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Marv and 'Neat' Miller are partners in catfish

LOCKPORT, Man. -- Marv Miller steers his boat toward the imposing gates of the St. Andrews Lock and Dam, and we're soon anchored in some of the fastest water the Red River can throw at us on this brisk May morning.

LOCKPORT, Man. -- Marv Miller steers his boat toward the imposing gates of the St. Andrews Lock and Dam, and we're soon anchored in some of the fastest water the Red River can throw at us on this brisk May morning.

The noise of the water as it churns over the dam in a boiling froth is a constant in our ears, but if all goes according to plan, there won't be much time for conversation anyway.

We're here to catch channel catfish, the brutes that roam this last leg of the Red River before it spills into Lake Winnipeg on a journey that eventually ends in Hudson Bay.

As anyone who fishes catfish knows, this stretch of the Red is something special. It's been said that the average channel cat below this massive lock and dam is twice the size of the fish that roam the Red River farther upstream.

Lake Winnipeg and its rich forage base can take at least some of the credit for that. Big water, after all, tends to produce big fish.

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And attract anglers who like to catch those big fish.

That's where Miller enters the picture.

Twice a year

A mostly retired carpenter, Miller, 74, and his wife, Juanita, 75 -- everyone calls her "Neat," for short -- have been making the pilgrimage from their home in Mount Morris, Ill., to this channel catfish Mecca for extended stays since 2000.

Miller, you see, is a "cat man," the title die-hard catfish anglers often use to describe themselves. Seldom do you hear of a "cat woman," but Neat definitely fits the bill.

Not bad for a woman who'd barely fished before she married Miller in 1999.

They come twice a year -- in May and again in August -- for three weeks at a time, hauling a small chest freezer in the boat and setting it up in the kitchenette suite they rent at a motel in nearby Selkirk.

Cat men and women need lots of bait, after all.

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"We'd stay longer in the spring, but we always have graduations or weddings," Miller said. That's the way it is, he says, when you've got grandchildren within a few miles of home.

This year, they pulled in to Selkirk on May 11, the day after Manitoba's fishing opener, and they've been on the river in good weather and bad every day since. They'll hit the road Wednesday to be home for a grandkid's graduation next weekend.

They'll make the trip in two days, boat in tow, in Miller's Suburban that's emblazoned with a tailgate slogan that reflects his outlook on life:

"If you're too busy to hunt and fish ... you're too busy!"

Over the years, Miller says he and Neat have made lots of friends, both Americans and Canadians, on their channel catfish sojourns to Manitoba. No wonder, then, Miller's 19-foot Smoker Craft, adorned with both the Maple Leaf and Stars and Stripes, is so well-known in local catfish circles.

It's hard to miss.

"I've fished with so many nice people up here," Miller says, rattling off the names of anglers from Nebraska, North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba.

Bouncing in the boil

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Neat has decided to take a day off from fishing, Miller explains, as he cuts a frozen sucker into bite-size chunks and threads a piece on to an 8/0 hook. He weights it down with 6 ounces of lead to keep the bait on the bottom of the river that boils past us.

We cast our lines directly at the dam, the sinkers hitting the concrete base before disappearing into the frothy depths. The earthy smell of the spray that rises from the dam reminds me of a burlap sack. It's not at all unpleasant.

Fishing below this or any other dam shouldn't be taken lightly. Fast water's dangerous, after all, but for Miller, dams and catfish have gone hand in hand since he fished as a boy with his dad on the Rock River in Illinois.

Miller says he does 90 percent of his fishing bouncing in the boil right here below the dam -- even though there's plenty of calmer, safer water to fish.

"My theory is when they're up here fighting that current, they're here for a reason, and that's to eat," Miller said. "Plus, hardly anyone comes up here."

We've barely gotten our lines in the water when a channel catfish tries to tear the rod out of my hand, and the battle's on.

With their massive heads, and strong tails, channel cats are made for current, and the fish has all of the advantage. Eventually, though, I "horse" it to boatside, where Miller scoops the 36-inch catfish with his net.

I follow it up with a fish nearly as large five minutes later; and another one 10 minutes after that.

Miller's right -- these fish are in the mood to eat.

Welcome breaks

Still, there's time for conversation during the occasional lulls -- welcome breaks when catching fish like this -- and Miller recounts his first experience fishing cats at Lockport. It was the mid-'90s, he said, and he rented a boat for the day and bought some nightcrawlers for bait.

He didn't catch much, Miller recalls, but he saw the potential.

Miller's luck took a turn for the better in the ensuing years, and now, he says, it would be hard to imagine not making the trek to Lockport. Neat, he says, prefers it to Lake Erie, where they also fish a few times every year.

"She likes it here because the water's not so rough," Miller said. Lake Erie can get pretty ugly when the wind blows.

Neat also has the lucky catfish pole most days, Miller admits, although he reels in most of the fish when she gets too tired. The previous day, for example, the pair had landed 45 cats between them fishing in wind and cold and rain.

Miller compares Neat's fishing rod to a pool cue, but it still hooked 25 of their 45 fish.

"I was within 20," Miller says with a laugh. "That's pretty good for me."

Miller keeps meticulous records, writing down the time of every catch and the length of those fish that stand out for being exceptionally large or, on rare occasions, exceptionally small.

He makes note of the 25½-inch catfish he lands at 10:10 a.m. It's a rarity in this land of catfish giants. And when a particularly nasty fish snaps my 30-pound-test line shortly after noon, Miller writes:

"Brad broke one off -- $2 fine."

Last year, Miller says, he and Neat boated 1,056 cats during their two, three-week stints on the Red. Their best day, he says, was 57 catfish.

This year, during another one of Neat's rare days off, Miller says he and a buddy landed 60 cats, and the next day, a third friend joined them, and they caught 69 catfish, including 54 between 8 and 11:30 a.m.

"If we catch 37 catfish today, we'll have a 37-fish average per day" for the season to date, Miller said.

Despite our fast start in the boiling froth, the action slows down after an hour, and we pull anchor for new water. Most of the time, Miller only has to move a few hundred feet, and every stop produces two or three fish -- bang, bang, bang -- before another lull sends us on the move again.

A friend joins us after lunch, and Miller has tallied up 34 catfish on his scorecard by 4:45 p.m., a full 45 minutes before our designated quitting time.

"Miller time," you might call it, but in this case it probably will be Molson or Labatts.

"C'mon kitty cat," Miller says. "We need three more to keep my average."

We've left the average in the dust by the time Miller reels in No. 41. We've also missed or broken off at least a dozen other fish.

"Goodbye fella," Miller says over the sound of the churning water as he releases his last catfish of the day. "Thank you."

Spoken like a true cat man.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: FISHING
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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