SELKIRK, Man.-Mark Pegg has traded the classroom for a fishing boat again this summer to catch and tag channel catfish on the Canadian side of the Red River.
Tough job, as the old saying goes, but someone's got to do it.
A fish ecologist and instructor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Pegg is faculty adviser for a tagging study seeking to learn more about the population and movements of channel catfish on the Red River.
The study, a partnership between the Manitoba Fisheries Branch and UNL, launched in 2012. Since then, Pegg and a small crew of Nebraska students have tagged about 13,000 channel catfish on the Canadian portion of the Red River from the border at Emerson, Man., to Lake Winnipeg.
The Manitoba Fish and Wildlife Enhancement Fund has provided funding support, Pegg said, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department are collaborating on the project. The DNR tagged about 500 cats on the U.S. portion of the river earlier this summer.
Manitoba, Minnesota and North Dakota share management of the Red River.
Monday afternoon, Pegg talked about the catfish study while tied up to a boat of anglers fishing the Red near Selkirk. He said the idea for the study surfaced during a 2010 catfish symposium in St. Louis, where he met two Manitoba biologists who were attending to learn more about channel catfish.
The fish weren't studied intensively in Manitoba, he said, despite the species' popularity among anglers and the Red River's reputation as one of the top catfish destinations in North America.
"It was like, 'Well, I can come up and have a look,' and it snowballed from there," Pegg said. "Most of this has been done on a hope and a prayer. We don't have good funding, and we've kind of nickeled and dimed it here and there. But I think we've been able to get some good information so far."
On the move
Stephen Siddons, a Nebraska graduate student, is overseeing the tagging study for his thesis project. The study has sparked the interest of catfish anglers on the U.S. side of the Red-especially the past two summers-because more than 35 tagged fish have shown up in Grand Forks and as far south as the Sheyenne River.
That's the kind of information fisheries managers like to have-especially when multiple agencies share management, as is the case on the Red. Pegg says nearly 200 tag returns have been reported just this summer, and about 500 since the study launched.
About 10 percent of those returns have come from upstream locations, including the Assiniboine River near Portage La Prairie, Man.
"That's a good couple hundred miles," Pegg said.
The orange-colored tags, which are inserted near the dorsal fin, are patterned after the price tags clothing stores use and will stay in place 10 years. Catfish are captured by hook and line and with hoop nets, and the biggest fish are caught by angling, said Pegg, who has been in Manitoba since late May and will spend his time fishing and tagging through August.
"I try not to go home without catching 20 or more catfish in a day," he said. "Some days, I make it; some days, I don't. It just kind of depends on the weather, too."
Siddons is the only student dedicated to the project, but Pegg says other students occasionally trek north to help out with the tagging work.
"If we have time and we're not booked on other projects, I try to make sure other students get a chance to come up, as well, because it's a very unique experience," Pegg said. "The students get to interact with a lot of the other biologists" in the province.
Before 2014, Pegg said most of the tagging effort focused on the Red from the St. Andrews Lock and Dam in Lockport, Man.-the last major barrier on the Red River-downstream to Lake Winnipeg. Last year, he said, they spent four weeks tagging in Winnipeg and four weeks tagging near the border at Emerson.
Catfish from those stretches of river have shown up in Grand Forks, as well.
Besides tagging fish, Pegg says plans are in the works for a pilot study to install radio transmitters in 12 to 15 catfish to gather even more detailed information on where the fish move. That's a small sample, Pegg says, but if everything works, partners will seek funding to buy 15 to 20 additional transmitters.
As part of the pilot study, several "listening stations" will be set up along the river to provide alerts when the radioed fish swim past, Pegg said. That way, crews won't have to actively track the fish.
As a complement to that research, Pegg says they plan to look at the chemistry structure of the fish to see where they've spent time. Each body of water, he says, has a specific "signature" that shows up in the bones of fish.
"The Red River has a specific signature, Lake Winnipeg has a different signature, the Winnipeg River-all the rivers have different signatures," Pegg said. "It's not going to be an exact month-to-month, play-by-play, but at least it gives an idea of length of time in terms of how long the bone has been growing."
Pegg says he hopes to continue working on the Red as long as he can find funding.
"As long as I can afford to keep coming up here," he said. "We've got at least a couple more years with the telemetry work if all goes well."