I've done it for sometime now, from both ends so to speak (as client and guide), but each charter I've been on has its own charm, excitement and yes, disappointments. A catfish charter is "dynamic" to say the least. No two are alike, but common components exist. What can you expect or what should you expect from your catfish adventure? In what follows are a few of my observations and expectations for a catfish charter.
Prior to your Cattin' Day
Initially it should be said that many details need to be clarified before you'll even meet your guide. Price is a main concern, but a more important question to ask is: "what are you getting for your money?" In most cases I've found …. you do get what you pay for…. very rarely have I booked a bargain basement service and received top notch service! Do some shopping, get the deal you can live with. Your chances of having a good day fishing, learning about the resource and perhaps catching a trophy should all are enhanced via a paid charter.
Ask about the duration (how many hours of actually fishing); meals and gear you'll need to bring. In some instances photos/photography may also be available (so you can leave that expensive camera at home if you wish). One question that you (the prospective client) should ask the guide is if he/she has any references. These contacts can save you a lot of grief and will give you another point of view about your guide's talents. Doing a little homework will go a long way towards making your trip an enjoyable one.
If you actually decide on a service, there are some crucial details which need to be discussed prior to meeting your guide. Cancellation and payment schedules need to be understood and followed. Ask your guide about licenses and lodging (if lodging isn't already a part of the package). A meeting place and time are also required for the morning where you'll actually meet your guide. Keeping in touch with your guide prior to the charter is a really good idea. E-mail, telephone, letters are possible means of keeping in touch. If you can't make the trip he might be able to refund your deposit – but don't expect it as these folks have to probably turn down other people's business once you've booked a day with them.
Your Cattin' Day
Perhaps it is not said often enough but it's always good to be prepared for your day and all of its possibilities. Have a rain suit ready as well as some sun block and sunglasses. These latter items will often save the day. Appropriate clothing is a necessity. Most services don't provide a lunch, so you'll have to come with your own lunch. Generally you can leave the rest of your gear at home. Rods, reels, tackle, and bait are provided by the outfitter. On the Red river for example I'd shudder to think what a thirty-pound channel cat would do to most medium walleye outfits.
Get to know your guide. If he/she is going to give an orientation session before going out, get involved. Safety should be a primary concern. Even if you think a question may be dumb – go ahead and ask it. Too often a guide will forget the simplest of issue because it is done so often this or that way. Ask it might make a difference. I've had some anglers not really interested in the orientation I'll often give before going out, but once on the water, they'll thank me for having prepared them for certain eventualities. The guides I like best are ones who are "teacher-like" and want to share what they know about the fishery they call home. The clients I like are those guys who aren't know it alls and want to learn about the fishery. The other quality to an interesting guide/client is some one who knows how to relax and share things about themselves and what they like to do---- fish.
Having said all the latter, don't count yourself out of the equation if you know something about cattin'. Your guide is probably knowledgeable about the river/lake reservoir you're fishing but should be open to suggestions. I enjoy feedback from my clients and have benefited on occasion from the knowledge of others. Your guide however will do the lion's share of the day's work… and rightfully so; he or she is the guide! Lay back and enjoy the day. Let the guide do the work.
As for angling it is good etiquette for your guide to ask if s/he can angle with you. Most guides I know will pass their line to you should they hook up, in effect you are only doubling your chance at a fish. They will however (and probably) cast the line for you and will set the rod. If you feel comfortable doing this ask your guide if he minds if you cast and set up your own rig. Remember (and I don't want to sound pedantic), you will be in the guides boat, and courtesy is not something you leave at the launch.
Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of being a guide is seeing your clients catch big fish and lots of them. I do my homework and preparation with a view to putting my clients on big fish (people don't realize that I'll often be on the river a day in advance of a charter even if I don't have a client the day before their charter). I believe that is a significant quality for any guide --- they should genuinely be fired up when you're catching fish. Finally, listen to his stories about past trips and experiences had on the river by your guide. I've been on both ends of the teaching function that the latter can play during a charter, especially when I've had trouble hooking fish and when clients have had trouble hooking cats. Listen and try to change your outlook, preconceived notions, you might be surprised at what can happen.
The end of your Cattin' Day
Once your day is over, you'll have a chance to speak frankly with your guide about your day. A guide has something to learn form every client/experience. If your experience was good one, a tip is a good idea. Don't punish your guide if the day was less than stellar. Cold fronts and changes in the environment can put cats off for a while. Remember this is fishing and if it's meat you want you're better off going to the supermarket. I've been on charter where I haven't caught much but I felt a tip was required looking at how hard the guide worked at it ….. all day long…. If you think you'll fish with that guide again next year, get a booking right then and there or ASAP….. good guides are often booked well in advance. Now the other side of the coin holds true. If your day wasn't a good one, no tip is required. Just remember fishing ……. Is just that, it's the whole experience not just the catching that counts.
