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Catfish Fishing North Dakota

Trophy Catfish From North Dakota’s Red River

by Jason Mitchell   |  July 3rd, 2012 0

The author with a massive Red River catfish caught near the community of Drayton, North Dakota, while filming a television show. Photo by Jason Mitchell.

The Red River of the North is one of the few rivers in the continental United States that flows due north, eventually emptying into massive Lake Winnipeg, which in turns flows into the Hudson Bay. In the United States, this meandering river forms the state line between Minnesota and North Dakota. This river winds through the heart of the Red River valley, which is very flat and fertile farmland. In fact, it is some of the most productive soil in the world for growing crops like sugar beets, potatoes and wheat.

This river is typically peaceful and slow-moving, but spring floods can turn this peaceful winding river into a massive pan of water that has flooded the communities of both Grand Forks and Fargo in the past twenty years. Because of the heavy sediment load, the river has a brownish-red color for which the river is named.

For many anglers across the country, trivia is all that the river is — merely a landmark, a location, a border between two states — but for anglers who are serious about channel catfish, particularly huge channel catfish, the Red River is much more than simply state trivia. What was once a diamond in the rough is getting polished and the mighty Red and her whiskered fish are finally now getting their due.

Channel catfish are native to the river and have been swimming up and down this system before the last glaciers receded, ending the last ice age. The Red River used to course south, eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, but when glacier activity altered the course of the river, the channel catfish remained.

Today, these kitty cats grow enormous feasting on an endless supply of goldeye, drum, sucker and other rough fish. Some anglers make the mistake thinking that northern climes cannot grow big catfish, surprisingly, the further north on the river you go, the bigger the fish average. As the river gets bigger, so do the fish.

The giants that swim this river will throw out everything you think you know about channel cats needing longer growing seasons. On this river, 20-pound fish are common. Many of the fish will average over 10 pounds. Twenty-five-pound or larger fish are possible. Amongst serious catfish fanatics, this river is regarded as one of the premier fisheries in the country for busting trophy kitties.

“We see people in the store from all over the country because the Red River is regarded as one of the best places for honestly having opportunities at 20-pound-plus fish,” explains Jason Sailor of Scheel’s All Sports, located in Fargo.

Ironically, many North Dakota and Minnesota anglers have long ignored this resource as many anglers in these two states are enamored of walleye fishing opportunities. There are, however, more and more local anglers who have discovered this fishery and this writer is one such angler who really enjoys this opportunity. Combine the size of these fish with their body strength and the strong river current and you have the makings for an epic battle with rod and reel.

There are also a handful of guides on this river as well who are very knowledgeable and, of course, great fishing attracts serious catfish addicts from across the region. It is not uncommon to see license plates from Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska or Iowa at any of the public boat ramps.

The most common tactic that is very productive is to anchor upstream of snags. If you can imagine, this winding river cuts through a flat watershed that is lined with cottonwood trees. There is little in regard to “structure” in this river outside of the faster channel, but as the river winds and cuts through this rich farmland, new cottonwood trees eventually fall from the bank and into the river, creating abundant logjams and snags. The current will typically scour out a hole next to the snag and these locations are prime spots to look for catfish.

By anchoring and fishing upstream of these holes, the current carries the smell of bait downstream where the incredible barbells and senses of the catfish take over.

Anglers use fresh cut bait like sucker or goldeye steaks, but leopard frogs can work great, particularly after heavy rains or later in the fall. According to Red River guide Josh Burgett, who spends a lot of time fishing the Red River near Grand Forks, North Dakota, fresh cut bait is often the key, particularly for larger cats. “Of course for numbers of fish, a lot of traditional catfish baits like chicken liver, dip baits, nightcrawlers and shrimp will work fine, but to target big fish, fresh cut bait is usually your best bet.”

Burgett believes fresh cut bait like red horse sucker, white sucker, creek chubs or goldeyes that are native and caught from the river are often the best baits. Depending on the size of the baitfish, cut the fish into steaks and don’t hesitate to keep using new bait as fresh bait is often critical. Don’t hesitate to experiment with different baits as the catfish will often show a preference for one particular species like sucker or goldeye.

“Big pieces of fresh cut bait often get bit by big fish, but make sure you match the size of the bait to the hook,” explains the seasoned guide.

Many of the guides on the Red River endorse the use of circle hooks just because most fish are hooked in the corner of the mouth, allowing the safer release of trophy fish. Burgett often catches his own bait from tributary streams or below dams, but good bait can be found at several locations up and down the river, especially at the sporting good stores located in both Grand Forks and Fargo, like Scheel’s, Cabela’s, Home of Economy and Gander Mountain

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