ALONG THE MINNESOTA RIVER -- It’s the mystery of not knowing what’s under the water that first attracted Max Dzubay to fishing.
It’s why river fishing has become his passion. Lakes are predictable. Toss a line by the lilly pads for bass. Drop a jig along a rock bar for walleye. You pretty much know what’s going to be there, he explained.
Drop a line in a river?
“It looked alien,” said Dzubay of the white belly that was revealed by his LED headlamp as he reeled in what turned out to be a shovelnose sturgeon.
That was sometime around midnight when he caught the first of his two shovelnose sturgeon for the night.
It was just after 4 a.m., a crescent moon and a sky bursting with stars above him, when he caught what he was after. The apex predator of the river, a flathead catfish.
He estimates its weight at 35 pounds.
It was the only flathead caught during the night-long pursuit for them. “If we’re gonna get just one, let it be that one,” said Dzubay, 33, of Minneapolis.
Dzubay was among a group of eight who made a sandbar on the Minnesota River our camp for an afternoon and night of fishing. The day time fishing was slow. A couple of two- and three-pound channel catfish and a 28-inch walleye were the most notable of the catch.
The chosen fish became the main ingredient in fish tacos. Locally raised sweet corn roasted over a wood fire and glazed with butter was served alongside the main attraction.
Good conversation followed as the sun slipped below the trees at our location in southwestern Minnesota. A flat-bottomed boat with a mud motor large enough to lift it up a waterfall puttered downstream. Its lone occupant kept a poker face, his eyes focused on the river snags ahead of him. He offered no more than a courtesy wave to acknowledge ours, obviously not willing to betray the purpose of his outing as he disappeared around a bend.
We knew. For him, as well as some in our party, the day’s end and a dark sky could not come soon enough.
Their rods and reels big enough for saltwater fishing already lined the river bank.
It’s after dark when the big flathead catfish emerge from the deep holes and log jams where they spend the day out of the current and heat of the day. They're on the hunt: They swim upstream when darkness descends so that their barbels (whiskers) can catch the scent of upstream prey, like sharks searching for a blood stream.
Not long after nightfall, thunder rumbled, lightning flashed, and a storm that popped up unexpectedly threatened to hit, but missed our camp.
When the weather settled down, and all was quiet, fishing party member Marv Boerboom’s pole came to life. The pole throbbed, the fish made a run, and it wrapped his line on submerged tree limbs. Boerboom and this writer hopped in a canoe and paddled out to the line, and soon, the pole was vibrating again. It wasn’t long before he had an 11-pound channel catfish in his gloved hand.
He smiled for photos with his catch as the clouds cleared and the stars returned.
Another large channel cat came calling later, hitting fishing party organizer Tom Kalahar's pole. Still later Dzubay caught (and released) his two sturgeon.
Otherwise, the night was quiet. Eyelids grew heavy, but snapped open like spring-loaded window shades when the vigilant Dzubay felt the big tug on his pole around 4 a.m.
It was not an epic, Old Man and the Sea-type battle between angler and fish. But the excitement in camp when Dzubay pulled his fish on shore was no different than when Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs crossed the goal line after catching a pass from Case Keenum in the final play of the 2018 divisional championship against New Orleans.
For many years, Minnesota anglers snubbed their noses at fishing for flathead catfish. Times are changing, as this writer confirmed after our trip by contacting Darren Troseth, of 3 Rivers Fishing Adventures in the metro area. Along with guiding fishing excursions for catfish and other species on the Minnesota, Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, Troseth is a member of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' working committee on flathead catfish. He now hosts a popular flathead fishing tournament.
“The one thing that really bothered me about catfishing was the stereotypes and negative stigma attached to the sport,” wrote Darren Troseth in an email. “My view of it was that we are fishing for long-living apex predators of the river, and a fish to be proud to catch and a resource we all should do our best to protect and preserve.”
Troseth said he likes to compare fishing for flatheads to muskies. “The chase is sometimes more alluring than the actual catch and it's not for everyone, but for those who get "the bug" it's a tough one to shake. I've seen many people get into flathead fishing, but very few give it up,” he explained.
The Minnesota River offers a nationally recognized fishery for flathead catfish, according to Tony Sindt of the Hutchinson fisheries office, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. There are places where you might catch more flathead catfish, and places where you might catch larger, but no place where your opportunity to catch 20- and 30-pound flathead catfish matches the Minnesota River, he said.
He is part of a DNR crew tagging and netting flathead catfish in the river to learn what we can about them. There is little information on their growth rates in this northern part of their natural range. One of the goals in netting, weighing and measuring those caught is to see if there is any change in the size structure of the population. A decrease could warn us that the population is being over-harvested.
We don’t know how many anglers pursue flathead catfish. There hasn’t been a creel census on the Minnesota River in probably more than 20 years, explained Sindt. He too believes there are more anglers pursuing them today based on anecdotal evidence. He believes much of that is occurring as catch-and-release trophy fishing.
They are a long-lived fish. Some of the bigger flatheads are 30 years-plus in age, he said. The biggest that Sindt has seen was a 54-pounder netted near New Ulm.
Until last weekend, the biggest Max Dzubay had seen was a 25-pounder. He caught it a couple of months ago on the Mississippi River near Hastings. It’s how he became a self-admitted “addict” to fishing for flatheads.
He feels that way about river fishing too. As a computer technician, he said he appreciates the opportunity to “unplug” and enjoy the river environment.
“We can’t go to Canada,” Kalahar proclaimed before we joined for breakfast. “But we can do this,” he said in reference to the fishing we enjoyed.
Good fishing is still waiting. Dzubay released his trophy after photos were snapped.
The lone angler with the big mud motor chugged his way up river shortly after the sun rose, and this time he was a bit more sociable. He wore an ear-to-ear smile when he answered: “A 20-pounder,” to our question as to how he had done.