Brad Dokken: After 10 years and 280 miles, tagged Manitoba catfish caught twice in 2 weeks in Grand Forks

Sep. 29—The catfish was 21.5 inches long and weighed about 3 pounds when it was tagged by researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Wednesday, May 29, 2013, on the Red River near Selkirk, Manitoba.

How the fish spent its next 10 years is anyone's guess, but a client fishing with Grand Forks catfish guide Brad Durick caught the tagged catfish Friday, Sept. 8, in the Lincoln Drive Park area of the Red River in Grand Forks.

The catfish measured 27.5 inches, meaning it had grown only 6 inches in 10 years, confirming the science that Red River catfish grow slowly but can live a long time.

Rough guess, the catfish was more than 280 river miles upstream from where it had been tagged.

That in itself is pretty cool, but the story gets better.

Last Friday, Sept. 24, I was in a boat on the Red River with James Lindner (of Lindner fishing fame) and military veterans Chad Landt and Chris Hudson as part of the Fishing for Life veterans fishing event when Hudson landed a tagged catfish. I didn't realize it at the time, but when I reported the tag number, it was the same fish Durick's client had caught two weeks to the day earlier.

Hudson caught the catfish within a long cast of the spot where Durick had reported it.

The tagged catfish, No. 000792, was part of a study that began in 2012 when researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in partnership with fisheries agencies on both sides of the border, began tagging channel catfish on the Manitoba portion of the Red River to learn more about their movements and life histories.

By the time the tagging portion of the study wrapped up about a decade later, nearly 16,000 channel catfish had been fitted with tags inserted just behind their dorsal fins. Over the years, Durick estimates he or his clients have caught and reported "I'd say 75 to 80" of the catfish tagged in Manitoba, and I've landed a couple, as well.

Out of the hundreds of tag returns that have been reported, "less than 30" catfish have been reported caught more than once, said Mark Pegg, a fish ecologist and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The faculty lead in the study, Pegg is our go-to guy when it comes to reporting tag returns because Durick and I both know him personally.

"Most of those were caught twice, but the odd one or two were caught three or more times," Pegg said in an email. "I think in most instances, there was a lot of time between recaptures."

One time, though, Pegg recalls, a fly fisherman wading the Red River below the St. Andrews Lock and Dam in Lockport, Manitoba, reported catching a catfish that had been tagged only a couple of hours earlier in the same general area.

"Usually, though, we are talking months between captures," Pegg said. That makes the catfish caught twice in two weeks in Grand Forks "a bit unique," he says.

"It must have been putting on the food bag before winter shutdown started," he said. "You must be feeding it the correct bait."

The question that inevitably arises when someone catches a tagged fish of any kind is how old it is; the catfish Hudson caught was no exception.

Based on a length-age table provided to me by Nick Kludt, Red River fisheries specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a 21.5-inch catfish, on average, should be just over 10 years old. By comparison, a 27.5-inch catfish should be about 15 years old.

In other words, a channel catfish should take about five years, on average, to grow 6 inches and not 10 years, as was the case with fish No. 000792.

The calculator is a "quick and ugly" conversion, at best, Kludt says, based on average length-at-age values for channel catfish across North America, most of which have longer growing seasons than Red River kitties. In other words, there's plenty of room for error as far as 000792's actual age.

There was no prize for catching a tagged catfish in the Fishing for Life veterans event, but if there had been, Hudson surely would have won. He'll have to settle for a good fish story. That a tagged catfish can go 10 years and swim 250 miles without being caught, only to be caught twice in two weeks, is the stuff of which great fish stories are made.

It was a memorable ending to a fantastic day on the water.