A good guide/charter can make a day out on the water that much more enjoyable. Do your homework and have some fun, because that what it's all supposed to be about.
Having put your time in on any water gives you a few observations worth a few more fish at the end of each day. The Red & Winnipeg rivers are no different than any other bodies of water; They can and are patterned with a little time and exploration. Part of the trick it seems is to consider "impact" factors and how they will bear upon the tactics being used. I am presuming that the discussion here is about fall and that your quarry is walleye on the Red or Winnipeg rivers. If you have a good idea of what factors have an influential impact upon walleye in these rivers you need read no more. However if you would like to muse with me on a couple of factors I've seen that impact upon the greenback bite, perhaps I might give you a couple of ideas as to how you might be able to boat one more good fish.
Changes in the environment that impact on walleye are numerous. Firstly I would categorize these influential environmental factors as two-fold: direct and intermittent. Hence as I see it, one large group of factors that affect walleye on the Red and Winnipeg rivers are: photo period, water temperature, weather, water discharges, fishing pressure. Secondly there are other factors which also have an impact upon walleye but are more predictable on a year to year basis and seem to be factors traditionally focused upon by anglers: structure, forage. My focus in this article is on the prior as I have written about the latter in a number of other articles.
The two environmental factors that seem to have the greatest sustained impact on fall walleye are photoperiod and water temperature. As the fall season progresses the days grow short and the water cools. The bite seems to start to polarize towards morning and evening as water temperatures plummet and days grow short. Fish also seem to become increasingly lethargic as water temperatures fall below fifty (50 degrees); below 40 (forty) the bite seems to occur primarily during morning and evening hours.
Intermittent factors are those that occur via human or natural causes and have a short-term impact upon fall walleye. Initially there are natural intermittent factors. Weather systems continue to have an impact upon fish (as they have had an impact upon fish all summer long). Cold fronts, heavy northwest winds put fish down at this time of year. A warm front in mid October, which lasts 3 or 4 days, will get fish fired up for another active bite (add in a bit of cloud, a south wind and you'll have dynamite conditions). Also significant will be the speed at which the whole river system cools. If the water temps go below forty degrees it seems as though we have to wait until first ice until our walleye start to bit again. However if the season is prolonged by mild periods, which do not push water temperatures below 40 degree, we can continue to enjoy good angling until it drops below the prior temperature.
Another intermittent factor (albeit this time related to human activity) on the rivers is water discharges. Water discharges correspond with power generation on the Winnipeg river. This river seems to see increased hydro generation on weekends. During the week there doesn't seem to be as much current generation (signaled by the amount of water that they have to push by the turbines at the Pine Falls dam). Also significant at the Pine Falls Generating station will be the amount of water that the whole (Lake of the Woods English) river system has seen over a period of time and is pushing up North to Lake Winnipeg. Some dry years it seems as though the only cause for increased flows is hydro production. Other years however there is also the added factor of having to lower the whole system's water level (due to increase water levels back to the Ontario side). As for the Red river I have seen a couple of things happen with regards to drawn down in the fall. If the Red river valley has not seen a lot of moisture as a whole as was the case this year draw down does not occur until later in the season. Even when it occurs in the latter case it is gradual and almost negligible with its effects upon the fishery. The reason for draw down on the Red is for flood control reasons (especially in light of what Manitoba has seen in the past five years). When draw down is more aggressive on a high water fall year, fishing is more significantly impacted. Generally draw down starts in mid October and the lockmaster at St. Andrews locks will post an advertisement in local papers warning citizens that increased flows can be expected.
An increased flow seems to do one of two things on both of these rivers. It draws fish into the river, earlier in the season (if there is a lot of water coming down the Red ) or it puts fish down to the point where they'll be turned off the bite (generally later in the season and this will correspond with draw-down ). People have speculated why the latter puts fish down and the best explanation I've heard is that increased flow displaces forage and increases turbidity – reducing the fish's field of vision. As a result you'll probably have to wait a couple of days until the fish get reoriented to this new environment. In some cases the later on in the season and to what extent it is drawn down will pretty much give you an idea as to what extent it will put fish off of the bite. On the Winnipeg river some structural elements may be considerably deeper as a result of increased water discharge and hence may require that you look elsewhere until water comes down and the situation stabilizes over a period of a few days. Another observation we've made over the years is that you may be required to fish deeper than you did the day before due to increased water discharges (Ice fishing too can be made dangerous earlier on in the season on the Winnipeg river as a result of increased water discharge).
