Manitoba Channel Catfish
February 18, 2014
The float rigging and cutbait hit the water at the head of a near-shore '¨current break. The float popped upright as the 1-ounce egg sinker settled the bait below. Reel quickly engaged, the float snapped under, I set the hook and in the shallows a giant fish blew up on the surface, spraying water high into the air. Keeping the pressure on, rod tip held high, rod bent into the butt, I cranked hard on the reel each time the fish gave a bit, with it boiling up again and again, thrashing, splashing as the camera rolled, capturing the pandemonium.
A channel catfish of about 22 pounds came to net and swung into the boat, maybe 60 seconds from initial contact to the big swing. No need to pressure fish like that but there's no reason not to either in the name of great TV action. Guide Donovan Pearase put us on these shallow fish earlier in the day, as we shot another In-Fisherman show segment about using floats to catch catfish. Knowing the fish were holding shallow in several areas, we returned later to do battle with them again. A show segment titled "Combat Cats" was the result of a couple hours of fishing and fits perfectly into a 2014 show entitled "Sportfishing Action in Overdrive."
The fishing on the Red River below the Lockport Dam near Selkirk, Manitoba, is as spectacular today as it was when I first fished it in 1985. Nowhere else over the intervening years have I found another fishery that compares — where the fish average so large and are so numerous.
On a good day on this section of the Red it's common to catch 20 fish close to or surpassing 20 pounds. In most of North America a 20-pound channel cat is the fish of a lifetime. So it's like finding a fishery where you can catch that many 12-pound walleyes in a day — or that many 12-pound largemouth bass. Or imagine a fishery with the potential to consistently produce a dozen 50-inch muskies in a day.
Fishing with Pearase (pronounced pierce), who has been guiding on the river for 20 years (blackwatercats.com), was a bonus. He knows the river far better than I and was especially helpful in shortcutting our time looking for shallow fish. Furthermore, we usually have readers and viewers who travel to areas we recommend who want to cut short their time finding fish. It's nice to be able to recommend an exceptional guide, who we know not only will put you on fish and help you catch them, but is also a pleasure to fish with.
Imagine my surprise, too, when he graciously acknowledged In-Fisherman's influence on his fishing. After his introduction to catfishing, he got the fever, went looking for information, and purchased a copy of Channel Catfish Fever, which we published in 1989. He also started reading articles about catfishing in In-Fisherman. The information in the book and the magazine he says changed the way he fished and subsequently changed his life. He also guides for the area's famous greenback walleyes, on ice and on open water. He was the co-founder of Manitoba Outdoors, an online magazine about hunting and fishing in Manitoba.
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Floats played a role on this excursion, although we also fished with bottom rigs. The reasons for using floats don't vary by season. They are good for suspending baits in still waters, such as in a river backwater or spots on a lake or pond. During May and June on the Red, with water levels often high, fish move away from strong current. At times, the best fishing is in the large backwater created in the outlet basin near the dam. Floats work well there to suspend baits near bottom, although cats also roam throughout the water column looking for food, so it pays to experiment with various depths.
Any time rivers rise, especially during the Prespawn Period, channel cats also move into dead-water areas that otherwise wouldn't have water. Floats also work here. Dead shad are a fine bait at this time, although often nightcrawlers work just as well and are easier to get. Fresh cutbait from fish like suckers works well, too.
Floats also shine when they help drift baits over areas where fish may be roaming or holding indiscriminately. Away from the tailwater area, especially during summer and fall (September on the Red), most anglers fish bottom rigs in deeper channel areas, up and down the river, all the way to Selkirk. But mostly overlooked fish also push up shallow, cruising channel edges with scattered boulders in 3 to 8 feet of water. Either fishing from shore or from an anchored boat, drifting a float and bait with the current helps you cover a lot of water.
With a larger float you can see at a distance — Thill Big Fish Sliders or Pole Floats — I often make drifts of up to 100 yards down a current seam or along a drop-off edge. You need modest current for this to be effective. If the float moves too fast, catfish can't get a bead on the bait. If the float moves too slowly, you might as well be fishing a bottom rig — you lose efficiency. In still water, cast the float out and let the wind move it along to cover water. Or fish it in a spot for 5 minutes before making another cast to a different area. Catfish make contact with baits by seeing them or sensing them via taste buds on their skin, especially on their barbels and mouth.
On our trip in September the water was so low that few areas had sufficient current to draw fish shallow. Pearase put us on several shoreline-connected breaks that held fish along distinct current edges created, in one case by a shoreline lip, and, in another, by a rocky ridge near the dam. Using the 4-inch Thill Big Fish Slider, a slipfloat, we used a 1-ounce egg sinker to anchor the float and the bait, with the sinker on the mainline above a swivel. Below the swivel was a leader about a foot long, a hook and the bait. It's easy to experiment with depth with this rig by sliding the slipknot up and down the line.
