Crazy For Catfish

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As we slowly motored toward the gates at Lockport, I was again mesmerized by the power of the current that rushed by, creating small whirlpools and back eddies topped off with foam. How could any fish thrive in that environment? As we anchored, the current pushed us parallel to the spillway, threatening to swing us back and forth like so much flotsam. We started tossing our catfish rigs into the boil right at the base of the spillway, where six-ounce weights were sucked into the current and carried into the deep lairs of hungry, giant channel cats. There was no loading up of the line, no sudden surge of power, just several taps, not unlike a walleye strike. I reeled down, pointing my rod directly at the water and struck. It felt like a snag – but one that moved and surged in the current. Fish on!

The section of the Red River system we were fishing that day is the most northerly part of a river that originates in the US and flows north into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. As it flows north, the Red forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, picking up speed and size as it winds its way through the prairie lands of the north central part of the continent. By nature it is a muddy, turbid water system, one that is fed by numerous creeks and streams along its route and, because of its shallow footprint, is subject to frequent spring flooding. This creates an ideal ecosystem for channel catfish, which can be found throughout the river’s length, and that seem to grow in size and strength in correspondence to the size and strength of the river.

The Red encounters only two man-made obstacles as it heads north: the gates of the Red River Floodway that protects the city of Winnipeg from flooding, and the dam and locks at Lockport some 12 miles north. The Lockport structure was originally designed to remove the set of rapids that blocked water access between Winnipeg and Lake Winnipeg. Today it is something of a tourist attraction, but, more than that, it is a structure that has created an ideal habitat for growing monster channel cats. Indeed, it has been called “world class” by knowledgeable anglers and has attracted angling attention from Europe, Asia and the length and breadth of North America.

Channel cats are amazing creatures, which nature has designed as eating machines. They possess incredible senses of taste and smell, so finely honed that they can detect some amino acids excreted by prey (or bait) in as little as one part per 100 million in water. They have sense organs all over their bodies, most concentrated in the mouth area where their whisker-like barbels help them zone in on their food. Contrary to some popular opinion, cats are not scavengers. Rather, they are the top predator in the system, and can be quite picky when they line up at the smorgasbord of delights a big river system presents. They target live prey with a sensory system that makes the sense of sight virtually unnecessary, a fitting arrangement for gaining size and strength in a water system where three inches would be the outside extent of naked eye sighting of objects.

In the Red River system below Lockport, three seasons have been identified with regard to bait for targeting cats. Each has to do with what is happening in the river and its feeder system. The early season, right after the open water fishing begins (mid-May), sees suckers as a primary attractant. Suckers are spring spawners, making their way into small creeks, streams and even ditches right after ice out. The result is that the Red fills with sucker flavours and scents, and the cats are ready to begin making up time for their winter doldrums. Anglers targeting cats in this season are wise to do some dip netting to catch fresh fish for cut bait, or to visit a local grocery store to buy mullet.

The second season overlaps the first, beginning in early June and continuing through the summer. This time period marks the summer spawning run of the goldeye, a silvery torpedo that can be easily caught with a slip bobber and worm.

The third season begins in mid to late August, and continues through to the end of the bite, usually late September or early October. During this season, two things are happening in sequence: frogs are beginning their annual migration to the muddy banks of rivers and streams, preparing to dig themselves in for over wintering hibernation, and at the same time tulibee are heading into the Red from Lake Winnipeg, preparing for their fall spawn. Anglers during this season can catch their own frogs. Tulibee are a bit harder to find, as they usually don’t respond to normal angling methods. They are, however, a by-product of the commercial fishery on Lake Winnipeg, and can be obtained by connecting with fishers on the lake. One last word about bait: it’s best to have a variety on board, at least with the changing seasons in mind.

Basic equipment for targeting cats doesn’t vary greatly, regardless of approach. I use a seven to eight-foot fibreglass rod with an open-faced reel capable of holding a decent amount of 30-pound mono line. I choose fibreglass because it is more forgiving than graphite when the fight gets intense, and I couple that with monofilament to provide some line stretch and more durability as the line rubs on the river bottom. The open-faced reel provides greater leverage than a spinning reel. Except for corking (described below), the set up consists first of a sliding weight, then a bead to protect the knot, barrel swivel, leader (15 inches or so) and circle hook. I like the circle hooks because they consistently produce corner-of-the-mouth hook ups, size five or six works well.

