With a new target species and some new toys to play with, the Turrall lads have been back on the bank this week. Even appalling weather couldn’t stop them from tangling with some impressive coarse fish on the fly, but could they tempt a wels catfish? Dom Garnett met up with Turrall’s Gary Pearson and Rodney Wevill to take up the challenge.
After the trials of both a virus pandemic and an insanely dry spring, it seemed fitting enough this week to be embarking on an extremely strange fly fishing mission. Think of the “gentle art” of tricking fish with artificial flies and the wels catfish has to be the last fish on the list. Even for the bloke who wrote a book that featured barbel and bream on the fly, it seemed a bit nuts. Possible, yes. Sensible, no.
Of course, it has now been done in the UK. With heavy streamer tackle, the likes of Ben Bangham and last year’s Fly For Coarse runner up Stuart Watson have managed to get their string pulled by some serious catfish without the need to get on a plane… or psychiatric help.
So, when it transpired that a fishery not too far from our base here in Devon might let us try for one, it wasn’t just my ears that pricked up. We also managed to tempt down Rodney Wevill- a keen all round fly angler who’s just become part of our team of fly and kit testers and developers. A huge fan of pike on the fly, this should be right up his street.
If you plan to do this on any fishery, however, you will often have to book out a whole lake, we should point out (so as not to annoy carpy regulars). And you’d also need an XL net and unhooking mat, as these are seriously long fish. But who knows, perhaps this could be the next big thing for fly anglers looking for the ultimate battle in freshwater in the UK?
Two of the hardest fighting UK fish to catch on the fly…
If the plan to catch a wels catfish sounded a big ask, another great reason to head for a coarse fishery was to get stuck into some summer carp. With this branch of fly fishing growing massively, we were also keen to test some new fly patterns and tackle.
Having two species to go at also made perfect sense, though, because it meant that we could switch when the going was slow. And with catfish having quite short feeding spells, it would be a case of picking our moment with care rather than flogging the lake to death and losing the will to live.
So what tackle might you need to catch these species? As I explained in my book Flyfishing For Coarse Fish you don’t need specialist gear for carp. You can have great sport with “fun-sized” fish on tackle as light as a four to six weight. On our fishery for the session, though, with fish averaging 8-12lbs and snags present, this would be rather light.
Gary opted for an 8/9 weight Cortland Fairplay set up. Part of the reasoning was that we simply wanted to give it an uncompromising trial with some strong fish! At under £100 for rod, reel and fly line, this setup really is the best possible value for carp on the fly, but would also be a cost effective way to tackle up for bass, pike or other species too. An 8lb leader and a selection of carp flies and we were good to go.
On the catfish front, we would need far more specialist tackle (above). 10 and 11 weight rods are the minimum to consider, along with thick pike style fly lines and a minimum of 40lb leader to put up with a brutally strong fish armed with a mouth full of abrasive little teeth. It really isn’t worth compromising on materials here either- yes, quality fluorocarbon isn’t cheap. But for a fish that could be as long as you are, you don’t want to be taking any chances!
Carp on fly capers
After a preliminary look round the lake, it seemed carp were our best opening bet. Having bait fished for cats before, I can vouch for the commotion when they’re active and feeding! From huge eruptions of bubbles to heaving patterns at the surface, they are not the most subtle species. But for now, it was already approaching late morning and we were seeing nothing.
By the time we’d tackled up it was also slamming down with rain, which would barely stop for the next entire day and a half. Even more reason to break up the session into two species and take breaks. With shelters up, we were at liberty to take cover as required and time our fly fishing attempts carefully.
Carp were the first species to show, as Gary found fish moving in a shallow back channel on the lake. Despite the horrible weather, they began taking a bit of loose feed off the top. Much as I love to try and catch carp on natural flies, perhaps a majority of our commercial fisheries see a lot of bait, and so the most reliable route is to get them going in this way.
It took a fair time to get the fish to play, even with bait, it must be said. They’d come up to sneakily take a morsel or two of feed, then disappear again. These are wily fish, too, and easily missed- especially where they know what anglers are like. One good tip here is to keep trickling feed in just three or four pieces at a time, and be patient, rather than showering in freebies and jumping straight in.
You can’t help feel the fly rod, with no bubble floats or other casting weights, is ideal for cagy fish, because of the minimal disturbance. And it proved third time lucky for Gary, after two missed attempts he hooked a solid fish.
The Cortland outfit stood up well. Ok, so you’re not going to get super fine or fussy performance at £70- but the powerful forgiving action of the rod was spot on. Nor was Gary milking it for my camera- it was a really strong specimen! Looking at the abuse dealt with (the rod, not just Gary!) this would also make an ideal starter outfit for pike fly fishing for anyone on a tight budget.
Weighed at 15lbs 8oz, it was a new PB carp on the fly for Gary and an impressive test for the rods and gear! I should also mention that Gary was testing some new carp fly patterns, which are on the way from Turrall.