Cast the rig to the head of the current break, hold the rod tip high to keep as much line as possible off the water, allowing the float to make a steady drift down the current edge. Anytime the line gets too bowed by current, causing the float to drag away from the edge, mend the line by flipping it back up stream toward the float.
Popular September baits on the Red include leopard frogs that have been frozen and thawed, and cut goldeyes, a fish native to the river. I have also long used cut suckers that I typically take with me frozen in an ice chest. This trip ciscoes seemed key. They are an oily coldwater fish that enter the river from Lake Winnipeg in late fall and winter. Pearase gets a supply from commercial fishermen on Lake Winnipeg for his late summer fishing. In typical fashion, we filleted the sides off bigger ciscoes and cut the fillets into one-inch strips. With smaller fish, we cut one-inch steaks.
Depth control is of paramount importance, so set the depth and if nothing happens during the first several drifts, try a different depth. Especially in tailwater areas, channel cats aren't always feeding right on the bottom, although it always pays to thoroughly check the zone within a foot of bottom.
Hooks & Rods
I've been using the Eagle Claw 84, a J-hook design to catch catfish successfully for over 50 years. They work great, are economical to use, especially if you purchase them by the hundred, and range in sizes from tiny to 10/0.
The advantage to another great design, the classic Kahle hook — the Lazer Sharp L141 — is that the increased gap accomodates lots of pieces of cutbait to give off more scent and taste. It too is available in many sizes from tiny to 10/0. I switch to the Kahle hook when fishing in colder water. With the fish a bit more lethargic, taste and scent play a bigger role in getting fish to move to the bait.
The last couple decades I've also spent a lot of time using circle hooks, which are close to being foolproof when they're used correctly. They hook well and hold, typically catching fish in the corner of the mouth; so you never have to worry about losing a fish unless you break them off; and all fish are releasable because they aren't hooked deeply. That's vital on the Red where all fish above 60 cm (about 24 inches) must be released, making it an almost entirely catch-and-release fishery, one of the primary reasons the fishing continues to be so good.
Circle hooks are unique in having the hook point roll back at a right angle to the shank. The design seems counter intuitive, but they're a miracle in action, again, when used correctly. When a fish takes one into its mouth, line tension moves the hook around without catching flesh. As the hook reaches the lip and the hook eye exits the mouth, the hook rolls just enough so that the point catches. As the hook continues to roll the hook sets itself via sustained pressure.
No need to set the hook and, indeed, doing so can cause the hook to pop out of the mouth so quickly that it doesn't catch. So the challenge for anglers is not to set, but to drop the rod tip toward the fish as it bites, then start reeling and when there's pressure, firmly lift the rod tip to load the rod.
The other option is to use tackle that facilitates the process, meaning rods with limp tips and overall slow actions in combination with monofilament line, which has a lot of stretch as a fundamental characteristic. Catfish love this kind of rod, because they love pulling on something that gives — it makes them pull away harder, which is the reason we catch them so readily on bank sticks, juglines, polelines, and limblines, not to mention limber rods. With rods with a limber tip, let the fish load the tip, then lift firmly to fight the fish.
Shakespeare Ugly Stiks, still the largest-selling rods on the market, make awesome catfish rods. I use Ugly Stick Customs for heavier duty, for blue cats and flatheads. For channels, two favorites are from the Ugly Stik Lite line, the 8-foot 6-inch MDS1186-MH, and the 7-foot 6-inch CAI1176-ML. The longer rod is billed as medium-heavy, but it's more like a medium-light. The other rod is rated medium-light, but it's light.
They're both more than a match for channel cats, even those the size of the fish on the Red, although they aren't rods for dealing with heavy current and a lot of sinker weight. They're good-looking rods and they last forever. I also use them as walleye trolling rods coupled with line-counter reels. Another nice rod that's even less costly from the Ugly Stik lineup is the CAL 1100, a 7-foot 6-inch medium-light. The longest rod is a superb float-fishing rod, although all the rods work well and also work for bottom rigging.
These rods match well with medium-sized round reels like the Penn 965 or Abu Garcia 6500. When there isn't much cover to deal with and the fish aren't large, I fish 15-pound Berkley Big Game line, switching to 20-pound for smaller fish around cover. For bigger fish, as on the Red, I use 25-pound line. The combination of the line stretch and the limber rods makes it hard to do circles wrong.
One good hook design to start with, if you've never used circle hooks, is the Lazer Sharp L7228, which is a wide-gap design. It hooks well and is forgiving for anglers who have a hard time remembering not to set the hook. On the down side, they at times hook fish deeply if you let them take the bait too long. Use the smallest hook size you can get away with, because the larger sizes — 5/0 and up — have such a wide gap that they often injure a fish's eye when they set into the corner of the mouth.
My favorite design right now is the Lazer Sharp L2004, which has less hook gap than the 7228, and is available as a heavier hook in platinum black, and a lighter hook in L2004EL. The L702 is a similar design. Neither hook is offset, a design feature where the portion of the hook shank at the throat of the hook is bent slightly off center left or right. Offset circles tend to hook fish deeper in the mouth.
