Apr 30, 2015

Whiskers and Woolly Buggers on the Prairies

No Trout or Steelhead here but don't let your grip loose on your rod

Catfish on the fly!?

Although this article is written with a particular destination in mind, the tactics can probably be applied to thousands of spots across the continent.

The Red River is broad and muddy – similar to the Mississippi River but not quite as big. It winds between North Dakota and Minnesota then crosses over into Canada. It runs through cities and farmlands and it actually seems quite unremarkable, unless you like catfish…

Type “catfish” and “Red River” into Google and see what results. The Red River is a turbid jewel in the world of channel catfish. All kinds of fisherman flock to it, searching for hard-pulling brutes. An average channel cat on the Red weighs a solid 8 to 12 pounds. Hundreds of 20 to 30 pounders are caught each year.

Although channel catfish on the Red River are generally targeted with conventional tackle, they are a becoming a legitimate growing target for fly anglers. Much of the long rod action takes place in Lockport, Manitoba where a large control dam spreads across the river and creates a few hundred yards of swirling, rippled water. Prime time is late May through early July but good fishing can be had throughout the summer and into September.

Lockport Dam, Manitoba
Although the entire Red River holds catfish, in many locations they are often in fairly deep holes beyond the reach of most flies. The turbulent water downstream of the Lockport dam seems to attract shallow, feeding fish through most the open water season.

The standard procedure is to get the fly down close to the bottom along current seams, flats, drop-offs, and eddies. Drop-offs can be tough to find unless you have a boat and a depth finder; however, they often reveal themselves during low water and smart anglers make a mental note for when the water is higher.

I like a cast that quarters upstream and sinks before I strip the fly in one foot at a time. Sometimes, I merely jig the rod tip up and down as the fly drifts. Feeling the fly tick bottom every now and then is mandatory. When the fly line is quartering downstream, it’s time to cast again.

Proven effective flies
Not surprisingly, my fly selection is inspired by the bait fisherman who use cut chunks of river-caught goldeye, a small silvery fish. White marabou, since it looks like a piece of fish, is often part of the pattern. Baitfish imitations and Whistlers in white or bright colors work well. The water is very turbid, so visible flies that push water give me confidence. Flies that dive down to the bottom with lead eyes or a lead-wrapped body are often called for. Lengths from 2 ½ to 4 inches seem to work well.

A 9 weight rod is perfect for delivering these not-so-delicate offerings and controlling (trying to control?) a 15 pound catfish in strong current. My line choice is dictated by water depth and flow. I use whatever it takes to get down to the bottom. Sometimes a floater works but often it’s a 14 foot sink tip. Occasionally, a 350gr line with a fast sinking head is needed.

9 foot leaders are good when using a floating line and reaching for the bottom with a weighted fly. A 20 pound tippet helps pulls the fly out of rocky snags. Many cat-chasers don’t even bother with tapered leaders because the momentum of a weighted fly takes care of the turnover. With any type of sink tip, I normally just use 2 to 4 feet of 20# Maxima Monofilament – maybe a little more if the fly is heavily weighted and I want to get it deeper than the line.

There are at least a couple of guys who successfully pursue channel catfish at Lockport with spey rods. Although I have yet to try spey or switch tactics, they sound like a lot of fun. Catching a channel cat on a switch rod is actually a goal of mine for this coming season.

Although there is good fishing to be had from a boat, wading for channel catfish is the probably the most popular method for getting a fly in front of one. At Lockport, I would contend that a wading staff is a necessity, given the fact that seeing the rocky, treacherous bottom is generally impossible.

When hooked, a channel catfish is like a submarine. They pull hard and relentlessly. Did I mention a good disc drag reel and 100 yards of backing are a good idea? The chances of seeing your backing are actually pretty good…

Great catch Dale!
My most memorable day catfishing on the Red River took place during early July. It had been a wet spring and the water was quite high. A flood diversion channel flows into the river about a half mile downstream of the dam; when the Red River is high, catfish have a tendency to stack into this channel, especially when the high water corresponds to their spawn. I was camped out where a small riffle spread across this channel. Every couple minutes I could see the broad back of a catfish swimming up through the riffle. It was like watching salmon swim upstream. In calmer water close to shore, I would see catfish swirl and pods of minnows erupt from the water.

A small, 2 inch Clouser did a great job imitating those minnows and the catfish were all over it. Every 5 or 6 casts would result in a grab. Most of the cats were between 25 and 30 inches, with a few pushing the 35 inch mark. Almost every one stretched my fly line and backing clear across to the opposite shore. I definitely lost way more than the half dozen I landed.

Even if you can’t make it to Lockport, there is probably a catfish river somewhere close to where you live. Look for shallower water where catfish might feed. And throw your fly in there!

Dale Martens

Thank you for the very interesting article, something most fly anglers would not think of. I have seen a few cats caught on a fly on the John Day River while fishing for bass. Sounds like you have the perfect ingredients for a unique spey rod fishery!
Thanks again, Travis Duddles

Below are some resources if you are interested in fly fishing the Red River near Lockport, Manitoba. A lot of fly fishermen stop off in Winnipeg on their way to fishing lodges in northern Manitoba. Winnipeg is very close to Lockport; why not spend a day or two chasing channel cats?

http://flyfishingmanitoba.proboards.com (This is a bulletin board where a lot of ardent, catfish-chasing fly rodders hang out.)

https://anglers.travelmanitoba.com/master_angler_search.asp (This search engine gives you all kinds of catch data for fishing in Manitoba.)

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