Red River of the North: World’s Best Fishing for Giant Channel Cats
by Keith “Catfish” Sutton
No place on earth produces more 20- to 40-pound channel cats than the Red River of the North in Manitoba, Canada.
Considering I’ve been on literally hundreds of bodies of water on this continent during more than 50 years of angling, you might think it would be difficult to choose the single most exciting catfishing trip I’ve taken. But such is not the case. That trip took place in August on the Red River in Manitoba, Canada. I was fishing for channel catfish.
When I first laid eyes on the Red River at Lockport, I have to tell you I was a bit disappointed. It wasn’t at all what I expected.
For years I’d been reading stories about the huge channel cats that live below St. Andrews Dam 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 matters because this is one of the continent’s premier fishing hotspots. Red River anglers often catch walleyes to 15 pounds. Saugers are as common as bluegills in a farm pond. Huge lake sturgeon are making a comeback, and European anglers flock here to enjoy action for carp that often 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, as I learned on my first day of fishing.
“You’ll think this sounds crazy,” said my fishing companion Jim Moyer as we motored close to St. Andrews Dam. “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 be patient, a big channel cat will come along and unsnag it for you.”
I did as Jim instructed, and just as he said, the weighted chunk of goldeye caught solidly between the underwater boulders. I couldn’t budge it.
Only seconds passed, however, before I felt a strong pull on my line. My rod arced. Then suddenly, the pole was nearly yanked from my hands.
I set the hook with a hard upward sweep and felt flush when I first tasted the power of this huge catfish. In calm water, the battle would have been exciting. In the fast water below the dam, the excitement was compounded. I wondered if I was about to experience the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.
Victory it was this time. After five minutes of drag-screeching runs, the whiskerfish relented, and I brought it close enough for Jim to net. The veteran Tennessee catfish guide had a broad smile on his face as he lifted the 38-inch, 30-pound-plus channel cat for me to see.
“Ever seen a channel cat that big before?” he asked, grinning from ear to ear.
I was too mesmerized to answer. This was not the biggest catfish I had ever caught, but it was certainly the most impressive. The fish was a giant of its kind, with a huge head, long dangling whiskers, enormous pot belly and muscle-rippled sides.
Jim talked to the cat as he cradled it in the water. “There you go, big daddy. Swim back home to mama.”
And with a flip of its tail, the catfish was gone.
One study by the Fisheries branch of the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources found the average size of channel cats caught in this portion of the Red is over 19 pounds, and 92 percent of the cats exceed 30 inches long. 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.
Catch-and-release fishing helps account for this astounding productivity. All channel catfish above 60 cm (about 24 inches) must be released, and because few cats smaller than that are ever caught, this is almost entirely a catch-and-release fishery.
Red River channel cats also live longer than other populations that have been studied—up to 24 years and more. The growing season is short compared to southern catfish waters, 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. Some of the best fishing for 30-pound-plus giants is in August and September, and one of the best places to catch them is below St. Andrews Dam at Lockport.
“Who’s gonna net the fish?” Jim Moyer asked near the end of our second day of fishing. This time we both had cast baits to a deep hole a mile below the dam, and both of us quickly hooked a super-nice channel cat. Jim brought his in first, netted it with one hand, released it, then netted mine.
Minutes later, he did it again.
During three days fishing on the Red, I caught more than 40 trophy channel cats. The smallest weighed approximately 17 pounds; the largest was a 38-pounder.
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 decades pursuing the species. That’s stark testimony to the Red River’s rightful claim to fame as the Channel Catfish Capital of the World. And that, my friends, is why my channel catfishing trip on the Red ranks number one on my list of all-time exciting catfishing excursions. Never before and never after have I caught more trophy-class fish of any sort on a single trip. And best of all, they were catfish. It just doesn’t get any better than that.