King of the Prairie Waters
May 18, 2012
Noted historian George Kingsbury lumped farm immigration, gold discoveries and — yes, believe it or not — catfish as three important factors to the settlement of Dakota.
In his book History of Dakota Territory (Vol. 1, p. 165), Kingsbury wrote, "in the opinion of many of the early settlers the food problem would have been a very serious one had it not been for the abundant supply of this best of all fishes right at the threshhold of the settlements."
Kingsbury noted that catfish was somewhat out of favor at the time he wrote the book (about 1915). "It is occassionally remarked in these later times that the people of Dakota are not acquainted with the edible merits of this excellent fish, but send to eastern and western markets for an inferior article, while they have such an inexhaustible supply here at home."
Immigrants to South Dakota make the same discovery today, according to a story in our May/June 2012 issue in which we feature Ukraine-born Nata Jones, who came to Yankton and enthusiastically took to catching and grilling Missouri River catfish.
Nata married a local fellow and instantly appreciated the smalltown atmosphere in Yankton. She hailed from Chernivtsi, a city of 240,000. "Everybody is so friendly and smiling. You don't need to worry about nothing," she told us in a delightful Euroopean accent. "If something happened, everybody would help me."
And the catfish? "I fished in the Ukraine, too, but this is a little bit different here." She and her husband, Brad, use stink bait to lure the whiskered bottom feeders so famous for their ability to smell.
South Dakota has Blue Catfish, Channel Cats and Flatheads. All can grow to immense proportions, but today's intensive fishing — and perhaps the damming of the Missouri — might be resulting in fewer giant cats. The record Blue was a 97-pounder caught in 1959 and the biggest Channel was a 55-pounder caught way back in 1949.
However, Davin Holland of Tabor caught the state record Flathead (63.5 lbs.) just six years ago in the James River near Yankton. Cats are found in rivers, lakes and ponds across our state.
"For scores of years, the early traders subsisted almost exclusively on a diet of buffalo and catfish," wrote Kingsbury a century ago.
Throw in a few tomatoes, morel mushrooms and wild asparagus and it doesn't sound like a bad way to eat in South Dakota.