June 06, 2023
Looks like the cat’s out of the bag; or more appropriately, the cat’s in the net. Specifically, we’re talking about giant channel catfish that roam the Red River and present one of Manitoba’s most surprisingly impressive sport-fishing opportunities.
Given the province’s abundance of whopper pike, walleye, and lake trout, it’s understandable how a hulking less-flashy predator could largely fly under the radar. However, Donovan Pearase of Blackwater Cats relishes the eye-opening moment when a new channel cat convert feels the power of these whiskered wonders.
“Catfish don’t get that much attention, but I’ve gotten some of my American ice fishing clients to come up and try a day of catfishing,” Pearase said. “Every one of them is blown away by the fight and the sport.
“It’s the closest thing to ocean fishing with the fight and power. Some describe it as similar to landing a huge lake trout in open water.”
He said the channel cats he targets average 18-20 pounds (33-34 inches), but fish of 25-plus pounds (over 35 inches) are no rarity. An average half-day trip will yield a dozen good cats, but a hot bite could yield as many at 25-30.
As he explained, the Red River remains fertile thanks to its Lake Winnipeg’s connection. And with a rich buffet of forage—goldeye, suckers, perch, sauger, minnows and juvenile carp and drum—cats have plenty to keep them fat and sassy.
“There’s not a very big pike population in the river, so, channel cats are the top predator,” he said. “Lots of bait, low competition, lots of oxygen and a dam that partially blocks upstream movement and concentrates them.
“This fishery has been well described as an international treasure as far as catfishing goes,” Pearase said. “Anywhere else you fish for channel cats, a 10-pounder is a good one, but that would be something we would want to shake off the hook and not even want to get in the boat here.”
He said bottom rigs with slip sinkers and 5/0 to 8/0 hooks do most of the work. With suckers, goldeneye, shrimp, tullibee, or frogs for bait, it’s a cast-and-sit presentation.
In recent years, he has employed float fishing techniques when hotter months scatter the fish. This presentation works in deeper river waters, but he also finds it effective for the super aggressive fish patrolling riprap banks in a foot or two of water.
Most guests fly into Winnipeg International Airport.
For charter information and details on local accommodations, visit: Blackwater Cats
Other Manitoba sport-fishing targets include:
Along with the more common golden walleye, the beautiful greenback walleye diversify the Manitoba eye candy. During winter months, Pearase guides ice-fishing clients to fantastic walleye action on Lake Winnipeg, while open water season sees lots of these emerald beauties coming over the gunwale.
“The accepted belief is that the greenback walleye get their coloration from the lake’s limestone-rich north basin,” he continued. “We have the Manitoba Master Angler program, which (recognizes) walleye that are 28 inches or bigger.
“Anything 28 or bigger is a big fish, but there are a lot of 30-inch walleyes in this system. Any bite could be a 30-inch walleye. We do some cranking and some other things, but vertical jigging is the most effective technique.”
Notably, Viking Lodge specializes in the more common golden walleye; but as lodge owner Paul Wiens points out, local geology offers appealing diversity.
“The southern side of the Cranberry Lakes are more of a limestone base and when you cross over to the north side, it’s more of that granite Canadian Shield base,” Wiens said. “Even in the same lake, sometimes you can catch more of the greenback style walleyes on the south side and the darker golden ones on the north side.”
He said a jig and minnow presentation will always deliver, but bottom bouncing with crawler harnesses and trolling crankbaits also bends the rods. He said the late summer glidebait bite is particularly entertaining as the clear water offers peak visibility for walleye to smash these baits.
Primarily a do-it-your-self operation, through which anglers set their own fishing plans, Viking Lodge sees plenty of quality walleye in the 19- to 24-inch range, with 30-inchers lurking these waters.
Flin Flon Airport in Bakers Narrows is about 20 minutes from Viking Lodge. As for local points of interest, Wiens said the area boasts a fascinating history.
“Cranberry Portage (west of the lodge) was one of the main portages during the fur trading days from the old Saskatchewan River system that crosses western Manitoba and links it to the port at Hudson Bay.”
For information, visit: Viking Lodge
Clearwater Outfitters and Evergreen Resort makes its home on Clearwater Lake—one of the top three clearest true blue lakes in the world and a place where the lake trout grow big and bold.
