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image of an angler on a lake at dusk

Cult of the Midnight Catfish

Some anglers hoping to hook flatheads fish in the dark.

By Jason Abraham

The last red rays of late-summer sun are disappearing behind the Mississippi River blufftops when Don Hanson's boat touches water at a landing south of Red Wing. In the fading light, he, Bill Pechacek, and I set out down the Mississippi's main channel toward a nondescript jumble of timber.

Hanson deftly positions us within a few feet of the driftwood and drops two anchors, securing the boat crosswise to the current. We're on the doorstep of a scour hole, a debris-filled cavity of roiling water created when a powerful current cuts across a shoreline. Hidden under riverbanks, the holes are home to flathead catfish -- marauding denizens known to reach 70 pounds in Minnesota.

With mottled brown skin and bodies of sinewy muscle, flathead catfish feed under a blanket of darkness on worms, insects, minnows, and other fish attracted to the cover of scour holes. That's when anglers like Hanson and Pechacek nose their boats to the edge of a hideaway in hopes of tangling with a barbed behemoth.

"The cats will come out of that hole and feed in this shallow once the sun goes down," Hanson says. "They're active at night. They'll come to you."

Pechacek retorts with a grin: "Or not."

Pechacek is clad in the baseball cap and baggy, mid-length shorts of a ­­twenty-something. Hanson's graying beard marks him as an angler who stores 20 years of fishing knowledge in his head. Despite a two-decade age difference, Hanson and Pechacek share a tight friendship, built around hours over boat gunwales and behind the counter at 4 Seasons Sports, the Red Wing sporting goods store where they work. Both belong to a small but growing cult of anglers who brave darkness on the water to pursue trophy catfish.

Catfish anglers share stories online and in bait shops along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, the most popular of the state's catfish waters. Almost all describe their pursuit as an obsession, fed by the mystique of rivers at night and a silence interrupted only by the sound of a screaming drag, signaling a heavyweight battle to come.

Pechacek has been hooked on fishing flatheads since he caught a 40-pound trophy as a teenager. "I was fishing with my girlfriend's dad," he says. "I just couldn't believe the fight and the size of the fish. I still fish for walleye and bass, but they're nothing compared to flatheads."

Specialized Sport

As a nighttime sport, serious catfishing befits only anglers with flexible daytime obligations or immunity from sleep deprivation. The sport also requires specialized equipment -- heavyweight rods, 50- to 100-pound test line, and bait that some people might consider full-sized fish.

On this trip Hanson and Pechacek rig modified deep-sea rods with 5-inch bullheads, which they caught nearby. They weight each rod with a 5-ounce sinker.

Their baits hit the water with tremendous splashes. Hanson and Pechacek lean their poles against the edge of the boat and make themselves comfortable. When a fish strikes, their open-faced bait-casting reels will click as the fish takes line. Then, it's a matter of setting the hook and holding on.

"These fish are like nothing else," Hanson says. "A muskie might fight you hard for 30 seconds and then go belly up. But an average flathead will fight for 10 to 15 minutes in timber-filled water. He's going to go where he wants, and you've got to hang on."

On a good night, Hanson and Pechacek might tangle with one or two flatheads. But on many nights, like this one, the drags are silent, meaning no fish. The potential for a bruising fight keeps the anglers on edge.

Catfish Abound

Five species of catfish are commonly caught on hook and line in Minnesota: channel catfish, yellow bullhead, brown bullhead, black bullhead, and flathead.

All catfish have eight barbells (four on the upper jaw and four below), which are sensitive to touch and covered with taste buds, as is much of their bodies. Their dorsal and pectoral fins have sharp spines, which contain no poison but could injure a careless angler.

Flatheads live in large, slow rivers: the Minnesota, Mississippi, and St. Croix below Taylor's Falls. Channel catfish also live in these rivers, as well as in the St. Louis and Red rivers and many of their tributaries.