Finally, fishing pressure does have an impact. A recent experience I've had with this was on the Red when inclement weather kept people off the river --- I caught some really good fish that day. The next day, when the river was once again overrun by numerous anglers, the fish were much less cooperative. Another reflexion in this regard applies to those instances when people are physically moving on the river; we have noticed that fishing wanes until things quiet down. Fishing on most weekends on the Red (this is not an empirical statement but a generalized experience) is better on Saturday than it is on Sunday. I suspect the reason for this observation is due to the amount of boating traffic. The Winnipeg river is not this way as it is considerably wider and deeper giving the fish and fishermen more options on where they can travel.
So what tactics apply to these changing circumstances? We want to spend as much time trolling earlier on in the season, and will jig more later on in the season, (water discharge will also make us jig more). Warm spells – even in water below 50 will convince us to get back on the troll. There are also those years when one technique will shine as opposed to the other. Why…. I don't know, but I suspect it might have something to do with the confidence factor – the most elusive of factors to describe -- In effect a knowledge of the factors effecting fall walleye will impact upon our tactics and ultimately our success to a greater rather than to a lesser degree.
There are some axioms to successful walleye fishing. I wouldn't even dare to propose that I'll even touch upon the tip of the iceberg of relevant fishing facts referring to fall river walleyes. However, there are a few things I've noticed over the years while fishing for Manitoba's #1 sport fish the walleye.
A. Timing is everything. Want to catch a monster "eye"? Well, you can spend a 1,000 hours or just a few, but the time of year does make a difference, two periods of time in Manitoba spell trophy walleye: Spring and fall. Spring walleye tend to be leaner. This probably follows as a result of less forage and an exhausting spawn: Fall walleye show up in Manitoba's larger rivers towards the middle of September up to just before Christmas. As for any time considerations, some big eyes show up unexpectedly at the time of year you'd least expect it, but that's fishing isn't it.
B. Location, location, location as with any business the big eyes do show a tendency in Manitoba's big rivers to show up in certain locations year after year. Humps, large extensive flats associated with a good drop off. Break lines, fronts of islands, rocky areas near sharp drop offs. Narrowing down areas with rock being present (a lot of people on the Red River don't realize that the neck down rocky areas are tyndal stone deposits). The fish will overnight appear in the fall on these traditional structures. In the spring they will also be located near to specific structures, but here the biological imperative, water temperature, photo period, will impact on location to an even greater extent.
C. Forage plays another significant part of the puzzle. I've trolled on one river that flows into Lake Manitoba with one bait with little or no action. Change that bait to a perch colored bait – same size and make and regularly boat fish in the 8 – 10 lb. range. That same bait is near useless on another river which dumps into Lake Winnipeg where a predominantly yellow crank seems to do the job. What's the message – fish are keying in on a particular forage in Lake Manitoba and Lake Manitoba. Enormous schools of perch roam lake Manitoa marauding smaller forms of life. In turn, they make up a large part of the walleye's diet in this lake. In Lake Winnipeg where schools of white fish, goldeye and white bass, emerald shiners and rainbow smelt are the predominant forage species and as a result the walleye's diet is different. The crank baits I use resemble the latter forage species. Perhaps one experience keyed me into this forage-prey relationship. One particular river which flows into Lake Manitoba has an excellent population of bullhead and by changing my crank bait to something that resembled those creatures had a big impact on the number and size of walleye caught. It only makes sense; give them what they want to eat.
D. Go to where the big fish are and
E. Putting in your time.
These latter two adages have been written about ad infinitum in any number of fishing journals. They still hold true while fishing the rivers connected to the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Winnipeg. Lake Winnipeg, Lake Manitoba, Lake Winnipegosis do produce huge fish. Test nets by the department of Natural Resources in Manitoba's big lakes have yielded walleye in excess of 20 lbs. (shhh… you didn't hear it from me!). I've also read that the number of walleye in Manitoba lakes equals all the walleye in the continental U.S. (excluding the Great Lakes). So, why fish anywhere else if you're hunting for that big hawg.
As for the latter concept – "Put in your time" – nothing else rang more true in a recent conversation I had with an angler friend. The angler in question had seen me on the river one day this past fall and suspected that my day had ended up as his had – zip. On the contrary, the last 30 minutes proved to be extraordinarily profitable; two fish over 28" – but only after a 12 hour day; a day where we threw everything at them but the "kitchen sink". When we came back to launch no one would believe us as they had no luck. But that the point, they had left a half hour earlier – that's fishing eh!
These are a few of the muses of a younger river rat. Imagine the stuff that the "wiggler guy" – a guy on the Winnipeg River who, for the past 10 years I've seen him, fishes with nothing but a wiggler- would have to say! I'd like to be a fly on the side of his boat!
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