The sturgeon was down there—somewhere—in the Red River’s murky depths. The “ping-ping-ping” sound emitted from the shotgun shell-sized transmitter implanted in its body was a giveaway.
Stephen Siddons and Connor Chance-Ossowski had picked up the fish’s signal Monday morning on the ultrasonic telemetry and tracking receiver they carried aboard their research boat. By lowering a transducer plugged into the receiver over the side of the boat and listening, the two researchers were able to “hear” the sturgeon.
Think of fingers tapping on a drum.
“Ping. … Ping, ping, ping.”
Picking up the sturgeon’s signal was no surprise, Siddons said. He and Chance-Ossowski had implanted the transmitter in the sturgeon early this spring in Lockport, Man., on the Manitoba side of the Red River north of Winnipeg.
Within days, the two researchers had tracked the sturgeon to a spot several miles downriver.
The fish since then apparently has found the downstream surroundings to its liking.
“I bet he’s within 60 to 80 yards of us right now,” Siddons said Monday morning, listening to the ping from the sturgeon’s transmitter. “The signal keeps getting louder as we get closer to him. At some point, we’ll be right over the top of him.
“The sturgeon has stayed within a mile or two of this spot all summer.”
Graduates of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Siddons, 27, and Chance-Ossowski, 23, have been tagging fish—mainly channel catfish—on the Red River and nearby waters in the basin this summer and surgically implanting ultrasonic transmitters in nearly 120 of those catfish as part of a cooperative research project between UNL and Manitoba’s Fisheries Branch.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, which share management of the Red River, also are project partners. Canada’s federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has helped out with equipment and staffing.
Each transmitter emits a unique signal that allows the researchers to identify specific fish, which also carry numbered orange tags, Siddons said. When the ultrasonic receiver picks up a signal, the fish’s tag number pops up on the screen.
On straightaway stretches of river, the signal carries for several hundred yards.
The researchers then log the fish’s tag number, time and location.
The sturgeon Siddons and Chance-Ossowski wired up for sound was a bonus. Siddons said they were fishing for goldeyes to use as channel catfish bait near the St. Andrews Lock and Dam in Lockport when they heard some commotion on shore.
A fisherman nearby had caught a 3-foot sturgeon. Siddons and Chance-Ossowski quickly pulled anchor and were able to tag the fish and implant the transmitter before the fisherman released it.
Mostly, though, they’ve been tracking catfish, Siddons said; the transmitters are surgically implanted on the left side of the fish near the pectoral fin.
Some of the catfish haven’t been heard from since, he said; others have acted more like the sturgeon, staying near where they were tagged.
Why that is, only the fish know for sure. But by following the tracking devices, Siddons said, project partners hope to learn more about where the fish move within the Red River and its tributaries.
The batteries should last a couple of years, he said.
“We’d also like to figure out what our catfish mortality is like, but we won’t know for awhile,” Siddons said.
In the water
Besides actively listening for the wired-up fish, project partners have planted a series of more than 100 receivers in the Red River, Siddons said. The listening units extend from as far upstream as Halstad, Minn., downstream to the mouth of the Red and beyond the river as far north as the narrows between the south and north basins of Lake Winnipeg and east into the Winnipeg River.
Siddons and Chance-Ossowski, along with Jamison Wendel of the Minnesota DNR, installed receiver units near Halstad and Grand Forks last month, but high water thwarted their plans to anchor a receiver below the Drayton (N.D.) Dam.
The receiver units will have to be physically retrieved and the data they collect downloaded to determine how many fish with transmitters traveled within listening range.
Siddons said the receivers in the lower Red River, which have been in place most of the summer, likely will be pulled this fall to download the data.
“The rest of them, I imagine, will wait until next year,” he said. “It will take probably a month of fieldwork to get them all pulled.”
The tracking research is an offshoot of the tagging study researchers launched on the Manitoba portion of the Red River in 2012. Mark Pegg, a fish ecologist and instructor at UNL, met Manitoba biologists at a 2010 catfish symposium, and the idea of studying Manitoba catfish grew from that meeting.
Channel catfish hadn’t been studied intensively in Manitoba, despite the province’s well-justified reputation as one of the top catfish destinations in North America.
“It was like, ‘Well, I can come up and have a look,’ and it snowballed from there,” Pegg told the Herald in 2015. Much of the funding has come from the Manitoba Fish and Wildlife Enhancement Fund.
To date, about 15,000 channel catfish have been tagged as part of the research project, Siddons said. The study has been of special interest in the Grand Forks area, where Siddons says nearly 300 tag returns have been reported, in some cases multiple times.
Grand Forks catfish guide Brad Durick has reported nearly 40 of the tagged fish in his boat alone.
Siddons, who wrote his master’s thesis based on the tagging study, has worked on the Manitoba portion of the Red River since the first year of the study in 2012. A Tennessee native, he said the perfect job would be working summers in Manitoba and somewhere warmer in the winter.
Chance-Ossowski, a Nebraska native and avid catfish angler, said he’d never fished the Manitoba side of the Red River until getting the opportunity to work on the river as part of the UNL study.
The researchers have used hoop nets to catch cats, but hook-and-line fishing also is a key capture technique, not to mention a good chance to mix work and pleasure in the name of research.
Tough job, as the old saying goes, but someone has to do it.
“I’ve always seen pictures of the catfish in Manitoba and had aspirations to make a trip to the Red River,” Chance-Ossowski said. “Pictures alone simply do not do the fishery justice until you are able to experience it firsthand.”
The Canadian cats definitely run bigger than the fish he catches back home in Nebraska or in Kansas where he previously interned, Chance-Ossowski said.
“I realized quickly that if you anchored at any location, from Selkirk to the Lockport Dam, you can catch 33- to 38-inch catfish that are well over 15 years old,” he said. “While angling in Nebraska and Kansas is still excellent, you are catching younger year-classes of channel catfish—24- to 30-inch fish—with 32-inch fish being caught on occasion, as well.”
Monday was the last day on the water for Siddons and Chance-Ossowski, and they’re now back in Nebraska exploring career opportunities.
From tagging fish to implanting ultrasonic transmitters, tracking the fish and meeting anglers, the experience the two researchers gained working on the Red River should benefit their job hunts.
“It has opened my eyes to the dynamics of a trophy catfish fishery and just how far a fish can and will move if given the opportunity,” Chance-Ossowski said.
Now that he’s fished the Red in the name of research, Chance-Ossowski says he definitely plans to come back in the name of recreation.
“As a lifetime catfish angler and fisheries researcher, the Red River will always be heaven on earth to me and a destination any catfish angler should make if given the opportunity,” he said.