GRAND FORKS — Looking at the Red River below Riverside Dam in Grand Forks on a recent June morning, the conditions seemed more like the dog days of August than early summer.
Riprap lining the riverbank, normally submerged under more traditional early June conditions, is far above the waterline. The dock adjacent to the boat ramp at the Whopper John Little Boat Landing has been pushed into the water about as far as it can go before the wheels fall off the edge of the ramp. And the current is barely noticeable.
The river’s low, folks, and navigating the Red downstream from Riverside Dam requires caution to avoid hitting rocks or logs in areas that are particularly shallow.
There are plenty of hazards lurking below the surface in the first mile or two downstream from the dam. And without some much-needed rain, river levels will drop even more during the current heatwave.
Already, organizers of the Red River Valley Catfish League have moved all of their Wednesday night fishing events to the boat landing at LaFave Park below Cabela’s in East Grand Forks. Normally, league nights alternate between the north landing below Riverside Dam and the LaFave Park landing, which is upstream from the dam.
After league participants began hitting rocks and damaging the lower units of their outboard motors while navigating the river below the dam, organizers had no choice but to move the event upstream to safer water. The river is deeper and less treacherous upstream from Riverside Dam.
“We had five lower units go out in two league nights” downstream from Riverside Dam, Brad Durick, a local catfish guide and one of the league organizers, said Wednesday. “And that number is just going to be higher and higher. So, with running 30 boats-plus, we’re going to go out of LaFave until further notice.”
As of Thursday morning, June 3, the Red River in Grand Forks was at 16.33 feet on a slow, but steady decline and a discharge of 2,060 cubic feet per second.
The second number is especially telling, Durick says.
“There’s zero current,” he said. “I was in there a couple of mornings ago up by the old dam (upstream from the existing rock-rapids structure), and a 5 mile an hour wind was pushing the boat backward.”
And while the river level in Grand Forks is listed at 16.33 feet, the gauge is downtown — upstream from the dam — which means the level below the dam is even lower.
And, subsequently, more treacherous.
Durick, who as a fishing guide closely watches river and current levels, says the conditions remind him of 2012, another year when spring came early and conditions generally were dry.
“In 2012, I fished (Grand Forks) down to about 1,200 cfs, and it was scary back then,” Durick said.
As director of the upcoming Scheels Boundary Battle Catfish Tournament, set for June 26-27 on the Red River, Durick will continue to watch river levels and hope for rain. Traditionally, participants in the 50-boat tournament weigh in at the Whopper John Little Boat Landing on the first day of the tournament and move to LaFave Park in East Grand Forks for weigh-ins on the second day of the tournament.
If low flows and water levels persist, Durick says he may have to move both days of the tournament to the upstream side of Riverside Dam and its safer water levels.
“I’m not hiding that I’m thinking about it because we have to, but I’m not going to make the decision until about the week before,” Durick said. “If we could get Fargo to get a couple of inches of rain, this would come right back up. They’ve been just bone dry.”
For the time being, Durick has moved his guiding trips to Drayton. Fishing has been good, and he had to cut Wednesday’s phone conversation short because he had three catfish on at once.
While the river in Drayton is dropping, as well, heavy rains last month in the northern Red River Valley boosted water levels and gave the river a buffer that to this point in the year has eluded Grand Forks and stretches of river farther south.
“I’m coming to Drayton every day now,” Durick said. “I’ve done this enough, and the bite is so dramatic I’m just going to end up putting the miles on the truck. It’s having raving fans or disappointed customers.”
That’s not to say the river below Riverside Dam isn’t fishable, Durick says; boaters just have to be careful and be darn sure of they’re they’re going. That’s especially true near the old landing, which is maybe half a mile downstream from the Whopper John Little boat ramp, he said.
“That first set of rocks at the old landing in the middle is nasty,” Durick said. “Once you get out of the rocks from the landing to the old landing, I’m sure there are a few stumps around, but it’s not that bad, I’m guessing — yet.”