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Fish Stories

In 1874 Walter A. Burleigh, a notorious grafter, was seeking to return to Congress as the delegate for Dakota Territory, which the Bismarck Tribune insisted would be a “calamity.” Lest anyone over east in the Red River Valley take his side, the Trib reminded people how Burleigh had pronounced their part of the territory “only fit for the production of mosquitoes and catfish.”

I am no fan of mosquitoes, but it seems to me the production of channel catfish is to be lauded, not disparaged! Indeed, people who move here from other parts of the country are mystified by the distaste of local parties for a creature prized as game fish and table fare elsewhere.

Walleye, walleye, walleye, I get so tired of hearing about it, I finally say, “Walleye is fish for people who don’t like fish.” Walleye rose to their current status in public esteem only since reservoir construction and changing climate have produced vast new habitats for them. Really, what did people here think of catfish in, say, the nineteenth century?

The answer is, they marveled at them, and they ate them, and not only in the Red River Valley. By 1878 local demand was such that the Trib reported a “catfish fishery at the mouth of Apple Creek” to be “supplying Bismarck with fresh fish.”

Two years later the paper reported the catch of a catfish weighing fifty pounds with a mouth that “resembled the entrance to the Hoosac tunnel.” I do not think this was a blue catfish, or a flathead, as those species are not known to range this far north. The accuracy of the scales or the veracity of the teller may be questioned, for a fifty-pounder would be a world record for channel catfish, but I think it’s possible.

To the west, the Badlands Cowboy in the 1880s reported catfishing common in the Little Missouri, but the fish were relatively small — two to five pounds. The whoppers regularly came from the Red, with a report in 1881 of one 4’6” in length. Through the 1880s there were frequent reports of cats twenty to thirty pounds. One fishing party in 1891 reported a catch of nineteen fish with an average weight of 22 ½ pounds.

A fish story? Likely true. But then — trigger warning now for grisly detail — there came this exchange item from Winnipeg, datelined 23 May 1891.

The hand of a child was found in the stomach of a catfish caught in the Red river yesterday, and to-day another catfish was caught with another hand in its stomach, apparently belonging to the same child.

This is classic urban-legend stuff — from 1891! There are no contemporary reports, however, of Kentucky fried rats, vanishing hitchhikers, or a murderous maniac with a hook on his arm.

Nor are there — and I have searched — any reports in the public press of the nineteenth century disparaging the culinary qualities of catfish. They were prized.

Which brings me to a truly legendary character I discovered while looking into the subject of catfish — Uncle Ben Corbin, of Emmons County. Corbin was an eccentric and active veteran of the Civil War who had a homestead along Beaver Creek near the Missouri. In 1887 he announced himself “prepared to furnish the market with anything in the line of fish, from a minnow to a whale. . . . My headquarters is at Archimbault’s ranch, near the bridge at the mouth of Beaver creek where I sell them at 5 cents per pound alive, 8 cents dressed, or 10 cents if delivered by the peddling wagon.”

I can tell you a lot more about Uncle Ben Corbin, and I will.

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