Carp and catfish on the fly

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.

 Rodney Wevill Fly Fishing turrall

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.

Fly fishing for wels catfish UK
Catfish on the fly are now a realistic target in the UK- as this fish from Stuart Watson shows.

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.

Simple patterns will do fine for carp and cats: Peter Cockwill’s carp flies are excellent. For the catfish, you don’t need huge flies. In fact, all our takes came on sensible sized pike flies, preferably with a bit of pulse and throb to them. Turrall produce several that fit the bill perfectly- such as the basic Black Pike Fly (L).

 

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.

tackle and catfish flies UK

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.

Gary’s first carp of the session gave a titanic fight!

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.

Back she goes, after a brief argument with a fly rod!

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.

Shelter from the storm: Bivvies were very handy to keep us from drowning in rain, although interestingly I only had one carp on bait with two rods out overnight. Hour for hour, the fly was more effective!

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.

Commotion can be regular on smallish lakes- but most of it will be carp. Catfish tend to make huge swirls or release enormous patches of bubbles as they stir!

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.

Rodney bends hard into a catfish- these creatures have incredible power!

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.

Stealth, simplicity & war on leaky waders: River fly fishing tackle tips with Dom Garnett

With the late start to the current season, river fly fishers will be as eager as ever to get back to what they love. Turrall blogger and fly tyer Dom Garnett has some excellent hacks to help make the most of your time on the water this month.

Dom Garnett fly fishing

“With such a long layoff before this year’s river fly fishing season, it’s been a rough time for many. Obviously there have been far more important things than fishing at stake, but the enforced absence should also make us cherish our sport more than ever.

I’ve missed hosting guided fly fishing trips almost as much as my own fishing this spring. But, if nothing else, there has been time to tie extra flies and sort the gear out properly. While doing so, it struck me that while I so often write about the joy of fly fishing in Devon and Somerset, I don’t often commit as many words to the practicalities of tackle, flies and some of those useful dodges that get overlooked.

So, this month, I’m going to take a closer look at how to fly fish small rivers- or at least how I do it!- in terms of the tackle and some of the practical aspects I try to impart in my guiding over many years here in the South West.

Start small and keep it local

Guided fly fishing Devon Somerset
Throughout the country, there is affordable fly fishing these days- but many are put off by the price and exclusivity of more expensive waters. And in the digital era there’s also the endless stream of huge trout and orgasmic looking river shots on social media. All I can say is don’t worry about what others are doing, because with some local homework and a look at fisheries like suburban rivers and fishing passport schemes, there’s some excellent fishing to be had for peanuts. Nor should anyone be travelling hours to fish in the first place right now!

Here in Devon, what the small rivers lack in huge fish, they more than make up for in beauty and the stacks of gorgeous, greedy little trout. And who can complain at fishing as little as six quid a day or even free? Two sources I’d highly recommend are the Westcountry Angling Passport and Theo Pike’s book Trout in Dirty Places.

Simple, affordable tackle

One thing I love about stream fishing is how simple the tackle is. Anglers can get obsessed with the best fly rods and reels, but basic, practical tackle is all you need . For my small stream fishing, I am still using a 4 wt rod bought for £50 in a sale 10 years ago. My reel looks smart, but is just a cheapie. Partly because my last slick looking number from a big brand fell to bits!

Fly lines are similarly dazzling to many anglers. Yes, for a big river, specialised tactics or very fussy fish you might want to invest a bit. But for the streams, where there’s seldom the space let alone the need to cast more than 10-15 metres, a solid basic line from a decent brand is fine. For me, the Cortland Fair Play series is ideal. The performance marginally better on a £50 line, but would I even notice while flicking a fly out ten yards on a stream?

Sort out your leaders and tippets!

When I first started river fishing I made the mistake I see many newcomers repeating today; they get through endless leaders in a season and pick tippet materials that are either mediocre quality or too thick. My approach tends to be the opposite; an ordinary reel and fly line, combined with top quality tippet materials!

Find a reliable tapered leader for starters, and extend its life by adding a tiny leader ring on the end to attach your tippet. This will save you many quid in the long run, as you won’t keep shortening leaders until they are useless.

In terms of leader length, a 9ft tapered leader plus 2-3ft of tippet is a very useable typical length. I would only bother changing this if the stream was especially tight- in which case I occasionally chop down to 7ft of tapered leader plus tippet.

