Watching the river: High water delays fishing on the Red

Brad Durick launched his boat Monday night on the Red River in Grand Forks just hours after the city had cleaned the ramp. A Grand Forks catfish guide, Durick was on a scouting mission to check out the river before his first guide trip of the sea...

Brad Durick
Grand Forks catfish guide Brad Duricks watches for floating logs and other obstacles earlier this week as he navigates the the high water of the Red River. A late spring and high water that is slow to subside have forced anglers to play a waiting game when they'd rather be fishing the Red's big channel catfish. The problem is even more frustrating for Durick and other guides who depend on being able to fish the river for their bottom lines. (Brad Dokken photo)

Brad Durick launched his boat Monday night on the Red River in Grand Forks just hours after the city had cleaned the ramp.

A Grand Forks catfish guide, Durick was on a scouting mission to check out the river before his first guide trip of the season a few days later.

"I think it's safe to say we're the first boat out," he said, steering his 19-foot flat-bottomed catfish boat away from the Whopper John Boat Landing. "I don't know how much fishing we're going to get done, but I thought I'd throw a couple of rods in."

There's no sign of the Riverside Dam Rapids just a few hundred yards upstream; it's all one level. The tops of riverbanks normally far above the waterline are almost even with the river.

"See any deer in the trees?" Durick asks. He's not joking. It happens, sometimes, after severe floods. The carcass of a deer that ended up in the trees along this stretch of river during the big Flood of 1997 was the skeleton of a deer in the trees the next spring.


There are no deer tangled in the trees on this night, but the big cottonwoods bear the scars of ice jams far up their trunks.

"Boy, these trees took a number," Durick says. The river level is at 26.5 feet, only a foot and a half below flood stage. It looks like an alien landscape, even to a veteran catfish angler.

"Good God, it's 30 feet right here," Durick says, glancing at the depth finder as he motors up to a favorite catfish spot; normally, it would be 16 or 17 feet deep.

"This is totally out of my realm here," he said. "I'm good at a river level of 22 or 23 feet, but this is ridiculous."

Late start

It's been that kind of a spring along the Red River, thanks to high water that is slow to subside. That's bad enough for anglers champing at the bit to do battle with the river's big channel cats, but when the bottom line depends on getting a boat in the water, the wait can be agonizing.

Just ask Durick, 36, who can tell you the level of the Red in Grand Forks for just about any date during the past 40 years. Durick, who grew up on a farm near Bowbells, N.D., says guiding on the Red is a little bit like farming.

No wonder he turned down a customer's recent invitation to play poker after an upcoming trip.


"I said, 'I don't gamble,'" said Durick, an ad rep for WDAZ-TV. "I guide on a river that floods five times a year."

At least he can get a boat in the water. The Whopper John Landing, which opened in 2006, accommodates high river levels. The old ramp in north Grand Forks became unusable when the river hit 19 feet.

That would have been especially frustrating this year. Durick says he and guiding partner Kent Hollands had 15 trips booked in the six-day period that began Thursday, anglers coming from as far away as the state of Virginia.

"We used to shut it down at anything over 24 feet," Durick said of the river level. "Not this year."

Last year at this time, fishing on the Red had been in full swing several weeks. Durick's not the only one watching the river.

"We're about a month late, from what I've noticed," said Josh Burgett, 28, who owns and operates Jig-em-up Guide Service and mainly fishes the Oslo, Minn., stretch of the Red River. "When you can drive by county roads and still see carp swimming in the ditches, that usually doesn't happen this time of year, but the river is finally going down now.

"There's definitely light at the end of the tunnel," said Burgett, who also works at Andy's Harley Davidson in Grand Forks. "It's 'game on' now."

Catfish League impact


That's not yet the case for the Red River Valley Catfish Club, which had scheduled its first Wednesday night Catfish League event of the season this week in East Grand Forks. Problem is, the LaFave Park boat landing on the Minnesota side of the river isn't open, and the Red is projected to be at 24.8 feet Wednesday -- more than 3 feet above the level at which the club cancels its league nights.

The club schedules 12 Wednesday night league events and a season-ending tournament throughout the spring and summer, alternating between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks sites.

It's not the first year the club has battled high water. Rob Raymond, president of the Red River Valley Catfish Club, said the Catfish League traditionally started May 1. But after missing the first five weeks last year because of high water, Raymond said organizers decided to push the start of the season to June 1.

This year, that's even too early.

"If it's over 21 (feet), we will not fish," Raymond said Friday. "We thought we had that covered this year, but ... oh well."

Raymond said the delays are frustrating.

"Being president, I've got sponsors to answer to, and it's hard to sell a product when you're not out there," he said.

The season's also late getting started farther upstream. John Dickelman, who runs J&K Cats Guide Service on the Red River north of Moorhead, said he was fishing in April last year and had his first customers in early May.


This year, Dickelman is just starting to test the waters. He's been telling customers to play it by ear until water levels straighten out.

"It's a nightmare on people's schedules when that river doesn't cooperate," said Dickelman, 36, who owns an insurance agency in Moorhead. After three consecutive wet springs, he said the persistent high water is getting old.

"It's really raising hell with the river and everyone who lives on it," Dickelman said. "It's not fun."

Downstream impact

Few people who make their living from fishing the Red have more experience battling high water than Stu McKay. Owner of Cats on the Red Resort in Lockport, Man., McKay, 56, contends not only with American water, but high flows from numerous Canadian tributaries, including the Assiniboine River, which has had extensive flooding problems this spring.

McKay's boat ramp is still several feet under water.

"Last weekend, there were quite literally guys catching fish right in the parking lot," he said. "We'll see a lot of water coming through for a long time."

Still, McKay takes the inconvenience in stride. He's owned the resort north of Winnipeg since the mid-1980s and has seen high water many times before.


"It can make you feel kind of humble," he said. "And quite frankly, there's nothing you can do about it anyway.

"At the end of the day, it's going to be fantastic for the fishery," McKay added. "I've always maintained fish love floods -- way better too much than not enough."

Durick, the Grand Forks catfish guide, discovered the same thing during Monday night's scouting mission when he dropped anchor in an area of slack water away from the main current. The spot produced 10 catfish up to about 20 pounds in an hour.

After weeks of watching, waiting and worrying, Durick admitted he was feeling better about his first trips of the year.

"Much," he said.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send email to .

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, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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