NEAR DRAYTON, N.D. – The rod buckled in its holder as the first catfish of the afternoon slammed the chunk of cutbait laying on the bottom of the Red River some 30 yards downstream from where Brad Durick had anchored his boat.
We’d been fishing for exactly four minutes.
Like the seasoned fisher boy he is, Durick’s 11-year-old son, Braden, picked up the rod and started reeling. A feisty catfish weighing a solid 13 pounds soon flopped on the bottom of the boat.
Seven minutes later, a 15-pound catfish was in the net. Both fish were released after quick photos.
Not a bad start.
There’ve been a lot of fast starts and quick photos this summer on the Red River for the elder Durick, in his 14th season at the helm of Brad Durick Outdoors fishing guide service. But in his 14 years as a Red River catfish guide, Durick, 46, says he’s never seen a year quite like this one for low water, thanks to widespread drought conditions that have the Red and other rivers across the region at their lowest levels in years.
He’s seen similar conditions late in the summer, but never in late June.
“I’ve never seen anything like this for this time of year – ever,” Durick said. “It’s a whole new experience.”
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In Grand Forks, the Red River on Tuesday, June 29, was flowing at 1,160 cubic feet per second. Last year on June 29, the Red River in Grand Forks was flowing at a level closer to 8,000 cfs.
A Coast Guard-licensed boat captain, Durick says he hasn’t fished the Grand Forks stretch of Red River below Riverside Dam for several weeks because of treacherously low water levels. The Red River Valley Catfish Club moved its Wednesday night fishing league events to the upstream side of the dam, where river levels are higher and less treacherous after club members began hitting rocks and damaging the lower units of their outboard motors – a repair that can cost several hundred dollars – while trying to navigate the river downstream from the dam.
Typically, league nights alternate between the Whopper John Little Boat Ramp below Riverside Dam and the LaFave Park boat ramp above the dam in East Grand Forks.
Durick, who runs the Scheels Boundary Battle Catfish Tournament in Grand Forks, moved both days of the June 26-27 competition to the upstream side of the dam as well, instead of holding the competition downstream from the dam the first day and upstream the next.
All because of the low water.
“I’ve been avoiding certain sections, north Grand Forks being the main one, just simply because I don’t really want to risk my gear,” Durick said. “Right now, a lower unit at the shop is about an eight-week wait, and when you’re in my business, an eight-week wait just isn’t going to work.”
The Red River upstream from the dam in Grand Forks is fine, Durick says, but there’s no current. And without current, catfish are difficult to pattern, he says.
“(Current) makes them predictable, so I’ve been hanging out in Drayton quite a bit because we’ve got current, although there’s not much left,” Durick said.
Without rain and an influx of water, Durick says, it won’t be long before the Red River below the Drayton Dam becomes unnavigable as well. Already, pelicans roost on an exposed midriver sandbar that’s normally underwater, and the bones of bison and cattle – some perhaps a century old or more – jut out from various places along the riverbank.
Durick found a massive buffalo skull, complete with horns intact, during a recent trip to Drayton, and Braden collected several bones of unknown origin on this late June afternoon.
The river was down about 8 inches from Durick’s last trip to Drayton only five days earlier.
“I know I’m getting close to the lowest I’ve ever dealt with (at Drayton), and I know I can probably finagle a touch lower,” he said. “The biggest thing is it’s affecting where I can and can’t go. I can fish everywhere I want to fish; the problem is I don't want to risk damage to my boat because I want to stay rolling.”
Despite low water concerns, business has been booming this summer, Durick says, a trend that matches the national uptick in fishing, camping and other outdoors activities since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before taking a couple of days off from guiding to run the Scheels Boundary Battle tournament, Durick was on the water 27 out of 28 days and 30 out of 32 days.
“I’ve never been this busy before,” he said. “This is overwhelming, almost, because so many new people are coming in. You can see it at the bait shop – more people buying bait, more people on the shore.”
Durick says he’s had clients from as far away as Wyoming, Oregon, Virginia and Missouri this year in addition to the traditional strongholds of Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
“I’ve dealt with more people who’ve never catfished before, talked to more people who’ve never catfished before, I think, than ever in the last year and a half,” he said. “So, (the pandemic) is bringing a lot of new people in.”
Guiding almost every day leaves little time for leisurely fishing, and our afternoon on the Red River marks the first time Durick has gotten to reel in a catfish or spend time in the boat with son Braden in several weeks.
“I don’t even remember how to catch a fish,” he joked.
As a fishing guide, Durick says he’s reluctant to talk numbers and size with clients before a trip at the risk of jinxing the outing, but we finish the afternoon with 19 catfish up to 20 pounds in about five hours of fishing.
A meticulous recordkeeper, Durick says he’s averaged about 1½ fish an hour over the years, which works out to about half a dozen fish in a four-hour guide trip. This year has been considerably better than that, he says.
“We’re blowing that out of the water,” Durick said.
Already this year, Durick and his clients have landed 2,266 catfish, making it his best year ever, including six that were tagged in Manitoba as part of a multi-year study. Of that total, 38 catfish have weighed 20 pounds or more, he says, and upwards of 99% of the fish landed have been released. While those kinds of numbers can set unrealistic expectations, Durick says his previous best year was 2018, when 2,100 catfish came into his boat. That took five months, compared with only two months this year to land even more.
In 2019 and 2020, Durick says he barely broke 1,000 catfish for the year.
“As the water’s getting lower, (numbers) are starting to slack off and become a little more normal,” he said. “You typically have to sort through a few smaller fish to get the big fish. We’ve been seeing a lot more big fish than normal, so that’s been really good.”
In the meantime, like farmers across the region, Durick and other river anglers hope and pray for rain to get the water back up to more favorable levels. Growing up on a farm near Bowbells, in northwest North Dakota, Durick says he definitely sees parallels between farming and guiding.
“In conversations I had with my dad, it's pretty much the same,” he said. “You pay all your expenses and insurance up front. You have big gas bills, you have repair bills and you hope Mother Nature treats you right. That’s pretty much how it is.
“Will I run out of water? It’s like, ‘Will my wheat grow?’ ”
More info: redrivercatfish.com.