“When the ice clears early in the spring and when the fall spawn comes, trolling can be effective, but for the majority of the summer, jigging is how we catch trophy size trout,” said resort owner Josh Koelbelka. “For big lakers, a classic tube jig is our go-to. Brands like Tightlines UV that have extra tinsel and side strands can help seal the deal.
“We fish a depth range from 40-120 feet, typically starting on the shallow end of that range in June and transitioning deeper in August.”
Anglers fish points, humps, edges of long ridges or simple structure changes from sand to cobble. Noting that the targeted depth range goes from 40 to 120 feet, he said anglers typically start on the shallow end of that range in June and transition deeper in August.
In the summer months, when the bite is on, he expects to see multiple Master Angler level fish (over 35 inches) daily. Fish in the high 30’s are not uncommon and something over 40 could be only a cast away.
“The biggest I’ve personally seen has been 43 inches, but there have been bigger trout caught from the lodge,” he said.
For information: Evergreen Lodge and Resort
At Wekusko Falls Lodge, Bryan Bogdan sees regular appearances by 30- to 36-inch fish, with frequent shots at the giants of 40-plus. Following the seasonal patterns, he said, is the key to staying on the big ones.
“In the early spring, sight fishing around shallow flats adjacent to incoming feeder creeks with unweighted soft plastics and fly fishing works good,” Bogdan said. “As we get into warmer months and the fish transition with weed growth, we’ll catch a lot with bigger plugs like Super Shad Raps or big swimbaits.
“When you’re chasing those big fish, the bigger the bait the better. You can catch 50 or more of the (smaller fish) in a day when you’re using the smaller stuff, but if you can narrow down the number of fish you’re catching by using those bigger baits, you’re not going to catch as many, but what you catch is all quality.”
Fall often sees pike capitalizing on the whitefish spawn, so Suicks, spoons and wide-wobbling baits like a Yakima Flatfish T-60 do the trick.
Between fishing trips, check out the ghost town tours of old mining settlements, or guided tours of native petroglyphs (rock wall paintings).
For information, visit: Wekusko Falls Lodge
Having grown up fishing the Winnipeg River, where his Bruin Outfitting is located, Matt Cornell is well-versed in high-current smallmouth tactics. Spring finds the fish ducking out of the flow to spawn in shallow back bays with timber and emerging weed beds. Here, Cornell prefers soft plastic jerkbaits, bladed jigs and Ned rigs.
“In rivers, those fish move out quickly after they spawn and hold in neck-downs of fast current and they’ll be ravenously eating suspended shiners,” Cornell said. “If you focus (only) on traditional habitat, you’ll miss a lot of aggressively feeding fish.
“We’ll use our side imaging sonar to find bait, drop the trolling motor on anchor, and cast suspending jerk baits to find the depth where the bass are holding. It usually doesn’t take long; they’ll let you know they’re there quickly.”
Summer finds him fishing deeper and slower. He’ll target humps and drift with a dropshot carrying a Jackall Crosstail Shad or a Pinhead Shiner.
“Just let the boat slowly go through the current and bounce that dropshot on the bottom,” he said. “Cover water around the hump and try to pick out dramatic pieces of structure around the hump like big boulders and areas they can tuck in out of the current.”
His guests see lots of smallmouth of 3 to 4 1/2 pounds, with occasional shots at 5-pounders. Complementing the great fishing, visitors also enjoy the rugged splendor of the Manitoba Lowlands Natural Region found within Whiteshell Provincial Park, as well as the region’s significance to historic trade routes traversed by the Hudson Bay Trading Company.
For information, visit: Bruin Outfitting.
While you’re in Manitoba, don’t overlook the Parkland Region’s engaging opportunities with stocked trout. Brown, brook, rainbow and tiger trout offer a nice complement to the province’s naturally occurring sport fish.
Bogdan said night crawlers consistently produce, but Ripping Raps offer a fun and active technique. Big sweeps that work the water column fool plenty of big trout. Fly fishermen will do well with a 5-weight and Wooly Buggers, Cone Head Woolies and dragon fly nymphs.