Monday I was going catfishing. No biggie right. I’ve done it thousands of times before. What is so special about this trip that has got me all excited? Well first let me start to explain my passion for our whiskered bottom dwellers.
I have been hooked on cats ever since I accidentally caught my first sumo kitty as a boy and started to read about catching catfish in the pages of IN-Fisherman. Now it is not only my passion but my business. Since those early years I have logged more hours than I care to guess dunking baits in the mighty Red in search of Mr. Whiskers and have gained a great deal of knowledge about our kitties. Much of it however is no more than semi-accurate speculation based on my years catching them. From an angling standpoint I have honed my craft and consider myself an expert on our channel cats, however many of the questions I get asked about catfish I honestly can’t do much more than guess at. So back to my excitement about my upcoming Monday cat fishing trip.
At the request of friend and local fisheries biologist Derek Kroeker I attended this year's fisheries banquette being held here in Winnipeg. It was a fun event and I got to meet biologists from all around Canada, including Mark Pegg from the University of Nebraska. Mark has been spending a great deal of time up in our neck of the woods over that last few years doing studies on our catfish. Needless to say the topic of all conversations for the night was ... you guessed it, catfish. I donated a trip to the silent auction for the night and Derek ended up the winning bid so the scene was set. Derek, Mark and I would hit the river this summer for a day of catfishing where the conversation would be the highlight of the trip.
So here we are 8:00 am, Selkirk Park dock, launch the boat, fire up the motor and off we go. Now let me stress these guys know what they are doing. They have been here many times before, netting, fishing and tagging cats in great numbers so we wanted to do things that they have not experienced before, and as luck would have it, some of my favorite tactics and spots just happened to fit the bill. The first order of business was bobbers or slip floats A.K.A. corking for kitties. Unfortunately competing with other boats for limited area and a lack luster shallow bite didn't work out this day, but a quick change and we were at the face of the dam, spitting distance from the wall and the bite was on. Not a lot of anglers fish as tight to the dam as I do, but the one's that do know the type of bite that can be had there when the fish are on. I absolutely love drifting baits around in the cross current of the dam and sliding them along the face. I have spent more time fishing up tight to the face of the dam than you can imagine and I know the holes, rock piles, snags and edges intimately. Today the green light said go and for the next 90 minutes it was non-stop double and triple headers, and it was something that Derek and Mark did not get to experience before which made it extra rewarding for me. I believe we boated around 22-23 cats in that first hour and a half with Mark landing the lions share.
I was rattling off questions all day with every answer bringing up more questions. Mark and Derek were very happy to oblige me and even had a number of questions for me based on my experiences over the years. The best part was, after all these years fishing cats and learning about them I got to participate in the study first hand as Mark brought along a tagging gun. After some instruction I was measuring, tagging and recording cats along with them. It may not seem like big deal, but to me it was awesome. Getting to finally participate in a scientific tagging study on a fish that I have been so passionate about all my life was really a great experience.
The plan for the rest of the day was fish some new spots and head down river to the north part of the Red. In the afternoon we stopped to see the research boat as they pulled in the hoop nets and tagged more catfish. I jumped in Manitoba Conservation's boat and met the crew consisting of more biologists, researchers and some grad students from U of Nebraska. I watched as they hauled up the hoop nets full of cats and got to see how these things work. The hoop net is a series of large metal rings connected by netting. It is anchored down to the bottom at the head end facing into the current, with the open end facing downriver which allows the fish to swim freely into the net. I was surprised at how many tiny catfish there were in the nets. I saw more pint sized catfish come out of one hoop net than all of the little ones I have caught on hook and line over the years combined. Just because we don't catch them often does not mean they are not around. Let me tell you these cats are spawning and spawning well.
There was so much information flying around that day it was tough to remember it all, so for the sake of accuracy I put some questions down below based on our conversations that day, and Mark Pegg has graciously provided the answers.
Donovan: Those "cookie cutter" 33 - 34 inch cats that are so prevalent in our system are 22 - 24 years old on average?
Mark: Yes, our age data show that size range to be in the high teens/early twenties.
Donovan: So you say our cats show the same growth rate as cats down south in the US?
Mark: They grow a bit slower than average for the first 4-5 years, but then catch up to growing at about the same rate as an average fish across the catfish geographic distribution.
