September 30, 2010
Here's where and how you can start a real cat fight at some of Minnesota's top spots for summer angling action. (July 2010)
When summer's dog days arrive, walleyes go dormant, bass get lockjaw and pike's teeth fall out!
Of course those are old wives' tales, yet there's no doubt that hot-weather fishing can get tough. However, with water temperatures at their warmest, our most unsung Minnesota game fish -- catfish -- reach peak activity levels.
If you've tangled with a bruiser flathead or a sleek channel catfish, you know the thrill. If you haven't had the pleasure, then it's time to turn this summer's dog days into cat days. All it takes is a little understanding of our state's catfish resources, and some insight from top catfish guides on where and how to fish for them.
Minnesota is home to both flathead and channel cats; we're too far north for blue catfish. While closely related, flatheads and channels differ in many ways that will affect your approach when fishing for each species.
Flatheads are Minnesota's largest catfish, with specimens of 40 and 50 pounds caught each summer. A 20- or 30-pounder is great, and many 5- to 10-pounders are caught as well. These hungry predators eat suckers, bullheads, bluegills, redhorse, river chubs and any other live creatures they can fit into their gaping mouths. Flatheads live undercover in deep holes, but come out at night to hunt in shallow riffles, sandbars and flats where baitfish abound.
Channel catfish typically run smaller than flatheads, but are extremely sporty. Fifteen- to 20-pounders are caught each summer, but 2- and 3-pounders are normal and make good eating. A 5-pounder is big in most waters, a 10-pounder exceptional. Like flatheads, channel catfish prefer woody cover, but channels are more likely to feed during the day. Channels are partial to scavenging, so they're OK with smelly food, but they also eat various live prey from fish to frogs.
Three river drainages offer Minnesota's best catfishing. All those waters are within a few hours' drive of every angler in the state. In the northwest, the Red River of the North offers one of the country's finest channel catfisheries, right in our own back yard. The Minnesota River is prime flathead water, with channel catfish as well. And the St. Croix River is a channel catfish haven, with plenty of monster flatheads mixed in.
RED RIVER OF THE NORTH
"The Red River of the North is a superb fishery," says Brad Durick (www.redrivercatfish.com, 701-739-5808), a catfish guide whose clients slime up his boat with hundreds of big channel catfish weighing more than 20 pounds each summer. "The whole Red River is awesome," he says. "You can't go wrong fishing anywhere, but the fish get bigger from south to north." The river flows northward.
"I like the stretch from south of Fargo through Grand Forks," says the accomplished guide. "You can work the whole gamut of summer catfish spots in this stretch -- faster current areas and seams, snags, holes and flats. Fish these places and you will eventually run into cats. Farther north, the river gets wider and shallower. Here it's all about current breaks and holes. There aren't many snags.
"Fargo has three beautiful landings to get on the river," Durick points out. "There is a nice new landing at Halstead too, and there's good fishing up and down from there. Oslo (18 miles north of Fargo) has a good new landing as well. That's a good spot to put in and fish."
One essential tool for the Red River fisherman is a Red River of the North Canoe and Boating Guide, available at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Web site, www.dnr.state.mn.us. This three-part map shows all the river's boat access points, shore fishing spots such as parks, and more.
"Start in the wood," advises Durick. Snags and downed trees are easy visuals to locate. "When I began fishing, I would watch guys fish a snag. Their baits would be 20 or 30 feet above it. They were hoping to lure the fish out. When they'd leave, I'd get right up to the same snag and put the baits right into it. We'd catch fish right there, right then.
"Anchor in front, on the outside edge of a snag," he instructs. "Get your bait as close as you can, under it if possible. You're going to catch more in the wood, not by it. You'll lose rigs, but you'll learn how to catch the big ones.
"With three guys, you're allowed six lines," Durick continues. "Here's how to fish a snag. One bait goes shallow toward shore, one in front of the snag, one at the outside end (there's a deep scour hole there), one behind it, and one dropped right in. Pick the best spot remaining for the last bait."
Fast water is good too. "That's where the most aggressive fish are," says Durick. "But it's a little scary at first. It's something you might graduate to."
