Red River: Fish Tales
Chasing catfish to track the river's health
Red River Salmon was listed on the 1880 menu of the Pacific Hotel in
Winnipeg. Although the fresh fish made an excellent meal, it was in fact
catfish, not salmon.
Years ago, when killing was the way sportfishers kept score of their performances, anglers
from as far south as Alabama would come to Manitoba to fish in the Red River. They went home
in their pickup trucks packed with crushed ice and dead catfish.
Today, most sportfishers prefer to release their catches alive, perhaps keeping a picture
of their catch as proof for their friends back home. But the Red River has maintained its
reputation as the home of channel catfish with the biggest average size in the world. The
city of Selkirk calls itself the “Catfish Capital of World.”
Fork-tailed and powerful, channel catfish feed on minnows in the faster flows of the river.
Dr. Ken Stewart, a zoologist of the University of Manitoba, captures the Red's channel catfish,
but not with a worm on a hook hanging from a bamboo pole. Stewart and his researchers catch
the fish in nets set under the winter ice. They weigh them, measure them, and fit them with
small but powerful radio transmitters before setting them free.
From low-flying aircraft, Stewart tracks the released fish by picking up signals from the
radio transmitters attached to their backs. Some of the big catfish would travel from the
United States border all the way to Lake Winnipeg in only three days.
Analyzing the health and size of the catfish population is a way to measure the overall
quality of the river as a habitat for fish.
There are more than 50 species of fish in the Red, most of them the same as the fish found
in the upper reaches of the Mississippi which starts in the same area but flows south.
The Red flows north, starting in the state of South Dakota and ending in Lake Winnipeg,
nearly 900 kilometres later. The water is clean all the way to Winnipeg. Unfortunately, Winnipeg's
sewer system is inadequate and often dumps raw sewage directly into the flow.
Still, the water is healthy enough downstream from Winnipeg to keep prized fishing spots
in operation. Lockport, where Dr. Stewart conducts much of his research, is one of these
Red River (Adobe PDF document)
of Canada (All pages in a zipped file)