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‘Casual’ catfish guide explains his fishing techniques on Red River

Jay Leitch casts lines for catfish in the Red River in Moorhead. Leitch, whose arm is in a sling from a recent shoulder surgery, occasionally guides for catfish. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service2 / 2

MOORHEAD - The morning sun was barely as high as the bald eagle that circled just above the trees along the Red River, and already it was apparent the day was going to be a scorcher.

Hardly prime catfish conditions, even here on the Red River, one of the best channel catfish streams in North America. But Jay Leitch wasn’t too concerned.

“The warmer the water, the better they bite,” Leitch said as he steered his catfish-rigged pontoon upstream and away from the “Redneck Yacht Club,” the makeshift landing where he keeps the boat moored below his north Moorhead home.

Always start by going upstream, Leitch advised. That way, if you break down, you’ll at least be drifting in the right direction.

Joining Leitch on this hot, humid Monday morning was Bob Backman of Moorhead and Backman’s grandson, Noah Eddy, 8, also of Moorhead. Recently retired as executive director of River Keepers, the Fargo-Moorhead group that promotes the Red River and its recreational opportunities, Backman didn’t need to be coaxed too hard.

There are worse ways to spend a morning, after all, than fishing on the Red River.

Leitch, his left arm in a sling from a recent shoulder surgery, had recruited Backman to be his first mate for the day’s catfish excursion.

The avid fisherman and occasional river guide had his one-armed casting technique down to perfection, but pulling anchor was out of the question.

More fishermen onboard also meant more lines in the water – and more opportunities for enticing catfish to bite the goldeyes Leitch had caught for cutbait earlier that morning.

That’s the beauty of catfishing, Leitch said; it’s not complicated.

That’s also the philosophy laid out in Leitch and Tom DeSutter’s new book, “Relaxed Angler’s Guide to Catfishing on the Red River of the North.”

“Catfishing is simple,” Leitch said. “Simple equipment, simple bait.

“That’s part of the theme (of the book), that it’s easy to do. It’s not an ‘Intense Angler’s Guide’ – it’s a ‘Relaxed Angler’s Guide.’”

Fundraising tool

A retired business dean and economics professor at North Dakota State University, Leitch also has penned numerous professional articles, along with “Darkhouse Spearfishing Across North America” in 2001 and “A River Runs North” in 1993.

“A River Runs North,” which was reprinted in 2013, focuses on the hydrology and history of the Red River. Leitch’s latest book marks his first effort at explaining fishing techniques on the river. He wrote the book at Backman’s urging while recuperating from surgery on his other shoulder.

“I couldn’t fish and so I decided to write a book on catfishing,” Leitch said. “I’d like to see more people catfish – more kids, more girls – and the second reason was to demonstrate how easy it is to catch catfish.”

The self-published work also is a fundraiser for River Keepers.

Leitch was an original board member of the group when it was founded in the early ‘90s and recruited Backman to apply for the executive director position. He also occasionally piloted the S.S. Ruby, the tour boat River Keepers operated on the Red River from 2001 until 2013.

A self-described “casual” catfish guide, Leitch gets most of his bookings through River Keepers.

“We’d like to see more people fishing here,” Backman said. “We need more people like Jay because there are an awful lot of people that are unfamiliar with river fishing, and they need to have someone to help them a few times.”

Urban nature

Leitch’s first stop was a stretch of fast water in front of a logjam just downstream from the Fargo VA hospital. It’s a favorite catfish haunt, Leitch said, but the river still was a couple of feet higher than he preferred after heavy June rains.

The highlight of the stop was a green heron Backman pointed out after it landed on a pile of logs washed up on the North Dakota shore. Blue herons are common, but it’s not every day one sees a green heron, Backman said.

After about 20 minutes without a fish, Leitch called the “two-minute warning” and moved to the next logjam a few yards downstream.

The cats are easier to find when the river’s lower, he said.

“Once we get in the groove, we usually catch at least one fish, maybe two fish, every stop,” Leitch said.

Fishing with cutbait such as goldeyes or suckers tilts the catch toward catfish and the occasional walleye or northern pike, Leitch says. Put on a nightcrawler, though, and it’s anybody’s guess what’s at the end of the line.

“It could be goldeyes, sheepshead, saugers (or) northern,” Leitch said. “With nightcrawlers, you never know.”

Red latecomer

Leitch and his wife, Becky, built their house on the Red in 1992, but he says it took nearly a decade to warm up to the river’s fishing potential.

“I always thought the mosquitoes were so bad,” said Leitch, who grew up near Battle Lake, in the heart of western Minnesota lakes country.

“You don’t fish stuff like this,” he said, pointing to the turbid water that swirled around his pontoon. “But once I figured out how many fish were there, it was full speed ahead.”

That’s a big part of the river’s fascination, he says.

“A reporter one time when we first launched the Ruby, we had a whole boatload of news people on there,” Leitch recalls. “And one of them – I was driving – she stuck the microphone up in my mouth and says, ‘What is it you love about the river?’ “

His answer might have been too simple for a good sound bite.

“I don’t know, I like to fish,” he said. “I guess most fascinating would be all the fish. There’s over 80 species of fish in here, and how easy they are to catch.”

Big finish

Despite the heat, which by noon bordered on sweltering, every spot after the first two stops produced a catfish or two. The technique was as simple as tossing lines baited with cut goldeye upstream of snags or logjams, where catfish often lurk, and letting the scent drift downstream.

“If it were cloudy, we would be catching a few more fish,” Leitch said. “You don’t have to fish them at night, but low light is usually better.”

It was about that time one of the rods buckled over, and young Noah was battling the biggest fish of his life.

“There you go, there you go,” Leitch said in encouragement.

“Hold on tight, keep that rod tip up – rod tip up!” Backman said, coaching his grandson.

The cat weighed nearly 9 pounds on Leitch’s hand-held scale. For the next half-hour, it was the biggest fish Noah had ever caught.

Until, that is, a rod buckled over at the next spot, which was within casting distance of the boat ramp at M.B. Johnson Park in Moorhead.

“Keep cranking,” Backman said, helping his grandson play the big fish. “Keep cranking, keep cranking.”

When the cat came to the surface, even Leitch was impressed.

“That’s a big fish,” he said. “That’s the one we’re looking for.”

The big, blackish-colored cat measured 36 inches and tipped the scale at 21 pounds, making it one of the largest fish Leitch had ever boated in Fargo-Moorhead.

“Catfish are fun,” Noah said with an 8-year-old’s typical understatement.

His smile said the rest.

And that’s how simple it was on a steamy day in July on the Red River of the North, a day when an 8-year-old boy caught the biggest fish of his life. Twice.

“I hear that a lot,” Leitch said. “First they say, ‘I’ve never been on the Red River before,’ and the next thing they say is, ‘That’s the biggest fish I’ve ever caught.’”

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer for the Grand Forks Herald

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