Monster catfish

“Wait ... wait ... let him take the hook in. Now, set the hook!”

Patience when setting a hook in a channel catfish’s mouth was the best advice offered by our guide Dave Marshall.

The Winnipeg Real Estate News team of REALTOR® Tom Derksen and Winnipeg Real Estate Board public relations director Peter Squire and myself took Dave’s advice to heart and managed to catch 10 channel catfish in the space of 2 1⁄2 hours from the Red River. 

There were also the tales of the ones that got away — each judged to be of mammoth proportion. In fact, I swear that the first fish I hooked and then  reeled to within tantalizing reach of a net, only to have it shake off the hook from its massive mouth, would have challenged CKY-TV reporter Rachel Lagace’s 91-centimetre monster, a Master Angler specimen and the largest fish caught during the Fish Winnipeg Media Challenge last Tuesday morning. Our team’s biggest fish fell 21 centimetres short of her brute.

If you ask Tom, a fish that escaped as he drew it toward the net was even bigger. “Did you see it! It was a monster!” he exclaimed after it threw off his hook.

Legace related during a brunch at Branigan’s at The Forks — fittingly a fish fry — following the challenge, that the giant channel “cat” she caught was first seen breaking the surface, scant metres away.  

“He’s tempting us,” was what Legace said to her teammates. “We have to get that one.”

Of course, the intrepid angler cast her line out and used all the powers at her command to in turn tempt the “cat.” Falling to the charms of the bait on her hook, it was a fish that did not get away.

Dave’s advice and knowledge of the river around The Forks helped us catch fish with a total measurement of 562 centimetres which was good enough for fourth place in the media challenge. The team representing Shaw Cable took first place with 15 fish, measuring a total of 897 centimetres. 

The media teams managed to land a total of 104 fish, though this was a catch-and-release tournament so the fish were all thrown back after being measured.

Tourism Manitoba’s Don “The Complete Angler” Lamont said the point of the media challenge is to get out the message that Winnipeg’s rivers provide some of the best urban fishing in Canada, if not North America.

It’s hard to argue with Lamont. And, it also a message that has been duplicated by anglers from across the globe. In 1996, In-Fisherman Magazine dubbed the Red River, the “Jewel in the Catfishing World Crown.”

The statue of Chuck the Catfish in Selkirk is also an acknowledgement that when fishing for channel cats, the Red can’t be beat.

As far back as 1895, channel cats were reported as being “exceedingly abundant” in the Red River at Winnipeg. But, this fishery remained one of the best kept local secrets for years. It wasn’t until the 1970s that word finally got out to the rest of the world that the Red in Manitoba had a plentiful supply of trophy-sized channel cats. (Don’t forget about the Assiniboine River, since it also has its share of monster catfish.)

The channel cat (Ictalurus punctatus rafinesque) is not your typical catfish because of its less rounded body. Its sleeker body at first glance seems flabby, but pick one up and you’ll soon find out that it’s filled with muscles that allow it to act more like a salmon and jump out of the water when hooked. It is rumoured, although I have not yet been able to prove it, that in the 1890s a Winnipeg restaurant even tried to pass off the channel catfish fillets it served as coming from the mythical Red River salmon.

The bait for luring channel cats to a hook is usually a piece of goldeye, a worm, a minnow or whole large prawns. The hook presentation can be provided by a pickerel rig or a weighted rig. In the latter case, the fishing line is sunk to the bottom of the river by a heavy weight and  a smaller length of line holds the hook and bait. This is an effective presentation since channel cats usually feed at or near the bottom.

Among channel cat angling enthusiasts tales abound of the many opportunities to catch fish weighing in at well over 20 pounds and sometimes reaching an arm-wrenching 35 pounds or more. The Manitoba record for a channel catfish is 118.11 centimetres (46.5 inches). Since I don’t have the formula on  hand to covert centimetres to pounds or kilograms, I’ll hazard a guess that this fish would have been somewhere around the weight of a baby elephant, although I might be slightly exaggerating its weight.

Brad Durick, of WDAZ-TV in Grand Forks, said the Red is “an absolute (fishing) gold mine” all the way from his American hometown to Winnipeg. “We’re just so lucky to have this fishery right here in our communities.”

The WDAZ team beat out our team, claiming third place in the challenge. 

Actually, there’s more to the media challenge in the morning and the corporate challenge in the afternoon other than bragging rights to catching the biggest fish or most fish, and that’s raising funds from corporate sponsorships which go  toward providing angling opportunities to inner-city youth. This year’s event raised $17,500 which will be used to give some 600 youth angling instruction and their own rods and reels through the Urban Angling Partnership.

The success of the fund-raising effort is ensured by the sponsors and volunteers. REALTOR® Steven Yuffe solicited and organized the 29 volunteer guides, many of whom took time off work to help out for the day. Yuffe also sponsored the Conservation Award for the team that had the least success which was won by FREQ107. It’s not such a big deal since the WREN and countless other teams have been skunked in past years. 

Even when no fish are caught, participants revel in being on the Red or Assiniboine and the tranquility created by water lapping gently against a boat. Tuesday was an especially great day since a full moon greeted anglers in the morning and the Red was behaving at its best with placid waters only occasionally broken by the eruption of a fish’s tail at the surface. 

For fishing enthusiasts and whether or not fish were landed, it was a truly magical day.