Fishing for Catfish on the Red River
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Catfish have always thrived in the mud-colored waters of the Red River. The face of a big catfish is familiar to anglers, for its broad head is ugly-looking and gigantic in proportion to its body. The barbels extending from around its mouth look like cat whiskers, hence the name “catfish.”
A catfish seems wicked because it has sharp spines projecting from the top and side fins, which inflict painful wounds on careless hands. Yet, on this date, in 1885, a Grand Forks Herald article celebrated catfish as a staple food for pioneers in the Red River Valley. Old settlers in the Valley had a saying: “Catfish or No Breakfast,” which may seem cryptic to modern ears, but it was a popular phrase in the 1870s.
William Budge, known as “Billy” Budge, established a stagecoach station in 1871, at a place called Turtle River, 14 miles north of Grand Forks. Budge was the cook, and his business partner, George Winship, ran the adjoining hotel.
Billy Budge cooked breakfasts of flapjacks – hearty pancakes to stick to a traveler’s ribs. Breakfast meat was usually salt pork or bacon. But there were days without pork – mornings when the best meat available came from the swirling waters of the nearby Red River. The accompaniment for flapjacks in “many a delicious breakfast” consisted of “cat-fish or bull-heads,” which Billy Budge fried-up – fresh from the river.
“Catfish or No Breakfast” was “more truth than poetry,” for the Red River was teeming with catfish and they “formed one of the chief articles of diet” for pioneers. Winship, writing about winter, during the toughest years, wrote that it was “no trouble at all to catch a mess of fish when desired,” but he add that the “fish diet” could be “over worked . . . for when you get it more than once or twice a day, it begins to pall on your stomach.” By spring, Winship wrote: “I was heartily tired of it.”
Multitudes of early Red River settlers ate catfish. They’d put out set lines in the evening, loaded with catfish-bait – a gob of worms, a crawfish, a frog, or cut fish-bait – and the next morning’s catch provided meat for the day. It had sweet flesh under its tough skin and the boneless meat fried up magnificently when “cooked properly.”
After the pioneer days elapsed, countless youngsters got hooked on fishing when they caught their first catfish or bullheads in the Red River, fishing from shore with a cane pole and bobber, casting angleworms as bait.
In the present day, trophy channel catfish, swimming lazily in the Red River or hunkering down near its muddy bottom, provide recreational fishing for anglers seeking a monster fish, twenty pounds or larger.
On this date, we recall a time when Billy Budge put out his night-line and waited for dawn’s-breaking when he would discover if a catfish would give him breakfast or “no breakfast.”
Today’s Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “Catfish or no Breakfast,” Grand Forks Herald, January 1, 1885, p. 6.
“Plenty of Fishing,” Grand Forks Herald, June 10, 1909, p. 3.
“The Catfish and its Haunts,” New York Times, January 26, 1891, p. 3.
W.P. Davies Newspaper Columns, Grand Forks Herald, Chester Fritz Library Digital Collections, June 3, 1932; July 8, 1934.
Ken Stewart and Douglas A. Watkinson, Freshwater Fishes of Manitoba (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2007), p. 130, 139.
Clement Lounsberry, Early History of North Dakota (Washington, D.C.: Liberty Press, 1919), p. 501.
Jason Mitchell, “Trophy Catfish From North Dakota’s Red River,” North Dakota Game & Fish Magazine, July 3, 2012, http://www.gameandfishmag.com/2012/07/073/trophy-catfish-fr, accessed on November 26, 2013.
Frank Tough, “The Storehouses of the Good God: Aboriginal Peoples and Freshwater Fisheries in Manitoba,” Manitoba History, vol. 39, Spring/Summer 2000.
“Annual Meeting: Old Settlers of the Red River Valley,” Grand Forks Herald, November 27, 1895.