The actual tippet is possibly the most vital part of all . Does it really matter to the fish whether you use 5lb or 3lb tippet, or whether you use the posh stuff? In a word, YES! This is especially true for dry fly fishing. There is a world of difference between say bog standard 3-4lb mono and a really top class material.

The best of them will give you a fantastic presentation with just under 3lb of leader strength at just 0.10mm of diameter. Flies just behave more naturally with thin, supple tippet, it’s as simple as that. Why is it that we will pay over £100 for a reel, but consider anything over £10 as outrageous for really top notch fishing line?

Correct, it costs a little more, but invest in the best tippet material and you’ll trick more fish!

For the record, I also find low diameter fluorocarbon perfectly fine for dry fly fishing. Yes, I know others will disagree and say “no, fluorocarbon sinks” but in finer diameters it seems fine. It will still stick to the surface tension or, at worst, just-about-sink. Perhaps this is to our advantage, as it makes those final few inches harder to see?

90% of the fish on just 5 flies

My favourite 5 (L to R): Klinkhamer, Elk Hair Caddis, F-Fly, CDC Quill Emerger, Beaded Hare’s Ear.

Ok, so it’s the pub debate that never ends. But if you could pick just a minimum of patterns, what would you take? Well, with the right choices would still catch plenty of fish on any small stream. You can experiment with stacks of realistic flies and beautiful designs, but in truth simple is best (especially when trees will always confiscate some of your work).

So, while I always like the odd curveball, I keep coming back to the same flies time and again for a reason. They do the job and are either easy to tie, or cheap to buy for those who don’t roll their own. With the dries, I love a simple Klinkhamer Emerger (size 16-18) or Elk Hair Caddis (12-16), especially for broken water with the latter. For subtler presentations and smoother water, CDC patterns tend to rule, such as a Quill Emerger (16-18) or basic F-Fly (16-22). All of these will be tied barbless or debarbed (and a pair of quality forceps that will crush a barb easily is another must have fly tying accessory).

For wets, I’ve tried so many but rarely do I feel that I’ll catch any more fish than with a simple beaded Hare’s Ear, (usually with a size 16 being optimum and these days usually tied on a “point up” jig hook). In fact, I remember one season when my brother made incredible wet flies- spectacularly realistic in every detail, from legs to gills. And yet the basic, tie-in-five-minutes-flat hare’s ear still caught more fish! Sorry realistic fly tyers; I still love your patterns but on any small river where much of your work will only decorate trees, I’ll save your creations for more spacious venues.

One final tip here for the guides is to stock up in bulk on the flies you use most. Sure, so you might have time to tie dozens of emergers and nymphs; but a much quicker solution is to find  commercially made patterns you trust, get a trade account and order by the dozen! The same goes for tapered leaders and other basics; order in bulk and it’s so much cheaper (and knowing how many flies are lost and leaders tangled in a season you just know you’ll use them!)

Really damned simple nymph tactics

Talking of leaders and leader or “rig rings”, this tapered leader to rig ring to tippet set up also makes it a cinch to fish nymphs on smaller rivers. Ok, so I would always rather catch on the dry fly- but if it’s a cool day, nothing is rising, or the fish are in the deeper pools, why make life hard for yourself?

The same leader set up is just fine- and the leader ring makes an ideal stopping point to keep a basic, fold-on foam indicator in place. Yes, it’s very basic- but with a gold bead nymph it’s an incredibly effective, hassle free set up. Don’t get me wrong here; French leaders are great on big rivers and fussy fish, it’s just that on a cramped little river they are needless. Long rods and vast leaders are just impractical on bushy little streams.

Line and fly management

Meeting lots of anglers of all levels every season, I can vouch for the fact that they love their little containers. Some anglers have more containers than Gandalf’s cellar! Nothing wrong with any product if it does the job for you, but my advice is always find a simple selection and stick to it.

Best dry fly floatant
My very basic selection of treatments for flies and fly line (L to R): Mucilin, Fly Revive powder, Dry Fly Floatant.

Beyond a bit of fuller’s earth to dull shiny tippets or help nymphs to sink, my entire selection is simply Mucilin, dry fly grease and a bit of dry fly revive powder.

