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Red River roundup fishing

Harold Randall of Grand Forks caught this 18-pound tagged catfish May 14 on the Red River near Drayton, N.D., while fishing with local catfish guide Brad Durick. The same fish showed up in Durick's boat June 11 in Grand Forks, some 94 river miles upstream. Info from the tag number showed the fish had been tagged in August 2015 in Lockport, Man. (Brad Durick photo)1 / 4
Mark Pegg of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (from left), fisheries technician Connor Chance-Ossowski and Stephen Siddons surgically implant a transmitter unit into a catfish June 4 on the Manitoba side of the Red River. Chance-Ossowski and Siddons are UNL graduates, and Siddons is research coordinator for the Manitoba project. (Photo: Chandra Rodgers)2 / 4
Richard Swanson of Galesburg, Ill., caught this catfish June 11 in Grand Forks, some 94 river miles from where Harold Randall of Grand Forks caught the fish May 14 on the Red River near Drayton, N.D. (Brad Durick photo)3 / 4
Stitched up and ready to go, a channel catfish is about to be released June 3 after a transmitter unit was surgically implanted June 3 on the Manitoba side of the Red River. (Photo: Connor Chance-Ossowski)4 / 4

Great strides have been made in promoting the Red River's recreational potential in the past two decades.

Amenities ranging from new boat ramps to canoe and kayak rentals now are available, but it's a safe bet a large segment of people who live along the river still don't realize or fully appreciate the resource that flows through their communities.

From a fishing perspective, at least, there's plenty going on when it comes to the Red River. In Manitoba, researchers in a University of Nebraska-Lincoln study recently implanted radio-transmitters in more than 90 catfish near Winnipeg and Lockport, Man., and cats tagged in Manitoba continue to show up hundreds of miles away.

Stateside, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recently completed reports on fish population and creel surveys along the river, the Scheels Boundary Battle catfishing tournament wraps up today, and the Cats Incredible Catfish Tournament is ready to roll the last weekend in July.

Here's a quick rundown on what's happening—or on the horizon—with fish and fishing along the muddy river as June hits the homestretch.

Catfish on the move

A tagging study of catfish on the Manitoba portion of the Red River launched in 2012 continues to shed light on how far these fish can move, and the tracking of more than 90 cats implanted with radio-transmitters this spring will provide even better information.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is coordinating the Manitoba study in partnership with the Manitoba Fisheries Branch. Mark Pegg, a fish ecologist and instructor at UNL, is faculty advisor for the tagging and radio-transmitter studies.

Pegg, who recently returned to Nebraska from Manitoba, helped implant transmitters in 91 catfish—67 below the St. Andrews Lock and Dam in Lockport and 24 upstream from the dam in Winnipeg.

"We finished up the surgeries last week so are now starting to track the fish," Pegg said Tuesday. "The fish are definitely moving but no large-scale movements yet."

More than 14,000 catfish have been tagged as part of the tagging study, with more than 700 returns reported from anglers, Pegg said.

"Movement is all over the river, its tributaries and throughout the south basin of Lake Winnipeg," he said.

The Manitoba Fish and Wildlife Enhancement Fund has provided funding support for the study, Pegg said, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada is providing some of the equipment used in the study.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department also are collaborating on the project.

Hey, I know that fish!

Grand Forks catfish guide Brad Durick might just have the edge when it comes to cool tag returns. To date, 34 catfish from the Manitoba study have found their way into Durick's boat.

In one case, the same fish even showed up twice.

It all started May 14, when Harold Randall of Grand Forks caught an 18-pound channel cat with a tag while fishing with Durick near Drayton, N.D. The fish had been tagged in August 2015 below the dam in Lockport.

The same catfish showed up in Durick's boat again June 11, when Richard Swanson of Galesburg, Ill, caught the fish in Grand Forks—94 river miles from Drayton and about 270 miles from where the catfish was tagged.

Info from the tag confirmed the cat was the same fish.

"I think it's exciting to see how the fish and the river evolve and repopulate," Durick said. "It also tells a great story that catch and release of trophy fish really does work."

Creel survey

Fishing pressure along the U.S. portion of the Red River continues to decline, results from a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources creel survey conducted last summer show.

According to Jamison Wendel, Red River specialist for the DNR in Detroit Lakes, Minn., anglers logged an estimated 88,860 hours of fishing effort on the river during the survey period. That's the lowest of any creel survey since 1994, Wendel said, and 20 percent below the estimated effort during the 2010 survey.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department funded the 2010 creel survey, and the two states share management of the border river.

The DNR conducted the latest creel survey from May through September 2015, employing two creel clerks to sample fishing activity at several access sites on both sides of the Red River from the source at Wahpeton-Breckenridge to the Manitoba border. Two sites on the Red Lake River and one site on the Otter Tail River—Red River tributaries—also were part of the survey.

