Trophy Catfish From North Dakota's Red River

Trophy Catfish From North Dakota's Red River
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


For most current flows, 2-ounce flat river sinkers will suffice, although in the strongest currents, some anglers will use flat river sinkers that are as heavy as 4 ounces. The flat river sinkers typically work the best as they are not as likely to tumble or roll in the current, which is crucial when fishing around snags. Too light a weight or the wrong sinker style results in the rig getting swept into the logjam and a snag is the result. Burgett typically rigs his rods with 65-pound test Power Pro and strongly believes in braided lines. For circle hooks in particular, strong fiberglass rods that have backbone down the bottom of the blank yet offer a medium parabolic action that loads up when fish swim with the bait are important.

The basic rig has a flat, no-roll river sinker sliding above a heavy-duty ball-bearing swivel. Between the weight and the swivel, protect the knot by using a bead or half-inch piece of surgical tubing. The snell is tied from the swivel to the hook and typically is kept short, from 12 to 24 inches. Snells can be tied from either monofilament or braided line with 40-pound Berkley Big Game a popular choice. Hook sizes typically range between 5/0 and 7/0 when targeting trophy fish.

When using cut bait like goldeye or sucker steaks, just run the hook once through the top of the steak. Goldeye and sucker heads can also be used by just running the hook once through the snout of the fish. Leopard frogs are also a top bait pick and are often hooked by tearing the belly open with the hook, running the hook down and through the frog's snout and coming back up through the back with the hook.

Traditional Kahle-style hooks remain popular with some cat anglers, though many have switched to the aforementioned circle hooks.

If you have never used circle hooks before, forget the traditional hookset. Circle hooks are deadly on catfish, but hooking up takes a bit of relearning. The best advice many cat men will give you is to just let the rod load up with the fish, let the rod bend over and the fish basically hook themselves. All an angler might have to do to help the process is just hold the rod so that it loads and crank up on the reel handle to help the loading. The result is typically a catfish hooked in the corner of the mouth, which is why many anglers prefer these hooks. Circle hooks can decrease hooking mortality and better preserve this fishery through the healthy release of big fish.


According to North Dakota Game and Fish Biologist Lynn Schlueter, who spends a large amount of time fishing for catfish on the Red River, these northern-clime cats spawn as late as June. The catfish typically go on a feeding rampage before the spawn, but high water or spring flooding can make boat ramps unusable. Typically after the spawn is complete, many big fish begin to eat and the patterns are somewhat predictable with normal flows. Traditional hotspots besides the traditional wood snags and scour holes include the tailwaters of low head dams, the mouths of tributaries and other current breaks often created by inside bends and a steep break where fast water meets a substantial current break. Long flats (called runs) can also be productive at times.

Another Red River guide, Brad Durick, stresses the importance of keeping an eye on your electronics. Good sonar can reveal some really good locations, including holes or submerged wood that does not break the surface of the water; these spots can often be goldmines. Current and water levels often dictate what the exact patterns are in regards to what kinds of spots fish are using.

Navigating the river can be intimidating, but it is not impossible or difficult, particularly for anglers who have some time on river systems and know how to read current. There are several good boat ramps located on the Red River, from the community of Wahpeton all the way up to Drayton, with several good ramps in between; particularly in or near the communities of Fargo and Grand Forks. Stumps, submerged deadheads and log jams are the biggest threat to the prop or lower unit.

Another piece of equipment, however, that is essential is a heavy-duty anchor that will pin your boat regardless of current. Depending on what part of the river you are fishing on, channel depths can range from 10 feet to 20 feet or more.

The Red River begins near the community of Wahpeton where the Bois De Sioux and Otter Tail rivers join and as the river flows north on its journey to Lake Winnipeg, it gets substantially larger and deeper. As a result, on average, the fish seem to grow larger as you move north.


The story the last few years on the Red (besides big catfish) has been flooding. Both 2010 and 2011 saw substantial water in the Red River and, as a result, high water seemed good for big catfish moving up and down the system, but frustrating for anglers because when the river has been above flood stage, the public ramps have typically been closed. For 2011 in particular, large blocks of the summer saw the Red River closed to boat traffic.

As we look towards 2012, all indicators point towards a much more normal year in regards to water levels and Red River anglers are excited about the possibilities.

"We are expecting great fishing from the Red River this upcoming season, historically high water has been good for producing big fish in subsequent years," explains guide Josh Burgett. Because the Red River is a border water, anglers need either a Minnesota or North Dakota fishing license. A protective slot limit of one fish over 24 inches is in place to protect the trophy fishing potential.

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