GRAND FORKS - They are a peculiar fish.
Misunderstood? Perhaps, but not by those who have hooked into a Red River channel catfish. They are anglers who thoroughly enjoy the certain tussle of a fighting channel cat. What fisherman wouldn't?
First-timers to setting the hook on a burly catfish universally express disbelief at the strength of the fish at the other end of the line. Even those who consider the catfish too homely to hook, or unworthy of the effort, become catfishing converts after battling a hefty cat.
A fish to kiss? Probably not. The channel cat hoisted by Brad Durick, Grand Forks, weighed in at 17 pounds.
"They are different. It's nice to have something pulling on the other end of the line. They fight," said Jason Laumb, a Grand Forks resident who grew up in Berthold. "The catfish are some of the biggest channel cats you are going to find in North America, right here on the Red."
Laumb was on board with Capt. Brad Durick on the Red River this past week. Durick, a native of Bowbells, is a catfishing guide who carefully dissects the Red River in search of channel cats.
"There's something really neat about bringing somebody along who has never really gotten into one of these and just watching their actions," said Durick. "It's America's finest channel cat fishing. What more needs to be said?"
The proof was evident. Durick had put 10 channel cats in the boat in the first 90 minutes on the water. Several of the fish were 15 pounds or better. All were released back into the murky river.
"They don't give up, ever," said Durick. "They fight to the end. You give them a little bit of current and they know how to use their muscle and put it into the fight. That just makes it that much better."
The Red River, known for its high flows in the spring, actually has current throughout the year. That is because much of the Red is virtually unchanged. A few low-head dams have been constructed on the Red but, other than those minor structures, it is a living river much as it has been for centuries.
"This is a really diverse river and, for the most part, a truly natural river," noted Durick. "There are stretches of 60 miles or so of virtually unbridled river. You've got a series of holes, cuts, rock piles and lots of original structure that has been here since the beginning of time. It is in its true nature, so to speak."
Every change in river - every fallen tree, brush pile, change in current or depth, is a potential holding place for big catfish. Fishermen must navigate the current. Flat-bottomed and other shallow drafting boats work very well. Presentations are generally made right on the bottom, utilizing a flat sinker tied about a foot above a baited circle hook. The choice of bait depends on the time of year. Cut goldeye or whole frogs are common choices.
Sometimes catfish readily attack bait, immediately bending the fishing rod and testing the quality of the rod holder. At other times they will approach less voraciously, perhaps thrumming a rod tip several times for two or three minutes before becoming hooked. Either way, there's no mistaking when a catfish is on the line. Their power is felt as soon as the fisherman begins the fight.
Before Durick's recent catfishing excursion came to a close, the total was 25 catfish in the boat in four hours. The largest of the "kitties" tipped the scales at 19 and 17 pounds. While those fish are remarkably large by any standard in North Dakota, the Red contains bigger cats too.
"Not all spots are created equally," noted Durick. "What we are doing right now is fishing a pre-spawn run on the edges of the fast water. Two or three weeks from now this spot will be fishless, for the most part."
As the summer progresses fishermen in search of cats will seek to find active feeding areas, such as between two deep areas of the river. Always though, as veteran cat chasers know, current is a key to successful catfishing.
Durick has appeared on various catfishing shows and in national magazines, always eagerly promoting the Red River and its trophy catfish.
"It puts North Dakota, Grand Forks, East Grand Forks, on the map a little bit," said Durick while releasing a channel cat over the side of the boat.
Durick calls North Dakota a "walleye world," a reference to the popularity of the state's most highly pursued and most readily available gamefish. Catfish are somewhat less available to fishermen and, admits Durick, the ungainly appearing fish suffers from a lack of respect.
"That's just it. They've got a bad reputation," says Durick. "Down South it is all about catch and eat. Here it is about the fight. It is really something. I was guiding a gentleman with a girl friend who had no interest. She got into the first fish of her life, which turned out to be a 24-pounder. Now she thinks it's the coolest thing ever!"
While monster catfish certainly attract attention on the Red, the famed river is home to many other species of fish - walleyes, sauger, northern pike and bass included.
"There's many different species of fish in the Red," agreed Laumb while showing off a nice walleye caught on a catfish rig. "The walleye population is pretty strong. A lot of folks are going after walleye and sauger. It is great fishing and it is close to home."
Grand Forks area folks know the Red is a viable fishery. Many go to the river for a chance to fish whenever they can, either by boat or on the shoreline. Catching fish in the moving water just a few blocks from home is commonplace.
"Ten years ago you would have never seen as many people sitting on the shoreline and fishing as we see right now," noted Durick.
"You don't need to spend a lot of money to fish the Red," added Laumb. "If you put on a jig and a crawler you don't know what you are going to bring up."
There's a good chance though, that sooner or later a Red River fishermen will hook into big cat and be in for a very memorable battle. Sometimes it is the fish that hooks the fisherman.