Catching up over a cast or three hundred…
Delighted as we were to see that carp, the main event was still to come with the catfish. But it turned into a gruelling session. For one thing, the cats have quite short feeding spells, as I knew from bait fishing for them. We would not only need persistence, but regular breaks to keep our energy and enthusiasm levels up.
Between downpours, though, it was good to get properly introduced to Rodney, who is a keen fly angler and tyer with a broad taste when it comes to fish species. He’s particularly drawn to the predators in fresh or saltwater, with some impressive specimen pike on the fly to his name.
That said, his most recent obsession has been mullet on the fly. Easier than catfish perhaps, but also a test of patience and tackle! Good results have been coming on small nymphs and other mullet flies- and at some stage we’ll have to twist his arm to writing a blog post for us.
The late show
It’s one of those curious facets of any angling that it’s often just when you’re tired and confidence is waning that fortune suddenly changes. On our trip, it had been a long, wet day and we were soaked and feeling a bit dour by the evening. That said, the last spell of light is so often a time for catfish and other predators to wake up and feed.
We were also seeing the occasional sign of fish that didn’t look like carp. Either a big swirl at the surface or a sudden huge patch of bubbles erupting can be signs of catfish stirring.
Behind one of the islands on the fishery, I had just such a cue as the water churned. Two casts later and I had a sudden knock on the line. Was this a cat? It didn’t exactly slap me in the face those first seconds. In fact, whatever it was just plodded lazily at first. Could it be one of the smaller “kittens” in the lake, rather than grandma?
As I increased the pressure, the change was startling. The fish suddenly “grew” in size and fury, putting yards between us in seconds. It seemed to take a small eternity, but the whole episode must have been only a minute or so. The fish made an angry bolt for the near bank and, try as I might to keep up, it got wedged.
For many anxious seconds, I kept the pressure on, but could feel nothing. My slightly mangled looking barbless fly eventually pinged free, but I suspect the fish had long gone. Round one had gone to the catfish.
About two hours later, just after nine o’clock, Rodney then got his turn to hook one. Casting space is always an issue at non- fly fisheries, but he’d proved just how close in the catfish must roam with a bite right in the margin.
With an even stronger rod than the one I was using, I thought he might have a better chance, but the fight was a carbon copy of mine. If anything, he got a slightly longer ride before being thrown off the horse! Again, after a few seconds of battle, the fish plunged for the near bank and everything went solid. He got the fly back, too, but that was the end of it.
The school of hard knocks!
As I write this, the questions are still echoing through my head. Were we unlucky or just not firm enough? Were the fish even properly hooked? Looking at the mouth of the wels, there are only two “sweet spots” at each corner of the mouth, where a hook up is likely. Find the crushing, sandpaper like “pads” and you can forget it. This is why a firm line strike, low and hard, rather than a lift would seem to make sense. It’s also why you probably need a bit of luck.
As for flies for catfish, we also learned by trial and error. I tried many casts with large poppers, thinking the cats would love this. While you sense these might help wake the fish up a bit (and you could even splosh one about before trying a sinker in the same spot?), I didn’t have any attention on them.
Nor did the big pike flies get any attention. In fact, all takes came on very ordinary looking mid sized pike flies of 3-5″, and bucktail headed patterns seemed a good bet, because of the wake they create. All takes were had midwater or nearer the surface, too, interestingly. In spite of the cat’s bottom hugging profile, it seems a hungry hunting wels is often prowling the margins or right off the lake bed in open water!
The dirty antics of the catfish also need some adjustment- and I think you have to accept you won’t apply the brakes on these creatures in the early stages, regardless of your rod choice. However, it’s worth using extremely strong leaders and being up for a serious fight and unusual tactics. In hindsight, I should not only have run along the bank earlier to keep up with my fish, but got the rod tip well under the water to keep the line free of snags and hopefully keep itclear. Experience is the best but most ruthless teacher in any sort of fishing, I guess!
Gary had his own chance the following morning, but this time the fish bumped and was gone, without any fireworks. But this was the total of our efforts. It might not make the happiest conclusion to our story, therefore, but it was certainly an educational trip and we’ll be better equipped for a future rematch. Even with just curse words and a dry landing net to show for it, the fight alone and that lost fish was one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever had on a fly rod!
Other things we learned were the value of each packing a shelter on a horrible day, not to mention the value of having another species (carp) to go at in the slower parts of the day (and while never topping Gary’s specimen, we did add to this tally). Other than this, timing seems everything for the cats. It’s a game of commitment, concentration and few chances, so rather than flogging the water for hours and hours, it made sense to take regular breaks and hit hard during the peak times of early morning and late evening.
Salmon fishers would probably understand the right mentality; you’re fishing for probably just one or two takes in a session at most and it calls for a quiet, calm determination and inner readiness. I also sense you might need to lose a fish or two in order to learn how best to play them. Lots of lessons learned, then, and there’s always the chance of revenge next time.
Watch this space and keep an eye on our Facebook page for more updates this summer, with patterns and tips for all kinds of fly fishing.