52 - Fly fishing for Catfish

Fly Fishing for Catfish - "JR Hartley meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". 

Following a thrilling session Turrall Fly angler and wels catfish fanatic Olly Cullingford and friends to take on one of Britain’s hardest fighting fish!

Picture the scene: You’ve just seen a giant swirl at the surface and small fish leaping clear. Whatever the heck it was doesn’t just send shockwaves across the water, but over your very sanity.

Your nerves are jangling, as you launch out a black and gold streamer in the sort of terrible hurry normally reserved for folks fleeing natural disasters. You make one, two, three strips and WALLOP! The line locks tight and the heaviest fly rod you’ve ever handled slams over like you’d attached it to a truck.

The reel flails, fly line becomes backing. If there was a saint of catfish, or safe fishing knots, you would be praying to him. Fifty yards into the lake, the fish finally turns as you hold the rod low and manage to apply the brakes. The fight grows a new urgency as it enters closer quarters. After the initial nerves, the tide might now be turning, as you lean hard and urge a companion to drop into the water with a net that looks like it could land a porpoise, never mind a decent carp or pike.

Welcome to the crazy world of fly fishing for catfish.

UK Fly fishing for catfish: What the heck is that all about?

I’ll be the first to admit here that targeting this biggest and strangest of predators on fly tackle is pretty new and uncharted territory here in the UK. Ten years ago it wasn’t even a thing in Britain. Bob James was the only person I could find with any experience, and that was in Spain, targeting ludicrous fish with ludicrous flies. But here in the UK? It sounded about as likely as Donald Trump attending a Pride event.

Not for the faint of heart: Olly Cullingford does battle.

Years later, things have moved on. Unlike some of my nearest venues, which had said no to fly fishing, places like Todber Manor, Milemead, Burton Spring and others were letting anglers hire waters out for fly rod action. They’d seen that the gear was heavy enough and the anglers were serious. Into the fray leapt a small band of pioneers, led by the likes of Olly Cullingford and Stuart Watson. The door was opened on a branch of fishing that I described to Angling Times as “JR Hartley meets the Texas Chainsaw Massacre”!

Preconceptions shattered!

I’m not going to lie to you here- catching cats on the fly is challenging and highly specialised. Having borrowed an 11 weight outfit two seasons back, one hooked and lost fish was the sum total of my efforts two years ago on a 48 hour session with mates. So another crack with Olly Cullingford, the captor of the UK’s best fly-caught catfish to date of over 60lbs, seemed a great move. I went with giddy excitement but zero expectation of success, it must be said.

“It’s the fish of a thousand casts, if not more” said Olly. “But it’s also the closest you’ll get in the UK to big game fly fishing.” He went on to tell me that the biggest barriers were access and silly attitudes.

Talking of attitudes, one of the biggest barriers is in the mind. You might assume cats that find boilies and pellets become less aggressive, becoming scavengers more than hunters? Wrong!! You cannot take the killer instinct out of a predator. One comparison I’d make is a household cat. You can feed it all the Whiskas you like, but if a pigeon comes too close it will still try to take a chunk out of it! That said, the attitude of fisheries also matters.

“You can’t just hop around bivvies casting big flies- and a lot of fisheries won’t allow it,” Olly says. “So this place (Todber Manor) is ideal because we can book it between a few of us. The management know we mean business- the gear is strong and safe, and fish care is a top priority.”

He doesn’t mince his words either- we have huge nets and unhooking mats. Gloves and predator pliers are also a must, while buckets of water are used to keep fish wet when landed. The fish care is next level- and this is a game of team work, with fly fanatics Andy Eglon, Andy Cattell and Dean Barker all joining us. When a fish is hooked, it’s action stations with everyone there to work together and help out to make sure every fish is landed, recorded and released safely.

Fly fishing tackle for catfish

As for the rods, reels and other bits, catfish are uncompromising to say the least. “You get silly comments from regular cat anglers, but we’re basically using the fly fishing equivalent of the tackle bait boys use. The rod will bend more- but we have just as much pulling power and it’s very safe.”

Ten weight rods are an absolute minimum here- and twelves are preferred if larger, 50lbs+ catfish are a likely prospect. Interestingly, the lads also use some glass rods for their shock absorption, while ultra strong leaders and lines are needed. Olly uses a Cortland Pike Musky Fly Line for cats, which will launch big flies and has an incredibly strong core.