A few highlights:

• Channel catfish comprised 53 percent of the total harvest in last year's survey. Anglers caught an estimated 44,721 catfish and kept an estimated 6,868 of those fish for 35,343 pounds.

• Other game fish harvested during the survey included walleye, 769 fish, 850 pounds; sauger, 895 fish, 604 pounds; smallmouth bass, 153 fish, 70 pounds; and northern pike, 53 fish, 306 pounds.

• Anglers logged 9,525 hours on the Otter Tail River, harvesting 1,225 channel catfish and 1,305 walleyes.

• Red Lake River anglers spent 4,854 hours fishing, keeping 30 channel catfish and 92 walleyes.

Based on the survey, most of the drop in fishing pressure resulted from less shoreline activity in upper reaches of the river, Wendel said, especially in Fargo-Moorhead and Wahpeton-Breckenridge.

"Pressure has been, overall, declining on the Red River in almost every survey," Wendel said. "Interestingly, in Grand Forks, effort has held very steady if not increased slightly."

Wendel, a UND graduate, said the Greenway likely was a big reason for the positive trend in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. He said there's no comparison between the access options along the river in the two cities now compared with his grad school years in the '90s at UND.

"Kudos to Grand Forks," he said.

Wendel said he didn't expect to see declines in the Fargo-Moorhead or Wahpeton-Breckenridge areas. Most of the fishing pressure still was focused on urban areas as opposed to rural sites.

Given the marginal fishing activity at several sites, Wendel said it's possible the survey could be modified in the future.

"Removing some of those lower effort, out-of-the-way sites might be something we end up looking at in future surveys," he said. "We're catching a majority of the angling effort; we just need to figure out how we can make this survey as efficient as possible."

Population assessment

Catch rates in a riverwide fish population survey conducted last June along the Red River were down across the board, but much of that decline likely can be attributed to flooding that delayed the timing of the survey, Wendel, the DNR's Red River fisheries specialist, said.

The survey primarily targets catfish populations, but crews gather information on other species, as well.

The goal is to time the population survey so it coincides with the prespawn period when catfish are on the move, Wendel said.

High water last June forced the DNR to reschedule the survey from early June until mid-month. By that time, catfish were actively spawning and moving around less, in turn making them more difficult to sample with the trap nets and trotlines the DNR uses to conduct the survey.

"Our catch rates were down, but I wouldn't say it's necessarily reflective of the population at this point," Wendel said. "That's one of the challenges of doing river surveys."

The DNR has conducted fish population surveys along the Red River every five years since 1995.

As part of the survey, DNR crews sampled catfish and other species at four sites from the source of the river to the Manitoba border. Reaches 1 and 2—the farthest upstream stretches—were sampled with trap nets. Crews used trap nets and trotlines to sample fish in Reach 3—the Grand Forks area—and Reach 4 near Pembina, N.D.

DNR personnel from the Baudette, Detroit Lakes and Fergus Falls, Minn., area fisheries offices and staff from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department helped out with the survey.

A few highlights:

• Overall catfish catches lagged behind previous surveys and below population goals for all reaches of the river except Reach 4 near the Manitoba border.

• Crews from the Baudette area fisheries office working the Grand Forks stretch of river sampled 726 fish from 15 species in the trap nets. Goldeyes and freshwater drum were most abundant.

• Trotlines caught 56 catfish on the 18 lines that were set in Grand Forks; 54 percent of those catfish were larger than 24 inches and 11 percent exceeded 30 inches. Cats ranged from 9 inches to 34 inches, and the average size was 23.2 inches. Fish ranged from 2 to 18 years old.

• Crews caught 52 walleyes in the Grand Forks trap nets ranging in length from 10 inches to 31 inches long. Walleyes ranged from 2 to 19 years old.

• In the farthest downstream reach near Pembina, the 18 trotlines produced 99 catfish. Slightly half were larger than 24 inches and 16 percent were larger than 30 inches. Catfish ranged from 14 to 35 inches long.

Catfish tournaments

Four catfish tournaments are either underway or on the horizon in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

The Scheels Boundary Battle catfish tournament started Saturday and wraps up today, with final weigh-in about 3 p.m. at the LaFave Park boat landing in East Grand Forks. About 30 teams were signed up to fish the tourney.

Looking ahead, the Drayton Rod and Reel Rally Catfish Tournament is set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 16 on the Red near Drayton, the Cats Incredible Catfish Tournament is July 30-31 on the Red in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, and four evenings in the Wednesday night Red River Valley Catfish League remain—this week, July 6, July 13 and July 20—before the year-end tournament Aug. 13 in Grand Forks.

For info on the Drayton tournament, call (701) 454-FISH; Cats Incredible info is available online at catsincredibletournament.com; and info on the catfish league can be found at rrvcatfish.com.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

(701) 780-1148
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