Buffalo River: Big Fish In Small Spaces

Depth is relative in bodies of water. “Deep” in one of the popular Minnesota lakes might mean 60 feet, 80 feet or deeper. In the Red River, it might mean 15 feet. In the Buffalo River, deep has an entirely different definition.

Three feet. Maybe four. That’s “deep” in the Buffalo.

It also happens to be where the catfish hang out in the winding, prairie stream that most Fargo-Moorhead residents know because they zip over it briefly while driving on I-94 or U.S. Highway 10.

Like most rivers in the Red River Valley, the Buffalo often only gets talked about when its waters are rising in the springtime and people are concerned about flooding. But the Buffalo also holds fish for those who are interested in such things, including channel catfish and, yes, the revered walleye. Goldeye, northern pike, bass, redhorse, carp and suckers also call the Buffalo home.

A channel catfish from the Buffalo River in Buffalo River State Park.

Which might seem odd, given the Buffalo is only yards across and its depth can mostly be measured in inches — at least in the summertime long after the snow melt and spring rains are long gone. But my disbelief was turned into belief, and further curiosity, by my neighbor buddy and frequent fishing partner Calvin.

Calvin is 16 years old and a fishing/outdoors nut. He will fish anywhere, anytime, for anything and never get bored. He seems to prefer to catching off-species more than the so-called glamorous ones, carp particularly. Calvin has discovered the retention ponds in housing developments in Moorhead have lots of hungry carp, for example, and he catches them.

Being young, open-minded and adventuresome has its advantages. Calvin and one of his young friends went to the Buffalo River in Buffalo River State Park near Glyndon one day and caught fish after hiking upstream and finding deeper holes. Being the older fishing buddy of a young, open-minded and adventuresome person has its advantages, too: Calvin invited me to try out the Buffalo with him one day in July.

So Calvin and I hiked from the parking lot in the state park to the river and slid down a bank into the warm current. I asked, “How far do we have to walk upstream to your spots?” Calvin’s reply was, “Not very far.” This proved to also be a relative description, because “not very far” for a 16-year-old and a 50-year-old have entirely different meanings.

It wasn’t so much walking in the mostly shin deep water, against the current, that was the troublesome issue for the 50-year-old. It was the rocks, stones, rapids, trees and various other obstacles in the river that had thoughts of snapped ankles and torn knee ligaments dancing through the 50-year-old’s head. But after a quarter-mile or so — at least it seemed that far — Calvin swung around a spot in the river above a rapids and said of the spot he was pointing at, “There’s a hole.”

Most of the river we’d traversed to that point was, as mentioned, a foot deep or maybe 18 inches. In many other spots it was only a few inches deep. There were sandbars here and there. Calvin said the spot he was pointing at was deeper, maybe a few feet deep, and we should stand upstream and cast our baits into it.

So I readied the catfish rod I’d carried in one hand by sticking a chunk of cut sucker on the red circle hook at the end of the leader. It was the same rod I use on the Red for cats, a 4-ounce no-roll sinker above a foot or so of 20-pound monofilament leader. I tossed the bait into where I thought the head of the hole was and stood in the current, waiting.

It didn’t take long. There was a thump, another thump, and then the steady pressure telling of a fish on the other end. I swept the rod tip back gently — no vicious hook-sets needed with a circle hook — and began reeling. There was something on the other end. After a couple of minutes and pretty good fight, I posed with a channel catfish weighing a few pounds as Calvin snapped a photo with his phone.

A Buffalo River catfish.

The fish was not huge by catfish standards — cats in the 15- to 20-pound range are not uncommon on the Red in Fargo-Moorhead. But for such a small ribbon of water, with so few deep spots in which fish can hang out, a 3- to 5-pound catfish is a pretty good prize.

The moment was an epiphany. What a cool resource. Being able to hike in a remote, quiet, clear river just a few miles from the largest metropolitan area in the region and catch a nice fish was an eye-opener. We fished for a couple of more hours, tried a few more spots, caught a couple of more fish and went home.

But a new hobby was born. A couple of weeks later, I accessed the Buffalo on the private property of some friends east of Glyndon not far from the Buffalo River Race Park. The river there was even shallower than in the state park, but hiking up and down it was much easier because the bottom was mostly sand. The rocks, rapids and deadfalls were at a minimum. Sand and gravel ruled this stretch.

The holes, though, were fewer and further between. It took some hiking upstream to find any water over a few inches deep. And, actually, I didn’t discover it until I waded through it — a spot where the river dropped off up to my waist. A stretch of water perhaps 10 yards long that was three feet deep.

A sandbar a few yards upstream of the hole was the perfect spot from which to fish. I tossed out my catfish setup with a chunk of fresh-cut sucker and waited — for about 2 minutes. The tell-tale thump came and I swept back the rod. This channel cat was a dandy, about 6 pounds. The small-stream equivalent of a double-digit cat in the Red.

One more smaller cat came out of that hole and it was time to move upstream. Walk, find a deeper spot, fish it. That was the pattern.

A couple of things are evident, even for a non-biologist. The Buffalo doesn’t, can’t, hold nearly as many catfish as the Red. There just isn’t enough water, enough life-sustaining  space in the Buffalo. And, as mentioned, the fish won’t be as large. But there is plenty of forage in the form of goldeye and other small fish for cats and other predators to thrive. The minnows nibbling on your feet and, shins and calves in the Buffalo gets to be a nuisance after awhile.

It’s a unique experience, too, to fish the Buffalo by foot. It’s not for everybody, because it takes balance and agility to be able to walk several hundred yards or more in a river strewn with with obstacles and current. But slipping on a pair of old sneakers, sliding down a river bank on your butt (getting out is quite an experience for a 50-year-old) and hiking to find “deep” spots of three-foot water is as rewarding as any kind of Minnesota fishing.