Metro waters home to big catfish

(Released May 5, 2014)

The walleye may well always win the piscatorial popularity contest among Minnesotans. But for a growing number of people, the fish that gets them talking is one that can dwarf even the state record 17.5-pound walleye.

T.J. DeBates, DNR east metro fisheries supervisor, with a flathead catfish in Pool 2 of the Mississippi River.

T.J. DeBates, DNR east metro fisheries supervisor, with a flathead catfish in Pool 2 of the Mississippi River.

Sometimes wrongly spurned as a bottom-feeding rough fish, flathead and channel catfish are unique predators with taste buds all over their bodies. They can provide an exciting and challenging angling experience. And, with three large rivers flowing together – the Minnesota, Mississippi and St. Croix – the metro region is prime territory for chasing cats. In fact, the state record flathead, a 70-pound behemoth, was hoisted from a Washington County stretch of the St. Croix River. And the state record channel catfish, a 38-pounder, was pulled out of the Mississippi River in Hennepin County.

In the last five years, DNR fisheries biologist Joel Stiras has led a project to better understand the habits of catfish and those who pursue them. He’s tagged around 2,000 fish in metro rivers, to get a better handle on their population and movement. He’s solicited data from anglers, and monitored their online forums for information. He sums up metro catfish resources in just a few words: “Very good, under-utilized and growing in popularity.”

That increase in popularity, Stiras said, is largely a function of size and cost.

“It’s an opportunity to catch a really big fish,” Stiras said. “And you can get started relatively cheaply.”

All you need is a medium to heavy rod and reel, heavy sinkers (one-half to 1 ounce), and some stout hooks. Night crawlers work well for bait. And anglers can fish from shore at places like Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis with Hidden Falls nearby across the river and Raspberry Island in downtown St. Paul.

Flatheads are best pursued at night. Channel cats can be caught on a worm anytime. Stiras described the Minnesota River as a veritable “flathead factory,” noting that Pool 2 of the Mississippi – located above the dam at Hastings and extending upstream to the Ford Dam – also yields good results.

While catfish are considered a tasty meal by some, many people fishing the rivers practice catch-and-release, partly out of misplaced fears about pollution and the safety of eating river fish. According to fish consumption advisories published by the Minnesota Department of Health, however, it’s generally safe to eat one meal of catfish per week from any of the three large metro rivers. Pregnant women and children may be advised to limit consumption to one meal per month, depending on fish size and where it was taken. Check the Department of Health website for more information.

Rivers aren’t the only place to catch catfish. The DNR has been stocking channel cats in select metro lakes for more than 15 years. Ten lakes in the east metro area receive about 8,000 to 9,000 yearling catfish each year, and another 14 lakes all around the region receive adult catfish ranging from one to four pounds. Many of the fish are put into smaller basins managed by the DNR’s Fishing in the Neighborhood (FiN) program, which works with local parks and others around the region to provide close-to-home angling opportunities for kids and families. More information on FiN can be found at www.mndnr.gov/fishing/fin.

“Imagine some kid sitting on a fishing pier and hooking a six or seven pound catfish,” said Jim Levitt, who leads the east metro FiN program. “The kid has hooked a big fish, and hopefully we’ve hooked the kid on fishing.”