Donovan: So an extremely large cat, say 40" would not necessarily be 30 - 40 years old it would just mean that it grew faster at a younger age?
Mark: Ah, that one is a bit trickier. What you state could be the case, but they could also be at least a bit older. In the high 20s possibly. My best guess is that they have the best of both worlds – optimal growth to get big and genetics to facilitate a longer life.
Donovan: The oldest channel cat you guys have found was approx. 26 years old?
Mark: The oldest we have so far is 25. We got samples from a few bigger fish this spring that we have not yet worked up so that age could increase a bit.
Donovan: What is that early growth spurt for cats, you mentioned they grow rapidly up until a certain age and then slow right down to a half inch per year. Can you give me a few more details and stats on this?
Mark: Most fish grow fast early in life until they reach sexual maturity. Once the fish start producing eggs or sperm, they divert energy to reproduction over increased body length or weight. I don't have specifics for the Red River cats on how much they slow down just yet, but as an example some of the shovelnose sturgeon we are studying in Nebraska get to about 550 mm before they reach maturity in 5-7 years, then grow less than 5 mm (usually 1-2 if any) per year after that.
Donovan: What are you finding as far as movements? Are the recaptures moving a great distance from where they are originally caught or are they sticking in the same areas or is it mixed?
Mark: We have had recaps in Lake Winnipeg (Grand Marais), near Portage La Prairie, and some have even migrated to the U.S. We have had a couple fish returned from Drayton, ND where there is a low-head dam that likely restricts movements at some times of the year.
Donovan: What is the largest cat, tagged and recaptured that you have seen so far?
Mark: Largest cat tagged so far is 38.5 inches (978 mm) and the largest recap was 38 inches (960 mm). That fish was tagged in 2012 and recaptured in 2013 at Lockport both times.
I have boated 2 recaptures this year so far. The second recap was two weeks ago and I am still waiting for the details, but the first was early this year at the dam. It was a typical 32-33 inch cat that was tagged at Sugar Island 10 days earlier. The cat was caught, tagged, swam 14 kilometers in 10 days and got caught again while feeding in fast water at the dam and that cat is in it's late teens early 20's. It is pretty impressive how tough and aggressive these fish are. I often hear misinformation about our channel cats. How they are big, slow and lazy and sit on the bottom eating stinky crap off the bottom. Yet during the flood years where the water was so high and fast you could not get your boat anchored more than 10 feet from shore, big fat cats are busting the surface feeding on goldeye out in the middle of the river in the fastest current. That is just how powerful and strong these fish are even at a ripe old age.
It is sad when I think of all the abuse these fish encounter year after year. I don't know how many kids I have seen kicking cats around on shore or on the platform on the east side. Leaving fish out of water for 10 minutes as every member of the family needs to take a picture with the fish after it has been dropped a dozen times. Often people, who claim to not understand the regulations, blame the language barrier yet when you say you have phoned conservation and the police are on their way they scramble to the black garbage bags and pails in the bush, quickly throw big cats back into the river. Many people simply don't care about the regulations and do what they please. There is a definite need for better education of the masses to help protect and sustain the world class fishery we have.
So after meeting the rest of the crew and checking out the hoop nets we headed north and fished a few spots north of Netley Creek and again did very well boating another 15 or so channel cats before wrapping up the day. I believe the final tally for the day was 43 cats boated and tagged from the dam to the cut. We even tried the mouth of the lake but came up empty. There was almost no current there and from my experience that means no kitties either.
We wrapped up the day with nachos, wings and a few cold ones back at Gaffers in Lockport. The conversations continued and we even chatted about greenback walleyes which lead to some interesting discussions, but that is for another article. During the day, in the midst of a double header, I blurted out there must be millions of cats in the river. Now biologist hear those types of unsubstantiated comments all the time however and they figured that a more reasonable number would possibly be hundreds of thousands. Again this is all just speculation at this point based on rough numbers. This study is really in its infancy and the more recaptures that get reported in the next couple of years will start to paint a better picture and answer more of these questions.
Here is some important information. If you catch a tagged catfish please make sure you write down the tag number, measure the fish and phone the number on the tag to report the details. Give them the tag number, how long the fish is and where was it caught. Each tagged catfish reported helps immensely with the studies. The toll free number is 1-855-207-7706.