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Open Season: Follow the catfish food chain

The author's dog, Remy, cautiously examines a catfish caught on a recent morning of fishing on the Red River near Fargo. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer

Fishing is as simple or complicated as a person makes it.

In its most basic form, willing a creature to ingest a dangling bait can mean nothing more than the proverbial hook, line and sinker.

And when fishing for channel catfish, that triumvirate is about as complex as it ever needs to get.

On a recent Sunday morning, it was with that same fundamentalist mindset that I ventured to a nearby clay bank in hopes of capturing a few of the Red River's most abundant, and voracious, bottom dwellers.

But first, there was a not-so-small matter of bait; namely, I was plumb out.

Cats are notorious for their gluttonous ways, and are like freshwater sharks in that they can detect the faintest of oily scents en route to an easy meal. A hunk of fresh-caught, frozen, or two-day old putrefied fish flesh will work seemingly equal when placed in the current upstream of a hungry scavenger.

Since it was Sunday, however, and none of the local bait stores opened until noon, improvisation was key.

The solution: catch the bait myself.

There's just something about digging worms from the garden that awakens deep-seeded memories of youth. Dad used to run a hose out to the rich, black dirt in the backyard, and like an eager robin waiting for breakfast, I would pluck the struggling invertebrates as they emerged from the saturated soil.

The aim back then was bluegills and other panfish from small Twin Cities-area lakes. Now, my hopes were to work up the food chain by catching some suckers or goldeye to use as cutbait for larger predators.

Either my perspective has skewed in two decades, or the Fargo area isn't conducive to wormly things. After turning over a few yards of soil, the meager number of knuckle-length worms plopped at the bottom of my yogurt container seemed rather underwhelming.

But worms are worms, and even if the hook needed two or three to get the job done, I doubted the fish would care.

And care they didn't, but as so often happens when using nondiscriminatory bait, the target species failed to show. Instead, the rod bounced with the nipping of 10-12 inch channel cats that kept myself busy with reeling, unhooking, and re-baiting, but didn't help with the plan of procuring a critter cut out for bait.

My dog, Remy, found the solution: a rotting corpse of a goldeye some hapless fisherman had tossed on shore. Not one to turn up my nose on a sure-fire catfish getter, I cut off a hunk, threw it on a large circle hook, and flung out the whole works from a stouter rod and reel.

Twenty minutes past with nary a twitch, and just as I was packing up for the day, the rod shuddered from an impact before doubling over toward the rippling current.

There was no need to set the hook, as the fish had done it itself, and after a few strong runs that peeled drag, a pudgy 10-pound channel cat flopped up the muddy banks.

Remy was intrigued, and gave a few tentative licks before it was unhooked and released back into the stained waters.

Fishing is meant to be enjoyed, and when targeting willing cats using the simplest of methods, it doesn't get much better or easier.