New N.D. record channel catfish surprises even the expertsIt seemed just a matter of time that North Dakota's 33-pound, 4-ounce channel catfish record would fall. Of course, everyone thought the record would come from the Red River. But Moon Lake?
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column saying, in so many words, that North Dakota’s channel catfish record likely would be broken this summer.
There was good reason to think so, especially at the time. Channel catfish action along the Red River was on a tear, and anglers routinely were catching fish that tickled 30 pounds.
It seemed just a matter of time, then, that the 33-pound, 4-ounce mark that had stood for 18 years would fall.
Of course the record would come from the Red River, I thought. So did everyone else I interviewed for the column.
So, I wasn’t surprised earlier this week, when I logged on to the Herald’s Web site during a short vacation to see the headline reading, “Quite a catch: 42-pound catfish sets North Dakota record.”
My only question at the time was where on the Red River the fish had been landed. Then I opened the story to learn the behemoth catfish had come from tiny Moon Lake near Valley City, N.D., in Barnes County.
To say I was surprised a 106-acre lake produced the record would be an understatement.
One catfishing buddy said he was disappointed the Red no longer holds the record because “it’s the best channel cat fishery in the country.”
He took comfort, though, in the fact that Tina Willis, 31, of West Fargo, N.D., was targeting catfish with her boyfriend, Toby Mougey of Fargo, on July 25 when she landed the new record while using a frog for bait.
In the eyes of a hardcore cat man, it just wouldn’t have been right if she’d been dunking a nightcrawler for sunfish, stocked rainbow trout or some other “lesser” species — lesser in the eyes of a cat man, at least.
Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said he heard the news last Sunday morning when Gene Van Eeckhout, the department’s southeastern district fisheries supervisor in Jamestown, called to report the new state record.
Van Eeckhout had observed the fish and weighed it on a certified scale. The cat measured 40 inches and weighed in at 42 pounds, 1 ounce — even though it had been out of the water more than 12 hours by that point.
Then came the shocker.
“He said how big it was, and then he said Moon Lake, and it was, ‘huh?’” Power recalls. “I’d totally forgot we’d ever put catfish in there.”
Van Eeckhout said channel catfish first were stocked in Moon Lake in 1986 as a way to target bullhead populations. Game and Fish then skipped three years before stocking every year from 1989 to 1993, he said. The cats came from the federal hatchery in Valley City, Van Eeckhout said, but the eggs didn’t originate from fish in either the Red or the Missouri rivers.
Van Eeckhout said he hasn’t had a chance to age the catfish but estimates it could be anywhere from 16 to 23 years old. The lake is a closed basin so the fish couldn’t have gotten in from another body of water.
While Moon Lake’s recent record might be a surprise, the people who caught it have plenty of experience targeting cats in the small lake. According to Van Eeckhout, Toby Mougey, the record-holder’s fishing partner, worked for the Game and Fish district fisheries office in Jamestown a few years back.
It was Mougey who contacted Van Eeckhout last Sunday morning to verify the record.
“Toby actually was catching those fish about the same time he worked for me, and at that time, they were about 20 pounds,” Van Eeckhout said.
Before that, Van Eeckhout said the only evidence of channel cats in Moon Lake was from an elderly Valley City man who targeted them. And a search of the Game and Fish Department’s Whopper and Catch and Release club listings turns up only one channel cat from Moon Lake before Willis’ catch: a 12-pound, 10-ounce cat kept in 1994.
“I haven’t even had time to look back to see if we recovered any in our survey work,” Van Eeckhout said. “I think if we had and I’d been there, I would have remembered.”
Tough to beat
Power, the Game and Fish fisheries chief, admits the new record is going to be difficult to top. Especially considering it completely obliterated a record that stood for 18 years.
“The bar has been set quite high,” he said. “You look at other states and their records, and this is right up there. A lot of states have far longer growing seasons than we do with smaller state records.”
No doubt the cat from Moon Lake had an advantage, Power said: A rich forage base including rainbow trout and none of the current that catfish have to contend with on the Red.
“For a catfish to get big in North Dakota, they’ve got to live a long time,” Power said. “And if you can find a water body where they live for 15-20 years, there’s usually a lot of groceries in these lakes.
“This fish apparently had plenty.”
So there you have it — a pothole in the middle of the state now holds bragging rights for North Dakota’s largest catfish. And I very much doubt the record will fall anytime soon.
Just goes to show, I guess … you never know.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.