The Red is trophy water with big catfish that put the hurt on wimpy tackle. A pike/muskie baitcasting rig probably would do the trick. Durick recommends an 8-foot, medium-heavy baitcasting rod, quality 30-pound-test mono, heavy size 1 to 3 swivels rated to 80 pounds, and big 5/0 to 6/0 hooks.
Slip-sinker rigs are the ticket, with oval weights. "Two ounces may sound like a lot," says Durick, "but it's a slip-rig, so they don't feel the resistance anyway. In fact, I commonly use 4- or 5-ounce sinkers. You need to get down to where the fish are, and keep your bait there.
"We primarily use cut bait," says Durick. "Mostly white sucker and goldeye. Goldeyes are oily and scenty, which really attracts cats. Frogs are also good in late summer."
If you're interested in a smaller water experience, don't ignore the Red's tributaries. The fish won't run as big, but these waters are good for a stringer of eaters. "From Breckenridge, you can go up the Ottertail River," says Durick. "That's some nice water. South of Fargo, the Wild Rice River is good too. Also the Snake."
Durick's favorite tributary is the Red Lake River. "The Red Lake River is good all the time. I have done really well there, and pulled in cats as big as 22 pounds," he says. "Use the ramp in East Fargo. You can't get up the Red Lake River from the Red, because there's a dam."
The Minnesota River is home to both channel catfish and flatheads. There you have a bona fide chance of tangling with a flathead upward of 30 pounds. "My biggest is 48 pounds," says Rusty Miller of Wiskers Guiding Service (www.wiskersguidingservice. com, 218-280-0442), "but I've seen them over 50."
Channels are abundant, but don't run as big as on the Red.
"Eighteen pounds is my biggest Minnesota River channel catfish; that's pretty good," says Miller. The Minnesota offers good opportunities for a mess of 2- to 5-pound eaters.
"Anywhere from Granite Falls to the Twin Cities is good catfish water," boasts Miller. "It's hard to pick a bad stretch; they all have good catfishing. You just need to know what kind of water to look for. Go to any boat landing area and start there. Specific areas to put in include Granite Falls, North Redwood Falls, Redwood Falls, near Morton just off Highway 71, and several landings in Mankato.
"If you fish from shore, follow the trails," says Miller. "They will wind to decent spots along the river. You can do fine from shore if you find a good sandbar and set up there. Or, it's a great summertime escape to park your boat, start a campfire and fish all night. Just have fun."
Minnesota River maps are available at the DNR Web site, www.dnr.state.mn.us. "Always use caution," advises Miller. "From the Granite Falls and Redwood Falls areas to New Ulm and Mankato, the river can get low and shallow in summer. Go slow, and look ahead for rocks and snags. Take your time."
Summer water conditions concentrate catfish. They will be near deep water, usually holes at river bends and turns.
"Flathead fishing is good in the evening, but best at night," says Miller. "I like to camp out on a sandbar, and spend the night. Flatheads will come out of deep holes now and chase baitfish in the shallows and flats near a sandbar, or where a creek comes in. This area should be near a big hole, preferably with wood in it."
Don't under-gun yourself. "Flatheads are a blast. Holy smokes, it's like trying to pull a pickup truck in. They don't make the longest runs. But they are so strong," laughs Miller. "Use a rod with plenty of backbone, but with a nice soft tip for feeling bites. A 6- to 7-foot medium-heavy-action rod is about right. Baitcasting reels are ideal, because you've got to have a clicker to know when something's happening.
"I use braided Toughline in 50- to 80-pound test. It gives you power for pulling out of snags, and it doesn't get nicked up. Use a monofilament leader of 25- to 30-pound test. Then you can break off if you're snagged beyond hope."
Rigging is simple. "Run a flat oval sinker (1 to 3 ounces, depending on water depth and current speed) on the braided line. Flat sinkers don't roll in the current; they hold better. Add a plastic bead. Slide on a 2-inch section of airline tubing as cushion between the sinker and knot at the swivel. Add a 2- to 3-foot leader of monofilament, and a hook."
Go with a 1/0 hook (and lighter tackle) for channels, a 4/0 to 5/0 hook for flatheads. Use a big, solid hook, Miller advises. Catfish aren't about finesse. You want the bait to stay on, and the hook to sink into tough catfish mouths.