There are four basic approaches to angling for cats on the Red:

1. Fishing the boil: This means maneuvering your boat close to the overflow at the Lockport dam. The idea is to get within range of the actual dam face so that you can cast right into the churning current as the overflow hits the river. This is dangerous water, so exercising caution in setting the anchor is critical. Ideally, you want the boat to be on a current break so that it will stay reasonably stable. Because the current is fierce, you’ll want to use six ounces of weight. Even then the current will pick it up, and suck it to a relatively stable position. Hang on to your rod, as the pick up is often quite light, with no more of a signal than some taps. When you feel that, tighten up and point the rod at the point where the line enters the water, and set the hook.

 

2. Corking the current: This approach is most often used in shallow current areas. Cats love to move into skinny water, which is about four feet or less in depth, because it concentrates the prey. The set up for corking is pretty simple, in this order: bobber stop, bead, large float, barrel swivel, leader and circle hook. You can add several large split shots three or four inches above the hook. Anglers will likely be moving in the boat when this method is being tried, as the bobber gets tossed ahead and rides the current past the stern. It’s important to stay in touch with the bobber by reeling in as it approaches and then letting out line as it moves by so that if there’s a hit, there isn’t too much slack. When the bobber goes under, tighten up the slack and set the hook. If the target area space is tight, anglers can take turns walking to the bow to cast and then following their presentation back to the stern.

 

3. Stalking the holes: This is a downstream technique where finding some structure on an otherwise uninteresting river bottom is key. Often there’ll be some indentations on the outside edge of curves in the river, caused by current concentrations. There will also be some mud flats and drop offs on inside edges. Any deviation from the norm can potentially hold cats. The idea is to anchor upstream from these structure points and cast into them. The tackle set up for this approach is similar to that used in the boil at the dam, although you probably won’t need as much weight – three or four ounces should do it. Cast out and let the line peel off until you notice a slight hesitation on the reel. That’s the weight hitting the bottom. Set the drag and put the rod in a rod holder. I recommend not holding the rods (with a few exceptions) because it’s important to keep the bait still and let the circle hook do its work. Too much hook setting often leads to short strikes.

 

4. Shore fishing: This approach is considerably more limiting than the others, simply because access is restricted. The set up is the same, but you’ll want a good quality rod holder buried solidly into the bank to watch for strikes.

There is some fine-tuning you can do to increase hook ups:

  • When hooking the bait, you can double or single hook it, but make sure the hook is exposed and there are no scales on the point.
  • If you get a snag, leave it for a while. A cat can be your best buddy when it comes to releasing a snag. If this doesn’t work, release some line so there’s a loop downstream from the snag. Then yank, and hopefully the downstream pressure will pull it free.
  • If there’s lots of current, increase your weight and shorten your leader.
  • If there’s wind that is moving your boat back and forth, try setting your rods with the bail open and the clicker engaged. The weight will find its own resting point and although there’ll be some slack line as the boat moves, most often the cats will pick up the bait and run with it, allowing time to set the drag and hook up.
  • Weather, wind direction and time of day can affect the bite. Best wind is north or west, blue bird days are ideal and, if you can, fish the evening and even after dark because most often cats turn on then.
  • Constantly check your line for abrasions. Although cats don’t have teeth, the current will rub your line on the bottom and cause nicks and scrapes.
  • When you’re handling big cats for photos and the like, hold them horizontally so their innards don’t all shift downwards in the high gravity out of water. If you want to weigh your fish, do it with the fish in the net.

The day that was the setting for the introduction to this piece set the scene for my partner and I to test out all three on-river techniques. All worked, and our five-hour outing saw over 35 cats caught and released. Truly, the Red River in Manitoba is a giant channel cat Mecca. Destination Lockport (or Selkirk down river) is only a one-and-a-half-hour drive north of the Canada/US border.

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