The tagged catfish mystery
Terry Anderson of Warren, Minn., and neighbor Brad Adamski had been hoping to catch a tagged catfish all summer, so when Anderson spotted a yellow tag on the 36-inch, 18½-pound catfish he landed Sept. 11 on the Red River, the excitement began to build.
Little did he know it would trigger a mystery that would take nearly a month to solve.
Anderson says he almost overlooked the yellow tag inserted into the catfish near the dorsal fin because it looked like a piece of straw.
Then he took a closer look and saw "DNR FISHERIES 327."
"It was the last day my neighbor and I fished all summer long," Anderson said. "Just about every fish we'd catch, we'd say, 'Where's the tag? Look for the tag.' There'd be no tag, and we'd sigh and laugh.
"It was the second-to-last fish we caught for the summer. It was pretty cool, and we were just ecstatic."
Anderson, who caught the fish south of Oslo, Minn., took a close-up photo of the tag with his phone. There was no contact number, but he found a link on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' website for reporting tagged fish.
Three days went by, and he hadn't heard a thing.
"I was getting kind of impatient because there was no reply," Anderson said. "I was chomping at the bit. And who wouldn't? It's like shooting a banded duck or goose."
Anderson then contacted Brad Durick, a Grand Forks catfish guide whose boat has landed upwards of 30 tagged catfish the past couple of years.
"The first thing he asked was, 'Are you sure it wasn't orange?' " Anderson said.
That was a logical question because all of the tagged catfish reported in Grand Forks and elsewhere on the Red River have orange tags as part of an ongoing study researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are conducting in partnership with Manitoba.
Nearly 14,000 channel catfish have been tagged as part of the Manitoba study.
"It's yellow as yellow could be," Anderson said, and he sent Durick a photo to prove it.
Durick, a longtime friend and fishing partner, then sent me a photo of the tag, and I contacted DNR fisheries biologists in Bemidji, Baudette and Detroit Lakes, Minn., to see if they had any knowledge of yellow tags. Durick contacted Lynn Schlueter, a retired North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist who worked on the Red.
There was no record of a fish with yellow tags. I would have questioned it myself if I hadn't seen the photo.
Anderson went so far as to contact a leading tag manufacturer in Seattle and was able to confirm that Ducks Unlimited Canada had purchased a set of tags reading DNR FISHERIES series 201 to 500 for a contest on Lake Manitoba.
He was getting warmer.
Then, late last week, I remembered Dan Sernyk, a Manitoba fishing contest organizer, had held a tagged catfish derby for several years on the Red River near Lockport, Man., and I mentioned it to Durick. As part of the event, anyone who'd bought a derby ticket and caught a tagged catfish during the contest period was eligible to win $20,000.
Sernyk said three catfish were tagged for each of the contests from 2010 through 2013. There was no contest in 2014, but then 10 catfish were tagged last year as part of a monthlong contest.
Yellow tags were used the first three years, he said, and the tags since have been chartreuse.
Not one of those 22 tagged catfish ever was reported during any of the contests or in subsequent years. Until—you guessed it—Anderson caught a catfish with a yellow tag Sept. 11.
Durick, who was as curious as anyone about the story behind the tagged catfish, sent a photo of the fish to Sernyk, who suggested he forward the tag to Geoff Klein, a Manitoba fisheries biologist who had tagged the catfish that first year of the contest.
Klein said the photo triggered his memory.
"I didn't even recall when I tagged it," he said in a phone interview. "It wasn't until he sent me the picture of Terry holding the fish, but that kind of triggered my memory we had done this.
"I didn't know (the contest) was going to be a recurring thing, so the first year, I was just rummaging around the shop and found this string of old tags. It was just random tags so nobody really had a record. We only tagged three fish because that's all they needed for their derby."
Klein said he was pleased to learn the tag had held that long, especially since it preceded the extensive tagging study now underway between Manitoba and its Nebraska partners.
The catfish reportedly weighed 15 pounds when it was tagged in 2010.
"It was such a neat thing to know that fish at one point was worth $20,000," Klein said. "And back then, I think the dollar was on par."
There won't be a payout, but Sernyk, the contest organizer, said he was happy to hear one of the fish finally had been reported.
"We have tagged 22 catfish over five years, and this is the first one that's ever been caught," he said.
Solving the mystery took considerable detective work, Durick said.
"I got involved because Terry emailed me for insight," he said. "Once Minnesota didn't claim the tag I just wanted to know. Now I wonder where that cat has been over the past six years."
Anderson said he's too excited about finally knowing the story behind the fish to worry about the $20,000 it might have fetched in a 2010 fishing contest.
"I thought, 'Well, that's fine, that's neat,' but it's still the golden ticket to me because it had a tag," Anderson said. "This fish has been plowing ground six years, and here he is right in my backyard, and I'm fortunate enough to catch him on my last day of fishing for the summer."