The best time to fish flatheads, Pechacek and Hanson say, is early summer when the fish are spawning and most active. During winter, flathead and channel catfish seek deep water and protection from the current. They gather in large numbers in these wintering areas each year.

Kevin Stauffer, DNR fisheries supervisor at Lake City, says the population of flathead and channel catfish in the Mississippi hasn't changed much in the past 50 years: "Their habitat has been fairly stable and water quality has improved in the river. We don't have much hard data on catfish, but most indications are that we have better populations and are seeing more large catfish."

Stauffer says fishing regulations have helped protect the species from overharvest. For example, regulations prohibit snagging catfish from their wintering holes and set a combined possession limit of 10 for flathead and channel catfish on the Mississippi.

Niche for Guiding

Brian Klawitter guides trophy catfish trips on the Mississippi for anglers who lack the necessary specialized equipment and nighttime fishing experience. He started fishing the river for catfish about four years ago and often found himself bringing friends along for company. "They always borrowed my equipment and relied on my skills," he says. "Eventually, I figured that I could probably open a guide service and share this experience with people who might never get the chance to fish flatheads."

Klawitter started his guide service last year. "To be honest, I was hoping to get three or four clients," he says. "But by the end of summer, I'd guided more than 40 trips. There seems to be a very unique niche."

Many of Klawitter's clients are father-and-son teams who have become curious after hearing tales of these barbed behemoths. "People like to try something new in a safe environment," he says. "I doubt that many of my clients will continue to fish for catfish, but they do enjoy the experience of getting out on the river at night and catching a fish that could weigh 20, 30, or 40 pounds."

The ranks of dedicated catfish anglers seem to be growing as well. Both Pechacek and Hanson say they're seeing more catfish anglers on the Mississippi. And the fastest growing forum at In-Depthangling.com, an online angling chat room, is dedicated to catfish.

"Times have changed," Klawitter says. "Fishing for cats used to be kind of a blue-collar sport, but now you're seeing a lot of different people getting involved. Even some dedicated walleye anglers will admit to fishing for cats once in a while."

River Icon

The pursuit of these monsters of the Mississippi is hardly anything new. Their abundance and their fatty meat made catfish a staple food for Indians on the river, and later for European explorers and settlers.

Several accounts collected in the book A History of Fish and Fishing in the Upper Mississippi River by Harriet Bell Carlander detail how early European explorers and traders depended on catfish for survival. According to one account, fur trader Peter Pond in 1765 fed a party of 12 men -- who had not eaten  meat in several days -- with three catfish weighing between 75 and 104 pounds. "Sum of them drank of the licker it was boiled in," he wrote.

When Europeans settled along the Mississippi, commercial fishing for catfish became an important industry. According to Carlander, the commercial catch of catfish on the upper river in 1894 was more than 3 million pounds. Today catfish continue to be fished commercially, though the catch is far less than it was in 1894. About 2,500 pounds of catfish were harvested from the Minnesota side of the Minnesota-Wisconsin boundary waters in 2005, according to Minnesota DNR records. Most of the commercial catfish harvest is trucked to small ethnic grocery stores in the Twin Cities.

Despite centuries of pursuit, catfish have remained abundant in the Mississippi, perhaps due in part to their elusive nature, which has befuddled Hanson and Pechacek on this night. It's nearing 1 a.m. and the pair of intrepid anglers have nary a strike to show for their efforts. They have moved the boat to another scour hole, freshened their baits countless times, and traded every joke they know. Finally, Hanson gives in and calls it a night. "You've got to accept nights like this when you're fishing for trophy fish," he says. "There are times when you get a lot of action, but you've got to pay your dues too. You can't expect to catch a 30-pound fish every time."

As a cool breeze blows down the river valley, they pull anchor and set off for the landing. But they'll be back another night, because catfish present a challenge like no other fish. They'll be back because they have the patience to sit and wait for a screaming reel while others sleep. And because when that reel starts screaming, they'll have a chance to land a fish that fights like a freight train.

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