Published August 05, 2007, 12:00 AM

Cat Daddy

RED WING, Minn. – Cat Daddy sat in the darkness of the backwaters of the Mississippi River one June night, recalling the time he posed for a photograph with 20 giant flathead catfish.

By: By Chris Niskanen, St. Paul Pioneer Press

RED WING, Minn. – Cat Daddy sat in the darkness of the backwaters of the Mississippi River one June night, recalling the time he posed for a photograph with 20 giant flathead catfish.

“It was in a hot tub. The water was warm. It seemed like a good idea at the time,” said Cat Daddy, aka Chris Winchester of Wanamingo, Minn.

So, you were in a vat of water with 20 live and writhing catfish?

“They were all 20 to 50 pounds, maybe. I had on a pair of jeans, of course,” he said. “Had to with all those slimy fins. It was a promotional shot for Storm fishing lures. I still see it around once in a while. It’s made the rounds.”

Winchester is a cat fisherman and erstwhile catfish model and wrangler. He has a shaved head and barrel chest, and he has been paid good money by famous anglers to help them catch whiskered fish and pose with them. The now infamous hot-tub catfish centerfold has appeared in several national magazines; Winchester was once paid to spend 28 days catching, wrangling and posing big catfish for a fishing book.

Hence his online moniker: “Cat Dad.”

Now on this June night we were hunting big cats on the Mississippi, not far from the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant. After spending daytime in the depths of deep, tree-clogged scour holes in the river backwaters, big flathead and channel catfish come out at night to eat.

Three weeks before, Winchester’s girlfriend landed a 55-pounder from the hole we were fishing.

“We were almost ready to give up. It was about 10:30 p.m. and she caught the big one,” Winchester said. “Reeled it in herself.”

For fishing equipment, we were using the big stuff.

Seven-foot rods built like pool cues. Thirty-pound monofilament line and stainless steel hooks, size 10/0, that are the dimensions of chicken eggs. Our sinkers weighed 3 ounces. For bait, we were using live bullheads, which are legal bait as long as they’re less than 7 inches long. A big flathead catfish has a mouth the size of a paint can, so a bullhead is just a late-night snack.

We parked Winchester’s 18-foot Jon boat sideways in the river channel to give us access to a deep hole lying under a big cottonwood tree.

The water was about 6 feet deep under the boat, but a few feet away the channel descends to 18 feet and a labyrinth of sunken logs and branches – the ideal hangout for big catfish.

Winchester cast the bullheads into the soupy brown water and they settled into the catfish lair. Our rod tips quivered, telegraphing the nervous movements of the bullheads below. Our large reels were set on a clicker mode, which means they would tell us when a catfish began pulling out line.

It was a little after 8 o’clock. The backwaters hummed with insects and songbirds.

We slathered on mosquito repellant and sat back to wait.

“Hopefully, they’re hungry tonight,” Cat Daddy said.

Minnesota has some of the best catfish waters in the northern United States. The state-record flathead weighed 70 pounds and was caught in the St. Croix River. The state-record channel catfish, a 38-pounder, was caught in the Mississippi. The state has only two species.

While the Mississippi and St. Croix are storied catfish waters, other rivers like the Snake, the Rum and the St. Louis have bountiful catfish populations. These waters are relatively clean, and their catfish are good to eat.

Meanwhile, Minnesota media giants North America Fisherman and In-Fisherman have photographed and videotaped countless catfish in the state, promoting a fish that has little following here.

Alas, catfishing remains largely a southern preoccupation.

“Think about it: In the South, they have bass and catfish. There aren’t a lot of walleye lakes,” Winchester said. “Any place you drive in Minnesota, you’re not far from a good walleye lake.”

Still, there could be a growing interest in Minnesota catfish.

On this night, we shared the backwater channel with three other parties, all fishing for catfish. They were rigged like we were, with large rods and reels, and they were anchored near logjams.

“I fished these channels for years and never saw anybody,” said Winchester, who says he recently has noticed more online discussions of catfish in Minnesota. “I came to this one because I thought nobody would be here.”

While the river’s main channel also has catfish, it’s a dangerous place at night. “I try to avoid it because of all the boat and barge traffic,” Winchester said.

After a few hours, one of our reels began to click. Winchester reeled up slack in the line and set the hook, but the fish didn’t have the heft of a catfish.

He reeled up a 6-pound walleye, which had swallowed the 6-inch bullhead.

“Oh, geez, a walleye,” a disappointed Winchester said.

It was released unharmed.

The evening passed quickly. An irritated beaver swam repeatedly past our boat, splashing its tail with gusto. Freight trains passed about every half hour on the distant shore, their clickity-clack rhythms adding an extra layer of ambience to the darkness. It was a night made for a Johnny Cash song and a bottle of white lightning, but we had neither. Bats chirped and dived between our fishing lines. Fish of indeterminable sizes and species splashed on the surface.

“Could be flatheads spawning,” Winchester said. “It’s that time of year. They’ll court right under the riverbanks.’

While a big catfish will strike with ferocity, our reels lay silent, except for the occasional tug of our nervous bullheads. The hour slipped past midnight.

Around 1 a.m., we were jolted upright by the zipping of monofilament off a reel. A serious-sized fish had chomped our bullhead – and was chewing it to bits.

“Now that’s a bite,” Winchester said in a near-whisper. “A good bite.”

He picked up the rod and with an over-the-shoulder motion, rammed the hook home.

“It’s a good one,” he grunted.

With a gaping mouth, a chin full of slippery whiskers, and silky, brown skin, the catfish weighed at least 30 pounds. Winchester reached into its mouth, grabbed its lower jaw and hefted it into the boat like he was pulling a Labrador retriever over the gunwale.

After pictures, Winchester eased the fish back into the river. It flopped its big tail and slunk back into the inky waters. This cat angler never keeps a trophy.

He also doesn’t do much catfish guiding anymore; Cat Daddy has taken up professional bass fishing. So far this summer, Winchester has finished in the top 10 in several river tournaments and won another, pocketing a cool $3,000.

For fishing jollity, it beats sitting in a hot tub of live catfish.