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How's the summer going? Here's what some people in the outdoors and tourism business have to say

Last summer was the year of extreme drought; this summer has been just the opposite.

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Catfish anglers and Red River fishing guides such as Donovan Pearase in Manitoba and Brad Durick in Grand Forks have had to adjust to high water levels this summer, a marked contrast from last year.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – Like it or not, summer is on the homestretch. The Dog Days of August are just around the corner, and it won’t be long before the first hunting seasons get underway.

It’s been an eventful summer in the Northland, as far as weather and environmental conditions go. Spring never really did arrive – wintry conditions persisted into May – and summer started out extremely wet. The Flood That Wouldn’t End resulted in a late start to fishing on the Red River, and high water continues to affect Lake of the Woods and other areas along the U.S.-Canada border.

Last summer was the year of extreme drought; this summer has been just the opposite.

READ MORE FISHING COVERAGE:

With that in mind, we checked in with a cross-section of people involved with the outdoors to see how the summer’s going. Here’s a closer look.

Donovan Pearase, East Selkirk, Manitoba

A veteran fishing guide on Lake Winnipeg and the Manitoba side of the Red River, Pearase says spring fishing on Lake Winnipeg got off to a late start but started off strong and is still very good. Aptly nicknamed “Big Windy,” Lake Winnipeg has a well-deserved reputation as a prime ice fishing destination for its large “greenback” walleyes, but the big lake also has become a popular summer fishery in recent years.

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Donovan Pearase of Blackwater Cats Outfitter in East Selkirk, Manitoba, holds a big Lake Winnipeg "greenback" walleye in this undated photo.
Contributed/Donovan Pearase

If wind and weather conditions allow, it’s as simple as jigging with a minnow or salted shiner in 13 to 25 feet of water, depending on the day, Pearase, owner of Blackwater Cats Outfitter, said this week.

“The fishing has actually been really good this summer on Lake Winnipeg,” he said. “They’re still catching fairly well now. Typically, July and August can slow down quite a bit, but they’re still catching walleyes pretty good, with the high water and the late year.”

As was the case throughout the Red River, high water delayed Pearase’s catfish guiding business on the river near Lockport, Manitoba.

He spends most of his time these days targeting cats but will switch back to walleyes on Lake Winnipeg as fall approaches.

“The launches were closed exceptionally long this year so we lost a lot of business,” Pearase said. “In the last two or three weeks, we’re finally starting to get a little bit busier.”

Catfish action has been tough by Lockport standards, Pearase says, and a half-day guide trip produces eight to 12 fish, on average, “with some really good ones mixed in.”

In a normal year, a typical half-day’s catch would be two to three times that number, he says.

With the high water, Pearase speculates a lot of big catfish have gotten above the St. Andrews Lock and Dam in Lockport and headed upstream to U.S. stretches of the Red River.

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The same thing happened during previous high-water years, he says. Plus, water that’s more turbid than normal when the river is high also affects fishing, he says, even for scent-feeding species such as catfish.

Canadians make up a large proportion of his summer business, and while traffic has improved from the darkest days of the pandemic, Pearase says the country’s vaccination requirements continue to restrict the flow of U.S.-based anglers.

Like many others in the tourism industry, he says that needs to change.

“We’re never going to get back to normal until our ridiculous government removes these ridiculous regulations and health restrictions, and you can quote me on that,” Pearase said. “It just makes no sense.

“We’ll never fully recover until they change that.”

Brad Durick, Grand Forks catfish guide

The big Manitoba cats that crossed the St. Andrews Lock and Dam in Lockport and headed upstream have definitely been good for Brad Durick, a longtime Grand Forks catfish guide and operator of Brad Durick Outdoors guide service.

The biggest catfish of the summer to date weighed 27 pounds, Durick says, a weight he hadn’t seen since 2017.

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Grand Forks catfish guide Brad Durick hoists a big catfish he caught in May 2015 on the Red River near Drayton, North Dakota. High water this spring on the Red River allowed more big catfish to head upstream from Manitoba, and Durick said it's been a good summer for larger cats.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

There’s no doubt that some of the biggest catfish are Manitoba migrants, he says. For proof, a client earlier this summer caught a catfish that was tagged in 2014 at Netley Marsh near the mouth of the Red River just upstream from Lake Winnipeg, based on information from the tag return.

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Researchers tagged thousands of Manitoba catfish as part of a study that launched in 2012, and dozens of those fish have shown up in Grand Forks and areas even farther upstream over the years.

Catfish on the Red River grow larger, and tend to be thicker and chunkier, the farther downstream you go.

“Absolutely they are” Manitoba catfish, Durick said. “There’s no question in my mind that they are. Extended flooding always sends those big-tailed short, thick fish down here. And the tag study of years ago proved it.”