To increase hookup rates, don't tie direct to the hook eye, but instead slide the line through the hook eye from the inside before tying a snell knot. This further facilitates the hook's rolling circle-cam action, as proven in comparative knot tests conducted in commercial longline fisheries. Circle hooks work just as well for float rigging as they do on setlines.
During prespawn on the Red below Lockport, which usually is in full swing by mid-May and lasts until about the end of June, most fish are caught on some form of bottom rigging with a slipweight held in place via swivel above a leader and hook. These are positioned along current breaks and slack-water spots near heavy current, and at times directly behind the boat in deeper channels, so long as the current isn't too heavy. Many of the best spots are close to or in the tailwater area.
After fish spawn, some fish continue to use the tailwater, but other fish drop down river and hold in deeper holes. As you drive downriver, mid-river flats might be 9 to 11 feet deep interspersed with 50- to 100-or-more-yard sections of slightly deeper water, perhaps 13 feet deep. Down river near Selkirk, several much deep areas also hold fish. The depths are dependent on how much water is running through the dam.
Most anglers anchor at the head of a hole or somewhere within the hole, or along the edge of a hole, and fish set rigs directly behind the boat a cast length downriver.
Leader length should generally be shorter instead of longer, because shorter fishes more precisely, doesn't tangle as much, and doesn't snag as often. In modest current, an 8- to 12-inch leader is sufficient. Heavier braids — say a minimum of 50-pound — make good leader material. Light braids twist easily. Catfish seem to like the softer feel of braid, although they don't seem to mind monofilament so long as it isn't too heavy.
In heavy current, such as fishing along current edges created by the flow from an open gate pushing up against and rolling over the edge of the slacker current from a closed gate, the best leader is no leader at all. Let the slipweight ride right up against the baited hook, the most precise way of all to fish setrigging. I usually add a bead between the hook eye and the weight. I have not tried using circle hooks in this situation, but have been successful with the other hook designs I've mentioned.
The most popular weight today is the flat No-Roll sinker, which has largely replaced the egg sinker, a design that doesn't hold well in current and often snags. The objective is to match sinker weight to the current conditions so that the weight, hook, and bait can be walked slowly along and through the current tunnels formed on the bottom, until it hits a particularly slack spot on the bottom. These are areas that gather baitfish and other food. Catfish find these spots as they patrol the bottom looking for food.
Times Past & Present
The story of my first time fishing the Red below Lockport is told in a "Historic Perspectives" item in Life & Times In Catfish Country, a book collection of 51 of the best catfishing articles that I wrote over the years. Historic perspectives are at the beginning of chapters, to lend insight into what was happening in the fishing industry and at In-Fisherman at the time the chapter was written. The beginning of Chapter 49 goes like this:
"We interpose here — for it works as well here as anywhere — the story of the first time Stange and Toad Smith see the now-famous Red River Channel Cat fishery at Selkirk, Manitoba, just north of Winnipeg. It's early June 1985. The boys have fished their way up the Red River from Breckenridge, Minnesota, to Grand Forks and Drayton, and are fishing in the Emerson area. They talk with a couple anglers who relate this story:
'We drive down the hill on the west bank of the river just below the dam, past Lilly Ann's to the boat landing, where two large tents are set up. Nobody's fishing below the dam. Nobody. We enter one of the tents and find women canning something. It's catfish. In the other tent, men are cleaning giant channel catfish. They tell us there's no limit, that the fish are biting just like they usually do — more 20-pound fish than you can handle. On the dock is a 20-foot-long stringer made out of 1/4-inch chain link with big fish waiting to be processed. The canned fish are eventually loaded into a trailer and are transported back home to Iowa.'
"Smith and Stange go see for themselves. The tents are gone, but true to the story no one else is fishing. They head out to test the water for themselves. That first day they total more than 40 fish surpassing about 18 pounds, with the biggest going about 25. Unbelievable. It is the beginning of publicizing this fishery. Talking with Manitoba fishery officials, Stange calls the fishery not just world class but an international treasure, the rarest of rare finds as fisheries go. With the increased fishing pressure that accompanies writing about the fishery, Manitoba implements harvest regulations that prohibit taking any big fish. It's one of the wisest proactive moves ever made to protect a unique fishery. The fishing is as good today as when the boys first got there."
Which is why all catfish anglers should go see for themselves at least once.
The Rest of the Story
The most fishable portion of the Red below Lockport dam is only about 10 miles of a river that in total runs over 500 miles, flowing north toward Lake Winnipeg from about Breckinridge, Minnesota, close to the South Dakota and Minnesota border and then along the North Dakota and Minnesota border into Manitoba. The portion of the Red in the U.S. also produces exceptional fishing, although the fish don't average quite so large. Still, plenty of 20-pound class fish are available, especially in the part of the river starting at Fargo.
Guide Captain Brad Durik has been a student of the Red and the channel catfish therein for two decades and has published a recent book about his fishing Cracking the Channel Catfish Code. Contact him at redrivercatfish.com.