RED RIVER NEAR DRAYTON, N.D. — As inaugural fishing excursions go, that first day on the Red last May near Drayton was one Brad Durick won’t soon forget.
A catfish guide based in Grand Forks, N.D., Durick had been watching the screen of his Humminbird Onix 10 depth-finder when he noticed a slight change in the river bottom. It wasn’t much, but the change — a small midriver hole that dropped into about 10 feet of water — was just enough to convince him to drop the anchor.
On a stretch of the Red known for its subtleties, that was all Durick needed to see. He’d been there before and figured that subtlety would be enough to hold a catfish or two.
The hunch was confirmed a few minutes later when one of the four poles bristling off the back of his 19-foot jon boat buckled over in its holder.
That didn’t take long.
In the way catfish nearly always do, the fish put up a battle all the way to the boat. That’s to be expected when you start the day with a 16-pound catfish.
A respectable fish, to be sure. But there’d be bigger cats to come.
A latecomer to fishing — the Bowbells, N.D., native seldom wet a line until his mid-20s — Durick, 40, is both a teacher and a student of the Red River and the catfish that swim in its murky depths. In addition to guiding from spring through fall, Durick in 2013 wrote “Cracking the Channel Catfish Code,” a self-published book heavy on technical aspects of catfishing such as current, water temperature and metabolism and how such factors affect catfish behavior. Earlier this year, he published a second book, “Advanced Catfishing Made Easy.”
He also conducts seminars throughout the Upper Midwest promoting catfish and the passion he has for pursuing them.
Trial and error
Learning the Red and its catfish, Durick said, has been a process of trial and error.
“It was one of those things where I just started liking to catch catfish and purely putting time in on the water and learning it,” he said. “And when you start learning what you want to see, you start paying attention.”
Durick’s books aren’t exactly light reading, but they have been well-received by serious catfish anglers, especially in states such as Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.
The idea for his first book was spawned by a rough day on the water, said Durick, a licensed Coast Guard captain in his ninth season as a catfish guide.
“As much as you hate a bad day, they’re the best learning experiences for how to deal with different situations,” he said. “They’re awful at the time, but half of my first book was written because I got skunked.”
An important part of “Cracking the Channel Catfish Code” deals with what Durick calls “lateral movement,” a tendency for fish to move laterally into, or away from, the channel of the river. If conditions are favorable for feeding, Durick said, the fish will move into the current or middle of the river to feed. If the fish are inactive and not feeding, they will move away from the faster water to sit or rest, usually shallow.
The seam, where slack water meets faster current, is one of the first places Durick looks for catfish.
“Learning how current looks was probably one of the biggest ‘aha’ moments ever,” Durick said. “If you know what you’re looking at on the water, that can really speed up the process, and you actually know what that looks like or approximately where that line is going to form.
“That’s the point of least resistance in the current, and that’s where the fish are going to go.”
Having access to whiz-bang technology — and knowing how to use it — also has helped Durick in his quest to learn the Red River. His depth-finder has a feature that allows him to literally draw his own map of a particular stretch of river.
“When I first started, I’d find a hole and it would take me the whole summer to figure out how that hole was laid in,” he said. “Now, with advanced electronics, I can actually draw a real-time map and have it figured out in about five minutes.”
Durick’s latest book, “Advanced Catfishing Made Easy,” expands on “Catfish Code” but in simplified terms that apply to catfish anywhere in the country.
“I explain the system I use every day when I guide,” Durick said. “It starts out with looking up some simple weather and water data to find the trends in conditions. From there, you simply match the conditions to the season you are in on the included chart.”
A “pick-your-own-adventure” catfish book, so to speak.
Since he started guiding, Durick has encountered the extremes in Red River fishing conditions. In 2014, it was flooding; the past two springs, it has been the opposite.
“My line going into this year is, ‘it’s always something,’” Durick said. “The lowest water I’d ever seen since I started guiding was in 2012.”
River levels during that excursion last May were comparable to late summer 2012.
“On the other hand, in 2011, we flirted with flood stage the entire year,” Durick added. “Having seen both ends of the spectrum, I would rather deal with high water than low water.”
After a dry spring last year, June 2015 brought an onslaught of rain that persisted throughout the summer. High water and strong current attracts catfish to head upstream, and that’s exactly what happened last summer on the Red.
High water also allows the cats to clear the St. Andrews Lock and Dam north of Winnipeg in Lockport, Manitoba, and the Drayton Dam in the U.S.
As part of a tagging study launched in 2012 between Manitoba’s Fisheries Branch and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, some 13,000 channel cats have been tagged on the Canadian portion of the Red River from the Manitoba border to Lake Winnipeg. In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources tagged another 300 or so catfish last summer.
The orange-colored tags are inserted near the dorsal fin and are patterned after the price tags clothing stores use; they will stay in place for 10 years.
Mark Pegg, a fish ecologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and faculty adviser for the study, said about 500 tag returns have been reported since the study launched, including about 110 from the U.S. Last summer alone, Durick reported landing 18 tagged cats during his guide trips, most of them tagged on the Manitoba portion of the river some 300 river miles downstream.
The influx of Canadian cats was a welcomed development for anglers on the U.S. portion of the Red because the average size of the big river’s cats increases in downstream stretches of river.
That likely explains why catfish in the 20-pound class were more common than usual last summer.
As a catfish guide, Durick welcomed the trend.
“I think you catch less fish in high water, but I think the fish are more predictable, and you tend to catch bigger fish,” he said.
Durick says he’s seen a change in people’s perceptions of the Red River in the last five years. Gone are the days of people thinking of the Red as a dangerous, muddy river to be avoided.
Catfish, he says, are driving that trend. Durick routinely draws anglers from 15 states seeking to battle the river’s channel cats, but it’s catching on closer to home, as well.
He credits the change to positive media coverage and outdoors shows featuring Red River catfish. Durick has appeared on “In-Fisherman,” “Dakota Destinations,” “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” and “G3 Sportsman,” among other fishing shows.
“There have been a lot of stories showing what’s featured right in our backyard,” Durick said. “I think that is starting to spark interest that ‘Hey, we should at least try it.’”
That’s also reflected in the growing number of North Dakota anglers booking catfish trips, he said.
“Sales-wise, I’m definitely seeing it; attitude-wise, I’m definitely seeing it,” Durick said. “Day-to-day participation-wise, I can’t say I’m seeing it all that much.”
That might explain why we had the river to ourselves on that bluebird afternoon last May.
Using fresh sucker minnows cut into bite-sized chunks, we’d give a spot 20 minutes and move if the action slowed.
At nearly every move, the wait between strikes wasn’t very long, and one stop produced a fish within 90 seconds.
In five hours, we landed 26 catfish up to 22 pounds and lost four or five others.
“A typical day is a dozen fish,” Durick said. “We’re going to be working hard for more than that. Twenty fish is a heck of a day. Any time I can get 20, 22, 25 fish, I’m very happy. If we can get a couple of monsters in there, I’m happy, they’re happy and it shows off the river in its best light.”