March–April 2021

Bucket List

Catch a Catfish on the Minnesota River

Decades ago, my teenage self set out to catch a catfish.

Roy Heilman

Decades ago, my teenage self set out to catch a catfish. From what little I knew, a sandbar on the Minnesota River between St. Peter and Mankato was the place to accomplish that. Within minutes of settling in and casting to the swirling butterscotch current, a hefty channel cat began thrashing at the end of my line. I was forever changed.

There have been many other catfish for me since then, on many other waters. But nothing ever measures up to the warm summer nights of my youth, on the banks of the Minnesota, staring at stars and waiting for my line to twitch. That river was solely responsible for making me a lover of catfish, and I’m probably not alone in that.

The Minnesota River has long had a reputation as a catfishing destination. DNR Minnesota River specialist Tony Sindt describes it as “a very high-quality trophy fishery,” noting that some may consider it “world class.”

Not that it’s getting that kind of attention. Sindt says angler pressure appears to be light and the catfish population is extremely healthy.

Channel catfish are generally smaller and more abundant than flathead catfish in the Minnesota River. Flatheads are famously ravenous, top-tier predators, prized as trophy catches. From the mouth at the Mississippi upstream to Granite Falls, anglers have a genuine opportunity to land (and release) flatheads in the 40- to 50-pound class. The entire stretch of the river, on the other hand, is good for eating-size channel cats—I happen to know.

A few summers ago my daughter reeled in her first catfish from the banks of Lac Qui Parle, an impoundment on the upper reaches of the Minnesota. Mosquitoes were aggressive on that hot, humid night, but so were the channel cats while the horizon blushed pink and purple. Together we caught almost our combined limit—including one bruiser—and left with enough for a meal.

She mentions that magic hour we shared every now and then. I think it was just enough to spawn another catfish lover. 

Minnesota River FYI

  • Shore fishing access is easily found on the Minnesota, in the many state and local parks, aquatic management areas, and wildlife management areas along its banks.
  • Four current state record fish were caught on the Minnesota, a testament to its diversity and productivity. In addition to catfish, it is considered an under-the-radar destination for walleye fishing.
  • Minnesota Department of Health fish consumption guidelines for the Minnesota River are similar to statewide guidelines.
  • Franklin, in Renville County, has held an annual catfish tournament for more than 40 years.

Tackle and Techniques

  • A stout rod is requisite catfish equipment, as is fishing line of at least 20-pound test.
  • Baits used to target channel cats appeal to their acute sense of smell, including nightcrawlers,     chicken livers, and “stink bait.” A simple slip rig placed near a current seam is sound strategy.
  • For flatheads, large live and cut baits on hooks like 8/0 octopus are favored, fished near holes and snags.
  • Late May and early June leading up to the spawning season is one of the best times to find hungry, on-the-move catfish.