critter that is equal parts fascinating and mysterious.

The difference is that in Florida, where wild flamingoes are extremely rare, the only example of this bird you're likely to see will be the one cast from a mold in Sparta, Wis.

In Minnesota, by contrast, when you see a giant fake walleye, bass, muskie, trout or bluegill, the real thing is almost certainly nearby, in spades.

Pull over and start fishing.

©2022 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com . Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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