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Winter sites hold big 'home bodies'

Years of study in the Minnesota River shows that it holds a very large sized population of flathead catfish, giving anglers an opportunity tangle with 40 pound behemoths like the one held here. Submitted photo

MONTEVIDEO -- As surely as bears return to their dens to hibernate each winter, flathead and channel catfish seek out their favorite deep water hideouts in the Minnesota River to wait for the return of warm water.

The fish return in large numbers to these deepwater refuges and stack themselves up like cordwood, lying motionless to save energy. They remain so lethargic that silt covers them as if they were dusted with flour.

Department of Natural Resource fisheries workers Brad Koenen of Hutchinson and Chris Domeier or Ortonville discovered one of these flathead lairs below Minnesota Falls a couple of winters ago with the probing eye of an underwater camera. Flathead catfish in the 10- to 15-pound range were stacked three-feet deep, and one sluggish brute had to approach 50 pounds.

Koenen, speaking Jan. 28 in Montevideo, said they focused the camera on the slowly undulating gills of the fish to convince themselves they were alive. Scuba divers who have ventured under the ice report they can grab the fish by hand and bag them like apples at the grocery store. Koenen and Domeier roused one fish into action only by prodding it with a long pole.

At another location downstream near Morton, Koenen and his co-workers found a deepwater hole holding channel catfish and electro-fished the site shortly before the river ice-up. They counted 994 catfish that rose slowly to the surface, netted and tagged many of them. They returned a week later to do the same. From that they were able to estimate that 26,000 channel catfish were congregated in this one deepwater site, which was probably about half the size of a basketball court.

"You can really start to feel and see the value of these deepwater habitats, and the need to protect them and the fish," said Koenen, during a presentation sponsored by Clean Up our River Environment on Jan. 27 in Montevideo.

Koenen and others are urging lawmakers to ban the taking of catfish in the river by spearing during the winter, since they are so vulnerable and offer no sport.

Very little is know about the locations of the over-wintering sites for catfish in the Minnesota River, he added.

Flathead and channel catfish are home bodies, and individual fish tend to show up year-after-year in the same holes. If a deepwater hole is devoid of rock or wood, it's likely to hold small channel catfish. Add structure, such as tree limbs and rocks, and larger channel catfish and flatheads start showing up. Some holes will hold flathead catfish exclusively, he said.

Other species of fish in the river also have their own, deepwater habitats for the winter. Koenen said that while the holes can be specific to individual fish populations, these holes change frequently as far as fish species composition during the cold water periods.

Catfish don't hibernate, but Koenen said he doesn't believe they feed during this inactive period.

To see underwater camera video of the site south below Minnesota Falls, see the Saturday Outdoors section of the West Central Tribune online:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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