Use live bait for flatheads. Good options include bullheads (under 7 inches, per state regulation), as well as big river chubs and suckers up to 8 or more inches long. "Hook any baitfish in the meat of the back, between their tail and dorsal fin," Miller advises.
Here's one of Miller's tricks: "Trim the tail of a bullhead with scissors. The bait struggles, and that commotion attracts hunting flatheads. You can trim river chub and sucker tails a little, but they won't last as long."
The Minnesota holds channel cats too. "Look for a deep hole with good wood structure and cover," says Miller. "Depth is important -- 10, 15, even 20 feet. I use a Humminbird unit with side imaging to check out the hole for wood that's below the water but not sticking above the surface."
"Fish this kind of water during the day," adds the guide. "In the evening and at night, the bigger channel cats will head out to the shallow water much like the flatheads.
"Cut bait is best for channel catfish. River chubs are tops, but suckers are OK. Mooneyes and skipjacks are ideal because they are so oily, but they are hard to come by on the Minnesota."
As for tributary opportunities, "there are not a lot of navigable streams coming in," Miller points out, "but they make good fishing spots where they run in to the main river."
ST. CROIX RIVER
"I give the St. Croix a big thumbs up as a prime catfish spot," says Turk Gierke of Croixsippi Guide Service (www.croixsippi.com, 800-929-1801). "This is both flathead and channel catfish water." When fishing cats, Gierke targets channels. "Pound for pound, they are the best fighters in the river," says Gierke, who guides for all species.
"This water is clearer than other catfish waters," he says. "The Croix is dark and stained, but not muddy. So the flathead bite occurs late -- about 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. That's tough for a guide with a trip at dawn the next day! So I focus a lot on channel cats, which you can catch all day and in the evening.
"It's not difficult to find good catfish water in the St.Croix," he says, dividing the river into two segments. "From Stillwater north, the water is faster. From Stillwater south, it is slower. The north stretch is better for channels, with flatheads mixing in toward the southern half."
Working up the river, good public access points occur at Afton State Park, Hudson and Bayport. Above Stillwater, try the St. Croix Boomsite landing, William O'Brien State Park, Somerset, Osceola and Interstate State Park. There's still good catfishing above Taylors Falls, but the water gets skinny there and you'll need a small boat. For great St. Croix River maps, check out the National Park Service Web site at www.nps.gov.
"The standard St. Croix channel catfish spot is any place with both current and wood," says Gierke. "At the base, a scour hole will dig out a deeper water refuge. Anchor upstream and fish down into this hole.
"The second productive St. Croix catfish spot is an eddy," says Gierke. "Wherever there is a point, there will be a slack-water eddy behind it. You can't miss an eddy, where the water swirls and debris builds up. Food accumulates there, and cats love it. But don't anchor. Instead, work slowly, creeping along like you would for walleyes. Cats will hit quick if they're there.
"For tackle, go heavier than your standard walleye gear," Gierke advises. "A pike outfit would be about right -- a 6-foot medium to medium-heavy spinning or baitcasting outfit."
Gierke likes tough line. "My preference is Suffix Braided 6/20 (the diameter of 6 pound mono but tests to 20 pounds). "A standard slip-sinker rig is good. Use a 1-ounce egg sinker on the braid, then add a 2- to 3-foot leader of 10- to 12-pound monofilament ahead of the swivel. A 2/0 hook is about right for cut bait."
In the eddies, you can lighten up to walleye tackle. But hold on if you hook a 5-pounder! "Three-way rigs with droppers are also good in the eddies," adds Gierke. "They're old fashioned, but they work, especially when you're fishing s
lowly and vertically.
"I like chicken livers for bait. Chicken liver throws a lot of scent. For cut bait, I catch my own suckers, mooneyes, shad or sheepshead and cut them up into strips about 3/4 inch wide, 2 inches long and maybe 1/2 inch thick. You have to be able to expose the hook point."
These St. Croix tributaries also offer catfish -- the Sunrise, Kettle and Snake, with the Snake being my choice, especially the lower two to three miles of river.
Don't use hot weather as an excuse to stay off the water these dog days. Instead, turn them into cat days by doing battle with Minnesota's summer catfish.