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Red River: Fish Tales

Chasing catfish to track the river's health

More on the Red River:
Red River:
The Passageway to the prairies

Bison Hunters:
How the Métis dominated the bison hunt

Red River Colony:
A brave experiment in westward expansion

Dig at the Forks:
Unearthing Winnipeg's Human Heritage

Duff's Ditch:
A Drain for the flood plain

First Farmers:
Aboriginal people pioneered grain growing

Fish Tales:
Chasing catfish to track the river's health

Just Plains Folks:
Winnipeg welcomes the world

Trails to Rails:
Railways replace wagon routes

Prairie Sea:
The Great Flood of 1950

Economic exchanges among First Nations

Louis Riel leads the Red River Rebellion

Wagons West:
Red River carts tracked the grasslands

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 fishing spots.

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