The pursuit of Wels catfish with a fly rod is still very much new territory, with 2021 being only its third season in this side of Predator Fly Fishing.
A wee bit of back history: In the 1st season the 1st record was set by Stuart Watson with his 59.2lb Wels, we quickly agreed that these fish can not be targeted under gunned & we all switched to using 12# fly rod set-ups; with reels that can stop a freight train! Early 2021 saw Oliver Cullingford break the Wels on Fly Record with his stunning 66lbs 8oz moggie!
Covid-19 has seen a huge increase in angling the last two seasons and trying to book in to venues has been difficult for most, but we did manage to secure 36 hr slot at one of the top predator fisheries stuffed with Wels Catfish of all sizes. We have been working closely with the owner and I can still remember the first time I approached him to allow us to fly fish his venue… “Sorry, think you got the wrong number as the fly fishing place is next fishery down the road” After reassuring him that the humble Trout was NOT our quarry: I arranged to go and meet him. During that meeting, I showed him the gear we use & discuss any concerns he might have had. Since then, we have been back for 2 main bookings and a few shorter day sessions.
Each group that joins in on these cat sessions are all accomplished and experienced predator fly anglers. 2021s group was no exception, with 2019s record holder 🏴 Stuart Watson gunning to get his crown back armed with the Vision Merisuola predator #12 with vision Merisoula 9/10 reel and Cortland compact intermediate and float . 🏴 Stuart Smith, who is well known in the Pike FF world; although Cats on fly was a first for Stuart armed with: Orvis access 12#, Reddington Behemoth reel with floating Cortland compacts. Seasoned moggie chaser Dean Barker who with Stuart Watson got me interested in this side of the predator hobby, Dean headed up this year’s group and his gear is: Custom build Bloke XGNP 12# rod, Behemoth 11/12# Reel And Cortland compact lines. Another newbie to cats were Gary Pearson & Dave Keay; both have fished all over the world with various methods. Dave geared up with: Reddington predator 14wt rod, Orvis Mirage VII deep reel and RIO Premier Outbound Short Intermediate WF12 fly line. Gary geared up with:…….. Cortland Compact WF12 lines. Last but not least, myself gearing up with the Predator 12#, Reddington Behemoth reel and a WF12F fly line (still in testing). We all had 40-50lbs Berkley Big Game Fluorocarbon leaders from 4ft to 8ft long.
Finally! it’s here, time to pack the gear after weeks of tying new flies to test, gear to check and checking it again for the umpteenth time! Wee hours of the morning saw Scottish Stuart set off with the longest drive to arrive by midday when we can go in & set up. Most everyone made it to the venue, with me trailing in last after a day of mechanical issues on my truck when I was meant to be packing it ready to leave the next morning! (NO comment!!!)
The venue has many castable areas for the experienced caster needing to clear a tall bank behind, often with bank weeds or bushes. On this occasion we were allowed access to their boat & also allowed us to use float tubes which gave us better access to the water. Once everyone was settled in the fishing started, this was a mixed method session which saw bait & fly. Why mixed? We have found it actually helps find out when the cats switch on the feed by using the bait gear to detect this; then switch to fly. Only Gary and I were 100% fly on this trip.
The first night, the lake was eerily quiet to what we are used to; we didn’t see any Carp bashing about or basking. No catfish tail slaps or that unique wooouping sound they made inhaling baitfish. Casting a fly rod at night sounds like a challenge, but It’s surprisingly not if you have been casting a while. You can feel when the rod is loading, you can hear the noise fly line makes as it travels through the rod eyes and always start casting before dark, so you can see what’s around you; as well as naturally adjust your eyes to the dark. Best practise for night casting is simple, next time you’re out; simply close your eyes while you cast. Feel the rod loading, listen to the line, and it will be fine.
We didn’t see any action till well in to the dark, Dean & 🏴 Stuart were on the boat working an area of the lake where trees over hang the water for several hours; a haven for Wels Catfish who often dig holes under these trees to rest in. Both reported a couple of bumps each, but nothing was taking the fly just yet. Meanwhile, the rest of us were working the rest of the lake from the bank, with the occasional swearing heard in the darkness as someone had clipped the Otter fence or bank weed! In the wee hours, the chaps who had brought bait rods had them set up for the rest of the night and only had a couple of runs; but again no solid takes. It was a promising start, as we have found that fly fishing for Wels Catfish in 24Hr bookings is just not long enough, 48Hrs was better, and we found that 72Hrs was the right amount of time to get to know the venue without burning your self out.
