Red River of the North
By Brad Durick
America’s Channel Catfish Capital
There are many catfish destinations in the United States. Individual bucket lists are ever changing as anglers find new waters and new ways to fish. There is one great catfish destination that has been held up as the nation’s top channel cat fishery for decades, my home water, the Mighty Red River of the North.
Every year since I began guiding professionally I have had the opportunity to take someone fishing who has read about the famous Red River their entire lives and just had to see it for once, for themselves. They wanted to see if the decades of catfish hype were true. I am here to tell you that most days the hype is true.
Introducing the Red River
The Red River of the North is 545 miles of channel catfish heaven. It is one of only a few major rivers on the planet that flow north. The Red River is the border between North Dakota and Minnesota before it runs into Manitoba, Canada and eventually into the massive Lake Winnipeg. From there it makes its way to Hudson Bay and then to the Atlantic Ocean.
Over the past four decades the Red River has gained national notoriety as a trophy channel catfish destination. This began in the late 1970s and early 1980s when word of a giant channel catfish mecca got out. There has been numerous articles and television shows produced on the Red River and the huge channel catfish that call it home. Most notably, In-Fisherman videos from the late 1980s.
While a 30-pound channel catfish is possible, it is far from common. To be realistic 18- to 22-pound fish have become common and can be caught any given day. Even anglers who are inexperienced or have never been on this river before have a chance. With a little effort and basic knowledge it is possible to catch a few of these trophy channel cats.
Why is the Fishing so Good
Many ask why the channel cats on the Red get so big. Well, it is because they have the best of everything. They have a clean river with ample food supplies; they have a short growing season, so they can concentrate on growing during the warm months; very few locals eat catfish, so many are released and there are strict slot limits and regulations. An angler may only keep 5 catfish including one over 24 inches. On the Canadian side no fish over 24 inches may be kept.
Catching Red River Bruisers
Catching these fish is pretty straight forward. The Red River, with the exception of a few low head riffle dams, is very wild and traditional. The best way to target these fish is to work holes and snags while under anchor.
Use a medium to medium heavy rod with at least 30-pound line in case you get into “Mr. Wonderful.” No-Roll sinkers work best up here. Depending on flow, you will use anywhere from 2- to 6-ounce weights. Ten- to 12-inch snell length from swivel to hook is best for most current situations. Hook size can range from 5/0 to 8/0. In nearly all situations 5/0 will work great, but sometimes, if the fish are running bigger, it is best to use larger hooks so the gap can clear the bottom jaw on big fish.
When you are ready to fish, anchor above the spot you wish to target and set a timer. If the fish are active you should have one within 5 to 7 minutes. Should they be sluggish your sit time might be 30 to 40 minutes. Just play the day to figure that out. Try different structures and areas of flow to determine the location pattern of the day.
Bait selection on the Red River is fairly simple, yet sometimes difficult to acquire. In the spring white sucker is king, but goldeye will work. As the pre-spawn and spawn set in goldeye can be king, but don’t forget the suckers.
In late July, especially in the wet years, the taste will switch to leopard frogs. I have seen years where, if the frog is not green ,you are not getting bit. Later on in August and September the taste will usually switch back to sucker or goldeye.
Most years sucker will work no matter what the season, so make sure to always have some available. The good news about suckers is that they are usually available at local bait shops. Stink baits will work but more often than not you are limiting yourself to catfish on the smaller side. Fresh fish is far superior for trophy sized cats.
There are great boat ramp facilities all up and down the Red River. Shore fishing can be great too, but river access is sometimes an issue. Grand Forks, North Dakota in particular has miles of public parks that can be fished, thanks to the flood of 1997.
If you don’t want to deal with the do-it-yourself variety of catfishing and want to get out and find success right away, there are very capable and successful guides in most stretches of the Red River Valley. They are happy to host you on your trip. These guide trips are full service, so all you need to do is show up with a fishing license, drinks, snacks and a camera to record your trip. Your job from there on is to relax, reel in catfish and smile for the camera.
Three major cities located on the Red River offer great vacation, hotel and dining options for this great catfish destination. Fargo, Grand Forks in North Dakota and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada all have airports if you choose to fly. All these cities are along Interstate 29 to make traveling by car easier. All of this is mentioned so you can bring the family. There is a little something for everyone to enjoy if catfishing all week is not their thing.
The Red River of the North is off the beaten path of most catfishing in the United States. It is truly a catfish destination just waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. The destination has all of the facilities you may need to have a great vacation and fishing trip. There are miles of catfish heaven just waiting for you.