Out There: Whiskered Red giants

Between the years 1900 and 1910, under the supervision of A.R. Dufresne, E.A. Forward and H.E. Vantelet, St. Andrews Lock and Dam was constructed on the Red River of the North at Lockport, Manitoba.

Sitting in the shadow of the dam, dropping goldeye baits into the whitewater below the gates, I couldn't help but be impressed with the unique architecture of this century-old structure. The dam is notable for its "Camere" system, the only known use of this type of dam technology outside Europe.

St. Andrews was built to control water levels on the Red River and permit boat traffic between the city of Winnipeg to the south and Lake Winnipeg to the north. But I'm not here to study engineering. I'm here to catch catfish.

"You'll think this sounds crazy," says my fishing companion Jim Moyer. "But what you want to do is throw your bait right up against the dam, let it roll off and then allow it to hang up in the rocks on the bottom. You'll think it's hung up for good
but, if you'll just be patient, a big channel cat will come along and unsnag it for you."

I do as Moyer instructs, and just as he says, the weighted chunk of goldeye catches solidly in a crevice between the underwater boulders. I can't budge it.

Only seconds pass, however, before I feel a strong pull on my line. My rod arches. Suddenly, it's nearly yanked from my hands.

I set the hook with a hard upward sweep and feel flush when I first taste the power of this huge catfish.

In calm water, the battle would have been exciting. In the fast water below the dam, the excitement is compounded. I have to wonder if I'm about to experience the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

Victory it is this time. After five minutes of drag-screeching runs, the whiskerfish relents and I bring it close enough for Moyer to net. The veteran Tennessee catfish guide has a broad smile on his face as he lifts 38-inch, 30-plus-pound channel cat for me to see.

"Ever seen a channel cat that big before?" he asks, grinning from ear to ear.

I'm too mesmerized to answer. This is not the biggest catfish I've ever caught, but it's certainly the most impressive. The fish is a giant of its kind, with a huge head, long dangling whiskers, enormous pot belly and muscle-rippled sides.

Moyer talks to the cat as he cradles it in the water. "There you go, big daddy. Swim back home to mama."

And with a flip of its tail, the fish is gone.

When I first laid eyes on the Red River at Lockport, I have to tell you I was a bit disappointed. It wasn't what I expected at all.

For years I'd been reading stories about the huge channel cats that live in the portion of the Red north of Winnipeg and, for some reason, I had pictured the river running through beautiful remote backcountry far from human habitations. That's not the case.

Busy highways parallel the river on both banks, and one crosses directly over St. Andrews Dam. The sounds of traffic are ever-present.

In few places on the 25-mile stretch of river from Lockport downstream to Selkirk are you ever out of sight of homes, businesses, power lines and other reminders of civilization. This is what my fishing buddies would call a "citified" river.

The thing is, once you've started fishing the Red, none of this really matters, because this is without a doubt one of the premier fishing hotspots on the continent.

Red River anglers frequently catch walleyes to 15 pounds. Saugers are as common as bluegills in a farm pond. Huge lake sturgeon are making a comeback, and European carp-fishing enthusiasts flock here to enjoy fish-a-minute action for common carp that easily can exceed 20 pounds.

This area isn't known as the "Walleye Capital of World," however. It's not called the "Sauger Capital" or the "Sturgeon Capital" or the "Carp Capital," either. This is the "Channel Catfish Capital of World," and it can lay claim to that title without fear of competition. When it comes to producing trophy channel cats, no place in the world comes close.

A recent study found the average size of the channel cats caught in this portion of the Red is more than 19 pounds, and 92 percent of the cats are upward of 30 inches. Hookups with 17- to 25-pounders are common; fish under 10 pounds are rare.

The fishing action doesn't end until the bait runs out or anglers have a case of terminal tendonitis.

Red River channel cats live longer than other populations that have been studied — at least 24 years.

The growing season is short compared to more-southern populations, but the river is rich with prey.

Cats feed voraciously when the water temperature rises above 50 degrees in spring and before it dips below that level in autumn. June and early July are prime times for numbers of fish at Selkirk or the dams hundreds of miles downstream near Drayton and Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The best fishing for the river's 30-pound-plus giants is in September, however, and the best place to catch them is below St. Andrews Dam.

"Who's gonna net the fish?" Moyer asks.

This time we both had cast our baits to dam, and both of us quickly hooked a super-nice channel cat. Moyer brought his in first, netted it with one hand, released it, then netted mine.

Minutes later, he did it again.

During three days fishing with Moyer on the Red, I caught more than 40 trophy channel cats. The smallest weighed approximately 17 pounds; the largest was more than 35.

To put this in perspective, let me tell you that prior to that trip I had spent hundreds of hours fishing for channel cats in some of the nation's top waters. And I had managed to catch thousands of channel cats in the process. The biggest of those thousands weighed 15 pounds.

Every channel cat I caught in the Red River of the North was bigger than the biggest I had caught during more than 35 years pursuing the species.

In my mind, that's quite a feat, and stark testimony to the Red River's rightful claim to fame as the "Channel Catfish Capital of the World."

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.