Low Water Catfish In The Red River Of The North

By the end of August 2006, the Red River of the North was running way below its banks, following a hot, dry summer. Precipitation for the season had been about 60 percent of normal. An unexpected benefit of the dry summer has been the almost total absence of mosquitoes, something extremely unusual for the Red River Valley.

red river
A hot, dry summer made the Red River water level very low. (Photos by Bob Backman)

Bob Backman, executive director of “River Keepers,” invited Chuck Fritz and I to go catfishing with him and Christine Holland, River Keepers’ project coordinator, as a reward for some volunteer work we had done. Backman arranged a morning’s fishing trip with Dennis Flom, a River Keepers’ Board member and former Red River catfishing guide. Flom has all the right fishing equipment, plus a terrific jet boat!

It was a beautiful morning with clear skies, almost no wind, and a temperature of about 70 degrees.

I was anxious to see how the boat performed under such low-water conditions. Water depth ranged from perhaps 6 feet to 8 feet in some areas, to no more than inches in other areas. The norm was perhaps a foot or 2 with the river bottom strewn with stumps, trees, and other debris.

jet boat in river
A jet boat was the answer for navigating the shallow river.

Jet Boat Skims Over Low Water

Fortunately, there are no rocks in this reach of the Red River. We untied Flom’s jet boat from the riverbank below his house and headed downstream. Almost immediately we encountered an area with only inches of water. The jet boat skimmed over the shallow area with ease. Flom navigated the boat around, past, and over the numerous obstacles in the river. Never once did we so much as feel we hit anything other than smooth water. What a great way to navigate the river!

About 2 miles downstream we set up for the first time. Flom anchored right in the middle of the channel, upstream from some brushy snags in the river. The river channel is no more than about 150 feet wide when the water is low.

fisherman holding red river catfish
The author holds up a nice Red River catfish.

Apparently channel catfish prefer to rest out of the current behind these snags. He baited the large hooks with sucker meat cut into 1- or 2-inch cubes, and cast them out with 2-ounce weights. With eight lines out from bank to bank it didn’t take long before fish began working on our baits. The bait was large enough so small fish couldn’t take it, but they tried anyway as indicated by fairly steady nibbles. When bigger fish take the bait, they usually swim away with it taking out line, which is signaled by the clicker on the reel.

After several feet of line is taken out, we start cranking in and the fight is on!

Channel Cats Battle!

Pound-for-pound, there aren’t many freshwater fish that fight harder than channel cats. In our 2-1/2 hours of fishing that morning, we caught four that were over 11 pounds, the largest just over 14 pounds! We also caught five or six “eaters,” catfish about 2 or 3 pounds, but we released everything we caught.

While we didn’t catch anything, but channel catfish that morning, the Red River is home to almost every species of fish found in Minnesota and North Dakota. My family regularly catches walleyes, sauger, drum, carp, sucker, bullhead, redhorse, and other fish from our backyard dock in the Red River at our home north of Moorhead, Minn. While I’ve never caught a northern pike in the Red River, I’ve seen other catch them.

lee bruchhof and author with red river catfishes
Lee Bruchhof (left to right) and the author nailed a double on Red River cats.

A week later, Backman rounded up another River Keepers’ volunteer, Lee Bruchhof, and we went out for another morning of catfishing. While the river had risen somewhat due to recent rains, the morning was calm, warm and a great day to be fishing. This morning was a repeat of a week earlier. We caught three cats in the 14-pound range, a couple around 10 pounds, and several “eaters.” We kept five eaters that morning.

Fishing the Red River is a great way to introduce novice anglers, especially children, to fishing, since the catching is usually pretty good!

Make sure you check out the latest assortment of fishing gear at Sportsman’s Guide.

Leave a Reply

Commenting Policy - We encourage open expression of your thoughts and ideas. But there are a few rules:

No abusive comments, threats, or personal attacks. Use clean language. No discussion of illegal activity. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally hateful comments are not tolerated. Keep comments on topic. Please don't spam.

While we reserve the right to remove or modify comments at our sole discretion, the Sportsman's Guide does not bear any responsibility for user comments. The views expressed within the comment section do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of The Sportsman's Guide.