At the business end, leaders are constructed from a minimum of 45lb fluorocarbon, which is needed not just for pull strength but to combat the thousands of tiny abrasive teeth of the catfish. Olly varies his from just 4 feet to 9 feet, depending on how deep the catfish might be sitting- this can be right down in the silt in the day, or right under the surface when in hunting mode at night!

“We’re using the sort of tackle that will land GTs, tarpon and sharks. Believe me, you’ll need it when you get a cat of any size because they are the hardest fighting freshwater fish you’ll ever encounter in this country. Hopefully as more fisheries see that we mean business and the gear is more than up to scratch, attitudes will change.”

Best flies for catfish

As for actual flies, streamers are the name of the game, tied on the strongest hooks- Turrall’s 4/0 bomb-proof pike hooks are ideal. Patterns vary from smallish 3 inch baitfish, right up to eight inch models. The wels catfish has poor eyesight, so colour probably matters little. More important is a good push of water and covering the water column.

Lighter flies and even poppers can be tried for cats hunting high in the water, while dumbbell eyed streamers are good for lower lying predators. You can tie your own, but if not pike flies work well- but must be quality patterns tied on the very strongest hooks! Many of the larger patterns in the Turrall range are ideal. Just remember to crush the barb before you cast out on most UK carp and cat lakes.

The flies for catfish vary a lot, from dumbell eyed designs, to those that pulse just under the surface. Dean Barker also incorporates a small rattle into his trace, to add to the vibration.

The hunt begins

With our intrepid gang of anglers at Todber, we have an excellent chance of contacting a cat. It feels rather hot and bright, to be honest, but these fickle fish are rarely predictable.

“The next bite can come at any time of day or night!” Olly tells me. “ You will find the feeding spells quite short, though.” These fish are active from late spring to autumn, before going near dormant as things cool.

Prime time can often be at night, he says, when cats will lift off the bottom and maraud the upper layers, a terrifying prospect if you’re a small carp or silver fish! In the daytime, however, there is still always a chance. These fish have superb vibration detection for one thing- and anything that gets close to those whiskers is likely to meet a messy end! In fact, one theory is that in cases where cats are dormant, you might win a take by virtually tickling the whiskers, which could be a foot or more long on a big fish, with your fly.

Locating catfish on stillwaters

Locating catfish is a broad subject, but they love islands, margins and features, especially in warm weather- where you suspect that the warm temperatures found in shallow water might help them digest food quickly. These fish are used to very warm summers in their native range, in countries like Romania, so they’re a great summer species.

“We like to get into as many areas as possible- not just the obvious bits where there are swims and platforms that the bait boys fish” says Andy Eglon, who’s also joining us.

As if to confirm this, he strikes into the first fish of the session from an island margin. In baking sunshine, it’s a surprise, but shows the value of exploring cover. It puts on an excellent battle too, giving a white knuckle run out into the lake and sending the reel tumbling.

As Andy grits his teeth, you can instantly see why preparation is vital. A stripping basket means that the fly line runs clearly and doesn’t get caught, while Dean is quickly on hand with a net, which should have long arms and adequate depth.

While there’s no rushing these fish- and the bend looks dramatic- what’s readily apparent is that the tackle is well up to the job. After no more than six or seven minutes of battle, a long fish hits the net. What an incredible start!

On the bank, an XL unhooking mat and sling ensure the cat has a safe landing. Long nosed pliers quickly free the barbless fly. Meanwhile, the lads apply buckets of water and the fish is rested before a quick weigh and release. Having caught these fish on bait, I can vouch for the fact that it takes no longer to deal with one on fly tackle- and the process and level of care are very similar. At a new PB of 34lbs, Andy is understandably thrilled!

Feeling the heat

With a cat in the bag already, all of the gang now cast with renewed hope! A steady enthusiasm and effort are vital in this game, too. The lads often fish around the clock- but will take regular breaks to rest the water. Sleep is often optional- and I note that while Olly eats healthily these days a few energy drinks are also in his holdall!

My own confidence isn’t exactly sky high, since my previous cat trip was fruitless over 48 hours. Only an hour after Andy’s fish, however, I see a huge swirl and tail pattern by an island. It can surely only be a catfish, right?!

