– Hardly another boat could be seen on the stretch of this river that Brian Klawitter and I occupied the other evening. No planes flew overhead and no trains rumbled in the distance. A great blue heron did lift gracefully from a nearby island, silhouetting itself against the crimson-hued western horizon. Otherwise Klawitter and I had the water between Hager City, Wis., and Red Wing, Minn., to ourselves, slapping the odd mosquito and talking catfish.

Klawitter’s conversion a dozen years ago from fishing generalist to catfishing specialist occurred at an age when many men face midlife crises.

Some guys in turn buy sports cars, others bend toward yoga, while still others pull on flamingo-colored shirts featuring little ponies on the breast pockets, their collars turned up.

Klawitter did none of the above.

He took up catfishing.

“The first catfish I ever caught was a 15-pound flathead,” Klawitter recalled. “After that, I was hooked.”

Growing up in Hutchinson, Minn., not far west of the Twin Cities, Klawitter as a kid frequented the nearby Crow River. Bullheads. Crappies. Carp. Dogfish. Northern pike.

Whatever bit tickled his fancy, particularly if it could be landed on a fly rod.

“My first 25 years of fishing were pretty much done in waders with a fly rod,” Klawitter said. “My dad fished panfish that way, so I was expected to fish that way, too. I remember as a kid seeing in the DNR fishing synopsis all the rules about catfish and asking myself, ‘I wonder where in the state those fish live?’ ”

He’d find out.

Living in Lakeland, Minn., near the St. Croix River, Klawitter’s first forays for his new favorite finned quarry were on that river.

Coincidentally, about the same time, he hit a jackpot most fishermen can only dream of.

He lost his job.

And got paid to do it.

“My position was eliminated,” he said. “I got a good severance.”

The cash-out allowed him to chase catfish, and to learn about catfish, for a year.

“At the same time, I started thinking about guiding, noticing there weren’t many guides who specialized in catfishing. So in addition to fishing a lot during the year I didn’t work, I got my Coast Guard license, which is required of guides on the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.”

□ □ □

Fast-forward to Wednesday evening last week.

About 8:30, Klawitter — for about a half-dozen years now a Coast Guard-licensed fishing guide — and I leave the dock at Evert’s Resort in Hager City, hard by the Mississippi.

We’re in Klawitter’s 17-foot aluminum boat, which is stuffed with gear, including a bow-mounted radar scanner he uses after dark to find his way safely on the big river.

“Usually, I’ll fish with clients until 1 or 2 in the morning, depending how things are going,” he says. “Sometimes it’s foggy then, and buoys can be hard to see. So the radar comes in handy. Also, you’d be surprised how many boats are on this river at night without lights.”

Employed full-time again, Klawitter guides only on weekends, fishing the Mississippi for cats and headquartering out of Evert’s, which lies not far upstream from Red Wing.

“You can catch channel cats in the St. Croix, but they can be more difficult to consistently locate than in the Mississippi,” he says. “Also, flatheads in the Mississippi are often easier to target than in the St. Croix.”

Klawitter and I don’t travel far before we anchor up.

We have a cooler full of huge sucker minnows, four of which are quickly impaled through their tails, using 8/0 Super J hooks.

The suckers cost $5 apiece, so we don’t want to lose any of them — unless it occurs while catching a fish.

“The biggest flathead I’ve had in my boat weighed 59 pounds,” Klawitter says. “A client caught it in 2006.”

Like the Mississippi, the Minnesota River has big flatheads. But the best water for big channel cats is the Red River, along the Minnesota-North Dakota border.

Daylight has nearly disappeared when one of our starboard rods bends deeply, pulsing against the weight of a fast-departing fish.

This would be a flathead.

Klawitter will fight this fish, and when he sets the hook, his heels come up.

“That’s a good fish,’’ he says.

Minutes pass before I have the flathead in an oversized net.

As quickly, the big fish, weighing perhaps 30 pounds, is photographed and released.

So it went the other night on the Mississippi.

Hardly another boat could be seen. No planes flew overhead and no trains rumbled in the distance.

We had the river to ourselves, Klawitter and me, slapping the odd mosquito and talking catfish.

 

Editor’s note: Brian Klawitter’s website is www.brianksworld.com.

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com