by Daniel Kiazyk
One of North America's Mecca's for the big "forked tail" or channel cat includes the lower reaches of the Red river (of the north) up to lake Winnipeg. This location has all of the elements which provide for the success of an enormous --- yet fragile channel cat fish population. Netley marsh offers a huge spawning area and lake Winnipeg provides a huge forage base upon which these fish thrive. The Red river itself provides many structural elements which protect and nurture this population. The final component of the picture that has created the conditions of possibility for this stellar fishery has been the province's conservation policy. Fish over 24" have to be returned to swim again. This policy makes sense when you consider the age of these slow growing northern fish --- channel cat fish at the furthest north of their natural range. A fish over 30 inches may be 30 years old making it very difficult to replace the genes of fish if removed from this environment. It is the intent of this article to suggest that of all considerations to be made when angling this world famous fishery, location is perhaps the most significant factor. Considerations such as whether or not the fish are present, or if their seasonal movements and the effect that this has on concentrations of fish or forage and it's availability are all important, but they wane when compared to "where you to fish" --- location. If you want to have a successful angling foray and have channels as your target, the first mile below the Saint Andrew's Locks should be a primary consideration.
The locks at Saint Andrews (The name St. Andrew's follows from the Anglican diocese established in this area along the Red at the very beginning of Manitoba's history), were built as a water control device controlling water levels between Lake Winnipeg and the city of Winnipeg (and beyond). The age of the structure is remarkable as it harkens back to the days of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (he's the gentleman on the five dollar Canadian bill). Water levels typically drop on the Red during the summer and as a result navigation between St Andrews and Winnipeg become very difficult for some of the larger craft which ply the waters of Lake Winnipeg. The locks regulate water levels to aid larger lake-boat traffic reach Winnipeg an activity which was once an important commercial component of Manitoba's economy. But a new era has developed and which is directly related to these old structures, angling for big fork tails in numbers unparalleled anywhere in Canada. This article, as was already mentioned, will reflect on that area directly related to the first mile below this structure, a location which arguably holds one of the most significant populations of channel cats in Canada if not North America. For the sake of simplicity I will suggest that this area can be dissected into five parts. These five parts offer both the first time angler to the area as well as the seasoned river rat a picture of where the big forked tails of the lower Red river can be found.
This is that area below the gates which hold back the waters of the Red River. The gates are adjusted in some instances on a daily basis. Seasonal flows determine to a great extent to what degree the gates are opened. This area can be too dangerous to fish, so it is advisable that anglers use good sense when fishing in this area (PFD's personal flotation devices are a part of this good sense!). Fishing from an anchored position is what is required here. However anchoring in this area can be very tricky. Firstly there can be a back current which will draw your boat back towards the open locks. Secondly the bottom of this area is ridden with snags and require the use of an anchor which can pivot (which can be reversed by pulling it out in the opposite direstion). A slip rig or a bait suspended from a float are tactics which produce in this area. This area does produce fish throughout the year, but is best in spring. Floats will produce behind gate more closed than open and bottom oriented rigs will produce in those areas where current is present. Remember if you angle here be careful!
This area adjacent to and just a little further from the locks is a result of periods of high water and fast current. The result of this action is a depression with a lip at its backside and a back side. The size and extent of the washout can vary. It may be larger or limited behind one particular set of gates which have been opened more than others (usually towards the middle of the river)). It may also be massive as was the case behind the exit of the Red River floodway outlet after the flood of the century in 1998 (the resultant hole – lip etc was massive). It follows that with this knowledge of the general structure of the washout the angler can exploit a number of different areas which will hold fish at different times of the day or season. On a hotter mid summer day the hole of the wash out seems to hold more fish The lip and the backside of the washout at this time does not seem to have many fish…. That same day in the evening will see fish place themselves in different places in the washout, the lip and the backside of the wash out will hold more active fish. In the spring as opposed to the summer fish will seem to be all over/scattered throughout the washout and they will bite throughout the day.. Finally in the fall the washout will not hold any or at best a very small number of cats and the bite will be incredibly slow.. time might be better spent elsewhere! The technique usually plied in this area will involve some time of bottom orientated rig or some anglers will try to drift a float over the lip area.
The Periphery (Piers, locks, dredged channels for navigation, back eddies)
All of these areas hold fish throughout much of the season. However they are difficult to fish for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is a zone where boat anglers will crossover into the shore angler' domain. Good fishing etiquette requires that boat fisherman respect these anglers and the water they have available to them. Secondly, non fishing boat traffic uses a lot of these areas as well. It is a requirement of Canadian navigational law that these boaters have safe access to the mooring areas as well as the locks. Finally there is a number of safety issues related to these areas. Many are posted as being dangerous areas and by fishing in them you may be voiding your insurance or more significantly you may be putting yourself in unnecessary danger. Nonetheless if access is available and safety precautions are taken these areas do hold a considerable number of fish (eg fish may have perished in the lock structure as a result of a lack of oxygen and then are subsequently flushed when the locks are opened. The result is an attractant that many cats can't refuse and being in this area at this time puts you in proximity with many catchable fish! Bottom fishing predominates in these areas although a float system will produce fish earlier in the summer of the year.
First Neckdown and Floodway inlet
This location in the Saint Andrews locks area is perhaps one of the most consistent areas of early summer to late summer cattin'. The fish will position themselves at different depths in this location given the current, type of atmospheric conditions, the time of day. This area is not as specific as it does extend itself for 500-1000 meters depending on the time of the year. However if there are nooks and crannies distinguishable eg. change from soft to hard bottom, a hole, a stronger contour will have an effect upon the number of fish available to the angler. Changing location here is important even if it means moving fifty feet. A bottom fishing approach is most effective although at the corner entrance of the floodway a float can be deadly if the fish are shallower. Connected with this last area is the floodway inlet. Depending upon the time of year (usually early spring) anglers can move into this area to find large numbers of cats. Water levels, temperature and forage seem to be the factors that dictate whether or not to angle in this area. If the latter three elements are in proper proportions the angler will have a little bit of paradise literally at his feet! This area can be the float fisherman's paradise. With cut bait and a stout float the angler (or even a float tube and a number of larger "cat flies) can even wade into the water to do battle with these pugnacious critters…. To actually wade in calls for a great deal of care as bottom composition and depth can change without warning, prudence is definitely a virtue in this locale! Even though cut bait is king, cats do take flies….. and when they do the resultant battle is extraordinary.
Specific locational factors are the key to being able to understand the waters below the Locks at St. Andrews, Lockport Manitoba. Getting a feel for this mighty river and its fish holding locations comes with time and continued refinement ( other factors including seasonal movements, forage, water temperature, weather systems, etc….) can further improve your opportunities. Bu the latter is the "stuff" of another discussion some other time, right now I'd rather remember those lazy afternoons..... zzzzzzzz (that's my reel with another fish eh!)