I often try to solve the puzzle of what drives me to the outdoors, especially on the water. Is it the natural beauty of my surroundings? The fascination of what swims in the mystery below the surface of the water? Or is it as simple as some fresh air combined with some sun on my face? I have never completely came to a conclusion, but I am sure it is a combination of all of these.
Occasionally the type of fishing adventure I embark on makes me question my own sanity. Our recent camp out on the Minnesota river is no doubt a perfect example. Catfishing is often frowned upon in Minnesota where the walleye reigns king. Even though the catfish is possibly the most sought after game fish in the United States, I still get funny looks from die hard bass, trout, musky and especially walleye guys. I feel lucky to not be a narrow minded fisherman. The more species I open my mind to, the more locations I get to visit and experience.
Even though I lived near the Minnesota river for 10 years, only recently have I discovered what and amazing ecosystem it harbors. The Minnesota river starts near the South Dakota border and travels south to Mankato where it makes a turn and runs “uphill” and north to the Twin Cities where it eventually empties into the Mississippi. It flows through a massive and beautiful valley that was created when an ice dam broke free in NW Minnesota and tore through the landscape violently (http://mrbdc.mnsu.edu/minnesota-river-valley-formation). What is left is a medium sized naturally muddy river, barely deep enough to allow an average sized fishing boat. Always known as a polluted river, only recently have the locals begun to embrace and protect this river. It is also a Catfish magnet.
The Mission was to set out at night, find a sand bar to camp on and wait for the big boys to roll through. Although cats can be caught during the day, after sundown they really get their hunt on. Armed with suckers and night crawlers, we were determined to start a fire and wait for the reel clickers to start screaming. The threat of nasty weather was looming, but so was the threat of summer coming to a close, and wanted to make every breath of fresh air count. I have always wanted to camp on this amazing river, knowing I could increase my chances of a trophy by staying out all night made it a no brainer.
Upon arriving around 9 pm with my fishing partner Greg, we loaded up a lot of gear in the boat and headed out from the public access to set up in the dark. 2 tents, camping gear, firewood & fishing gear can fill up a 16 ft fishing boat quickly. The plan was to set up some shelter and head out to a hole close by to see if we could find any action. This way if the weather turned nasty we could always scramble back to camp and hide from the rain. After 30 minutes of fighting tent poles we finally pushed off into the current and headed out in search of some river monsters.
Because of the diversity of fish in the Minnesota River we generally bring along 2 types of gear. Stout catfish rods with slip sinker rigs are a must to hold bait in current. As a secondary rod, I like to have a basic spinning rod with 8 lb test line. My favorite rig for any kind of fishing is a simple hook and split shot with a crawler on the end. If the catfishing is slow, this rig will catch just about anything that swims in slack water including waterdogs, soft shell turtles, gar, sturgeon, walleye, suckers, carp and of course catfish.
When fishing for trophy catfish, patience is a virtue. A couple of big cats overnight is often considered a success. As the big cat rods weren’t producing any action, I eventually switched to my spinning rod and immediately it yielded results. A pair of 5 lb carp got my blood pumping, followed quickly by some smaller catfish. Sometimes its just nice to get the first fish out of the way as a confidence builder, but still no big fish.
The forecast had called for a slim chance of rain, but the lightning show to our south was telling us we had other things in store for the evening. It was approaching 1 am with occasional sprinkles and the radar was alerting us to trouble headed our way. Time for Plan B. The beauty of fishing while camping is that you never really stop fishing. When the weather hits we could hide in our tents, leaving our reel clickers on to alert us of any fish. So we headed back to camp, rigged up some big suckers, started a fire and put the rod in the holders. By this time the lightning was steady and noisy. Small thunderstorm cells were tracking steadily by us with occasional heavy rain. This is when we both realized the value of the rain fly included with our tents! After some chaotic scrambling we managed to secure everything good enough to concentrate on drinking some beers.
Now it was 3 am and still no big cats to speak of. Both of us had been worn down by the weather and the fishing was slow, so we decided to take cover in our tents. After settling in and becoming ever more wary of the lightning show, through the thunder I hear Greg’s reel gently click. We were fishing in heavy current so it is not uncommon for the bait to move, so I sat and waited. After 5 more minutes another gentle click. At this point the rain and lightning were steady and I had no intention of standing in it unless I was sure it was a fish. After a couple more minutes the fish hits it hard! A couple of feet of line tears off Greg’s reel and quickly my tent zipper becomes my enemy. After battling my way out I begin screaming “fish on! fish on!” toward Greg’s tent through the thunder.
Greg immediately comes to life and fights his way out of his soaked tent. Using a circle hook slip sinker rig allows for the fish to hook itself without swallowing it, and this fish was obviously hooked. After a rod bending battle Greg was finally able to pull a nice flathead up on the sand. Success! Its amazing what a big fish will do to cure drowsiness! Now it was pushing 4 am and the weather was moving out but our adrenaline was running high. We end up watching the fire die and the sun come up. I manage to land one more nice sized channel before I hit the hay at sun up.
Success? Feels like it to me. The weather put on a great show, the bugs were almost non-existent this late in the season and getting to camp on this beautiful river was a real treat. I no doubt would have trouble explaining this behavior to a non-fisherman, but Greg and me have been chasing the big cats ever since we caught our first small one, and we learn a bit more every time. The adventure was probably enough to call this trip worth the effort, but the big fish was icing on the cake. I will be back, and more anxious than ever to get that big one. It’s going to be a long Minnesota winter.