While lack of water was the issue last year – Durick’s last trip of the season in 2021 was Aug. 17, when the river got too low – this year has been just the opposite. He wasn’t able to start guiding until June 15, which was 33 days behind his first scheduled trip of the summer.

That required a lot of juggling and rescheduling. The start of his guiding season also coincided with the time when catfish spawn. Fishing was tough to start before turning on the last week of June.

“It’s been pretty much going gangbusters ever since,” Durick said.

If weather and water conditions allow him to guide through September, it will be a good season, Durick says; business has been good after a rocky start.

“There’s lots of water, fishing is pretty good, lots of customers and if we get through this season with no issue, it’s going to be just fine again,” he said.

Lake of the Woods

High water remains an issue, but the big lake is open for business, fishing is good and several boat ramps are still available on the south shore, Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, reported in his weekly update.

As of Tuesday, July 26, the elevation of Lake of the Woods was at 1,063.16 feet, which is over the 95th percentile for this time of year and above the 2014 peak of 1,062.29 feet, the Lake of the Woods Control Board reported. The record elevation of 1,064 feet was set in 1950.

By comparison, the elevation of Lake of the Woods on July 30, 2021, was at 1,058.4 feet, LWCB archives show – nearly 5 feet lower than currently – putting it in the 10th percentile for that time of year.

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Anglers test the waters of Lake of the Woods for walleyes on Sunday, May 13, 2018, during the opening weekend of Minnesota's 2018 fishing season. Water levels remain high on Lake of the Woods this summer but fishing is good, access is available and resorts and anglers are making the best of the conditions.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

The LWCB predicts a gradual drop in water levels over the next week and a faster rate of decline beginning in mid-August, barring a return to wet weather.

In Warroad, the boat ramp and docks in the area known as The Point remain flooded, but the public access at Kakaygeesick Bay on the Warroad River near Seven Clans Casino is open, as is the Warroad Estates marina site just north of town, said Adam Deathe, president and CEO of Warroad Community Development.

“We are now working with the likes of DNR and the city of Warroad and local businesses to get the message out that the city is very much open, and people are able to access the water,” Deathe said.

Up at the Northwest Angle, Paul Colson of Jake’s Northwest Angle Resort said 38 acres of his 40-acre site are still under water. Two of the resort’s six cabins are accessible, he said, but the campground remains closed, except for a couple of people “whose places aren’t wet” and come up occasionally.

“I’m 90% closed,” Colson said. “The docks are still usable, you just can’t get to some – almost all of them. I can use 12 of my 70 boat slips.”

Despite the high water, boat ramps at Youngs Bay Resort and Angle Outpost Resort are still open, as are most of the other resorts on the mainland and nearby Flag and Oak islands, Colson said.

“It looks like we’re coming down a little bit now,” he said of water levels.

Mark Bry, Devils Lake

Fishing has been good all summer, but Tuesday, July 26, was one of those rare off days, Mark Bry of Bry’s Guide Service and co-owner of Ed’s Bar and Bait Shop said shortly after getting off the water.

Mark Bry
Mark Bry of Bry's Guide Service on Devils Lake and co-owner of Ed's Bar and Bait Shop, said rising lake levels have been good for fishing this summer on Devils Lake.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

“It was just one of those days – none of us did very good,” Bry said. “I don’t know what was going on, but there’s been some kind of funky weather lately. Who knows?”

The off days have been the exception, though, Bry says.

“It’s been a good summer – lots of (age) classes of fish,” he said. “We have little fish, we have mediums, we have eaters, we have nicer fish – 20-inch fish – and we’ve got a few fish that are trophy fish.”

That includes 28- and 29-inch walleyes and a 31-inch whopper that is their biggest to date, Bry says.

Devils Lake is up about 4 feet from last summer, Bry says, and walleyes are scattered in depths ranging from about 12 feet to 25 feet of water. A bottom bouncer and spinner tipped with a crawler is hard to beat this time of year because it allows anglers to cover water, he says.

“The lake looks great,” he said. “There are a lot of places that have water, a lot of back bays have water. There are a lot of places that are fishing well.”

From a tourism standpoint, it’s been a strong summer, overall, but traffic seems to be down a bit, Bry says.

“Whenever you get gas prices like they are and the inflation thing and all that – everything just costs more money – I think it does take a bit of a toll,” he said. “I feel like I’m very lucky – our company is lucky. We have a lot of repeat people. We’re still seeing some new people, but I think you can feel people are more reserved now than they were a year ago or two years ago.

“We’re fortunate, we’re busy. … I think we’re going to have a solid rest of the year.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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