As you can see from the state of my containers (above) these last a long time- and they fix a multitude of little sins. One common fault that drives me to ruin with guests, for example, is seeing floating fly lines sinking and scaring fish; it’s so simple to fix; just smear on a bit of Mucilin on the final few feet.

As for dry flies, just a tiny rub of floatant is all that most need. For rough water and patterns that need extra buoyancy, like the Elk Hair Caddis, a good tip here is to apply floatant twice- once at home, followed by a second time on the water.

As for the more delicate side of things, I do love CDC patterns- but they can be as brittle as Premier League footballers, tending to crumple in a heap when bitten. A bottle of  dry “fly revive” powder is like the “magic sponge” of the physio, quickly perking them back into action, hence it also finds a permanent home in my pocket.

All waders leak, but there’s a way to stop hating them and buying more!

Now we come on to one of my pet hates: waders. There, I’ve said it. I hate them! It’s bad enough trying to find any pair when you have size 14 feet (yes, I know I am a freak), but I once found getting them to last more than a season or two impossible! You know the score- regardless of whether you paid £40 or £200, they start to leak. Finding the right pair that lasted longer than a Happy Meal almost got to the point of war.

So what’s the answer, when the whole industry (even the posh brands) produce these items quickly and cheaply in the far East? Well, I’d still invest a bit more for comfort. Things like tough knees are important, given how much time I spend kneeling to keep my lanky frame off the skyline. But as soon as there is even the hint of a leak, send them away to a chap called Diver Dave’s Wader Repairs. He’ll not only eradicate that sudden chilly sensation around your knees, but treat and re-glue all the seams, joins and other vital bits on your waders so they are not so much “like new” but better than new!

As a final point, there will also be the hottest days of summer when anglers ask “do I really need waders at all just to go fly fishing?” Well, strictly speaking, no. An old pair of sports type sandals or “flats sneakers” or any Croc-type shoes with decent grip are fine. Just don’t try it for winter grayling, unless you want to sound like the Bee Gees.

Other really useful fly fishing gear

Fly fishing essentials polarising glasses hat
Forget the rockstar accessories; for me it’s basic polarising glasses and a wide brimmed hat to spot fish and stop me literally becoming a redneck (in that order).

Ok, so there are other things that are not especially sexy, but so indispensible  you would file under “really bloody useful kit”. First of these is polarising glasses. So much nonsense is spoken about these! Perhaps it’s because I’m tight, or clumsy enough to break them, but I’ve never felt the need to spend more than £30. You’re welcome to spend £300- just don’t lend them to me, whatever you do. I like an amber lens, too, best of all.

Next comes a means of keeping your valuables dry. Ok, so you can store your keys etc under your waders- but a phone is something you want to hand at all times (in fact, with the risk involved, I’m less and less inclined to take a digital SLR camera). Find yourself a waterproof phone-sized pouch and neck lanyard and you’re in business (also essential for anyone who kayak fishes!).

Next there’s your hat. Baseball caps never suit me and leave me with a neck looking like I come from Kentucky. A wide brimmed hat is probably even less stylish, but just so much more practical and the fish don’t care if I look like a dad on a Eurocamp holiday.

On the subject of not getting your face burned, I find sunblock vile stuff that inevitably stings your eyes and makes you look like someone who has just experienced tragedy. So get yourself a purpose made face protector cream (the Body Shop or Bulldog do the best ones). Yes, they cost a bit more, but I would rather risk looking a bit metrosexual than have horrible cheap sunblock stinging my eyes (which happens EVERY BLOODY TIME I use regular sunblock on a hot day).

Sportsman bumper fishing rod holder car

Last but not least, I would not be without my stick on rod holder for the car? Why exactly? Because I once smashed a friends rod clean in two by propping it against the car; before it slid down and got caught in the car door, mid slam! For £15 the Sportsman Bumper sticks magnetically to the car and avoids all risk of the sort of accident that could cost a small fortune and ruin your day. You have been warned! Google it and buy one, because they are absolutely indispensible.

Guided fly fishing and more to read from  South West guide and author, Dom Garnett

Dominic Garnett is author of Flyfising for Coarse Fish and a regular blogger and writer for various titles. He’s also a qualified coach offering guided fly fishing near Exeter and right across Devon and Somerset, from trout to pike and other coarse species.
Read more from him at dgfishing.co.uk