The second day, the Stuarts needed to get some additional gear from a tackle shop, so I took them to Tackle Up in Bury St Edmunds, where they were in heaven. It has to be the best mixed method tackle shop in East Anglia! It’s a very deceptive shop when you park out front and first walk in. It’s in fact like the Tardis in there, the further you delve, the more is revealed and with an excellent Fly Fishing area near the back of the shop. Once we had what we needed, a quick stop at the supermarket to top up, and we headed back to the lake. Once back the float tubes were being made ready to head out on the water, 🏴 Stuart was using a MadCat tube with Hummingbird finder and 🏴 Stuart was on a Gunki tube which got nicknamed the “Deflatable” due to a couple of punctures!
Late afternoon, 🏴 Stuart was testing out the MadCat tube when he spotted a Moggie following his fly for a bit, then turning away on the Hummingbird side scan mode.
Just before dusk, Dave and I head out in the boat to work the area with trees over hanging the water (this lake has several areas like this), as we neared the area we wanted to fish; we saw a huge swirl just ahead of us where we’d disturbed a large catfish which got our hopes up that they were in the area. Dave had two bumps just after dusk in the area we had seen the swirl earlier, after a while we moved to a new spot where Dave was flicking his fly as close as he dare to the edge of the trees, into little gaps just above the water and managed to get his fly back each time he did clip a tree.
It was around 9.45pm when I was halfway through a retrieve when Dave said “I’m in!, wait…. yes I AM INNNNNN!!”. I quickly spooled my line in and set my rod aside out the way, giving Dave room to fight his fish. Our head torches now on, so we could see which way the fish was ducking, diving and trying to get back under the over hung trees. The boat quickly swung on the mud weight which held us in place during the fight, at this stage it was too soon to know how big the fish was that took Dave’s fly. The lake water clarity is only 12″ at best this trip, the only time you know the size is when it finally surfaces. Dave was handling the fish brilliantly, stopped its run back in to the trees several times and turning the fish as it tried to shoot off in another direction. It didn’t take long for Dave to subdue this Moggie, bringing it aside the boat and chining it to bring it in. We got the mud weight in quickly and head straight back to where Dean and 🏴 Stuart had set up as they were the closest to us. They helped get the cat out of the boat and set to unhooking, weighing and photos with an ecstatic Dave who’d just had his first fly caught Wels Catfish which weighed in at 28lbs. The rest of Friday night, the chaps who had baits out saw a couple more runs without takes.
Saturday soon came around which saw one of my highlights of the trip, It was mid-morning, Dean and I sat waiting for the kettle for a cuppa and 🏴 Stuarts bait alarm started to beep, slow at first then got faster! Stuart darts out his bivvy with his trousers halfway down (don’t worry, he did have boxers on), picks up his rod and sets the hook. He starts fighting and trying to pull his trousers up at the same time, which didn’t quite work as the fish took every chance to take a run, at this point he calls over Dean to help pull his trousers up while he’s fighting this fish; things we do for our fishing buddies eh. Once his wardrobe malfunction was sorted, he set to landing his new bait PB 80lbs Cat.
The rest of Saturday the chaps were back on the float tubes and boat with not much luck. Saturday night saw 🏴 Stuart loose a fish to failure of a 150lbs swivel!
It’s the last morning of the trip, which saw Dave on top form with a 62lbs cat on baits. Around 10am 🏴 Stuart and Dean were both on the float tubes, The Gunki finally staying inflated; I am stood chatting waiting for that kettle when we hear a yell from the tubers. Stuart had hooked up his first cat after a savage take with a non-vibrating fly, he’d been casting tight to a bank of reeds. At times, his rod was bent over almost double while the fish dove under him! He was able to turn the fish using a combination of rod and flippers, inching closer to the bank, where 🏴 Stuart and I were waiting with the net. Dean paddled over to get the net from us, which helped get the cat landed safely. Stuart Smith has officially become the FIRST to land a fly caught Wels Catfish on Float tube in the UK! The moggie weighed in at a humble 25lbs, not knowing its new-found fame. The whole fight took 8.5 minutes and afterwards the group agreed that from here on that a 14# set up would be needed for float tube cat fly-fishing as his 12# was maxed out trying to turn the fish.
Trips like this remind us that Fly Fishing for Wels Catfish is still in its infancy in the UK, we are still working on what fly patterns are best suited or if any ever will be, big, small, rattles or without… There are still a lot for us to learn about this side of the Predator Fly Fishing hobby, and we are more than willing to keep figuring it out.
An all round great long weekend was had by all, Good to catch up with old faces again and get to know new ones better. Can’t wait for next time chaps!
The current records stand are:
Float tube/Fly Caught: 25lbs – 2021 Stuart Smith
Bank/Fly Caught: 66lbs 8oz – 2021 Oliver Cullingford