My next cast is hasty and lands well short- but by walking a few paces down the bank I find a better gap and manage to land the fly right next to the disturbance. Just three strips later, I’m in! I can hardly even describe it as a “take” because the rod simply locks up and the rod heaves over.

It’s nerve wracking to say the least, but I remember what the lads said about keeping a low rod and letting line out- especially in the early stages. Amazingly, the fish not only takes the whole fly line but 20 yards of backing as it tries to snag me behind a completely different island to the one I hooked it beside!

As the fish aims for the back of the island, there’s nothing else to do but dig in and try and hold it with a low rod. Stripping line by hand is almost pointless and you’re much better off playing these fish on the reel. When the pressure is really on, another useful method is to clamp down on the reel spool with your palm and literally walk backwards!

It’s hair raising stuff- but in reality the tackle is much safer than the carp rod and 15lb line I caught my last cat on, by accident! When it runs, however, the reel spins hard- and I actually manage to sprain my thumb.

As the fish gets closer, it now attempts to get behind another island – and in order to get a better angle I need to get in the water! Thankfully the margins are shallow- but even so, I quickly hand my phone and wallet to the lads so I can get wet (once again, this team work for cats requires trust!).

I’m wet with sweat after around eight minutes of battle, but by now the fish is not running quite so hard. She’s in open water now and the scales are tipping in my favour. Andy Eglon is on my shoulder with a giant landing net, while Olly urges me to increase the pressure.

The next battle is to fit the damned thing in the landing net. It reminds me of eel fishing; the creature can swim backwards and until the tail is in the net it simply isn’t landed! With more pressure however, and an excellent job by Andy, we get it safely into the net. My language, not for the first time, is unrepeatable.

I cannot quite comprehend what has just happened, but with the lads on hand we quickly weigh and photograph the fish at a splendid 45lbs. It’s quite hard to describe the experience. Unusually for me, I’m lost for words- and it will take some time and a celebratory beer for it to sink in. Even a week later, I would struggle, beyond saying that it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in forty years as an angler.

Mixing it up and catfishing by moonlight

 It’s certainly unusual to catch two cats in quick succession on a hot afternoon- and the action soon slows. What follows is everyone getting ready for night fishing. This is normal, it must be said, for the species, which often hunts at night.
The lads tell me that on the best nights, you will hear the sound of cats on the hunt clear as a bell, with unmistakable “cloops” and crashes so loud that you might assume were rocks behind hurled in.

One of the great myths of the wels catfish is that it is a lazy scavenger that just sits there waiting for dinner. The true animal is a surprisingly active hunter, which roams quite far and wide, using incredible senses of taste and vibration detection.

Night fishing is a test, of course, but the gang have some great tips and bits of knowledge to share. One is to familiarise yourself with the terrain and good looking areas by day. It’s much harder to find your range at night after all!

Another good idea, shown to me by Dean, is to whip a little marker on your fly line- at the point where the fly enters the last few feet of retrieve. This helps you detect the end of the retrieve and to keep the fly in the water over the last few seconds- which can often be where a cat takes a lunge at night!

The night isn’t exactly hectic, but Andy Cattell adds a nice “kitten” of perhaps 10-12 pounds. Even this fish fights well!

Going out on a bang

 It can be a demanding business catfishing over an extended period. Olly’s sheer will to succeed is impressive, with a mixture of sheer determination and the odd hit of caffeine. By around three o’clock in the morning, I’m fairly zonked and happy to snooze, while he keeps going. If my body runs on Tesco value batteries, his must run on Duracell!

Nobody deserves the next fish more, in fact, when the following morning, Olly gets his first bone-crunching hit and another excellent catfish.

Granted, so in this era of digital and social media, it can be easy to think success is an instant thing. Not in the case of catfishing! It’s a slog and you will put in hundreds if not thousands of casts, but when that fly gets obliterated you’re in for a fight you won’t forget in a hurry.

Indeed, this is visceral, challenging, utterly thrilling sport right on the edge of what’s achievable with a fly rod in the UK. But with the right approach and hopefully a more enlightened attitude from anglers and fisheries alike, the prospects could be truly mind-blowing. And if a cat in the thirties or forties pulls like fury, the mind boggles at what a sixty or even an eighty-pound fish must feel like!