Months of planning for our 3-day trip was now upon us, cars packed and ready to go with Stuart facing a 9 hour drive all the way down from Scotland to Norfolk.
Who are we? A very small group of Predator Fly anglers who have been actively targeting Wels Catfish on fly for the last 5 years, this was our 6th trip after Wels catfish in East Anglia. Our first was September 2019 after reading about Stuart Watson landing what became the first known record with a 59.2lbs cat earlier that year. Some will already know Oliver Culingford who has held the biggest cat on fly since 2021, Stuart Smith who got the first Cat on fly on a float tube in 2021, Barbara Craig who was the first known lady to land a cat in the UK in 2022, Dean Barker and Andrew Eglon all on this trip. We are currently the core moggie on fly anglers making it a small group of 7-8 people actively targeting these fish in the UK, all good things start somewhere.
The weather did not look in our favour aligning with the “wash out July” that is set to continue. We arrived on Wednesday to get set up and get the float tubes ready while it was till dry. Andrew heading off with rod in hand for his first cast and into a fish straight away! In the back of our minds, we pondered about the “first cast curse”; you know the one, catch a fish first cast and not see another for the entire trip! Things went quiet early evening as the rain set in for the night, this would not deter anyone as we fished into the dark in the rain. Fly fishing at night takes your casting to a whole new level, we often start before dusk so that we can see our surroundings to work out how far that back cast can be and continue casting into the darkness with no head torches switched on. This is where your other senses kick in, you feel the line loading the rod and can hear it shooting out. Another thing that we have found fishing at night in the tubes is what your mind does in the little hours, sounds become louder, you jump out your skin when a Carp decides to jump out the water near you or freak out when you bump into a big cat with your legs/flippers! That “first cast curse” soon got debunked as Andrew saw another catfish in his net and little did we know; this trip would turn out to be one of the best we have ever had.
Thursday early morning saw a couple more Cats in the net ranging around the 20lbs mark, all of which were caught from float tube. The float tube record was set by Stuart in 2021 with a 25lbs cat, float tubes give us better access to spots that you can’t reach or cast from on the bank. We often break the day/night up by doing a mixture of tube and bank fishing. Day time sees us often take a break to check gear over, catch up with each other and recharge after the long drive and all-night fishing. Andrew woke up looking like a join the dots game after he got eaten by mosquitoes which often brings up the discussion of using mozzie spray and how the smell of that can transfer to your fly and put the fish off. Again, that theory also got thrown in the bin alongside the first cast curse as we all used mozzie spray and the cats kept on coming.
Landing any cat is a team effort on any trip we are on, this year we set up a central landing/weighing station. Every time a 2nd person in a tube was there to help net the fish, once secure in the net resting being paddled back to the landing station to be unhooked, weighed, photos with more rests in-between.
Action started again early evening with Andrew hooking in to a 44lbs cat on the tube which broke the record, no sooner had we got back out fishing an hour later; Oliver hooked in to a 60lbs cat (check weight) on the float tube seeing the tube record broken again. We knew it was a much bigger cat as it didn’t break the surface till near the end of the fight!
One thing that did seem a trend this trip is that the cats were taking the flies that were being fished deep and with a slow retrieve, figure 8 or 2 short pulls with long pauses. We all use floating lines as the catfish venues aren’t on average very deep, this venue is approximately 5-8ft deep with plenty of features and snags. Our leaders were all ranging between 7-9 ft long which helped to get the fly down deeper.
Something else we picked up on this trip is that the cats didn’t seem to be making big runs, with the float tubes being above them; they instead headed for the bottom and tried to stay there.
Thursday night saw the cats coming on to feed in ebbs and flows with a couple hours break in-between, seeing fish to the net over the night and into the next morning.
After a rest on Friday daytime where Oliver woke up with leg cramp from so much float tubing, after walking it off he was back in the tube and paddling circuits round the venue. We started to wonder if the man was a machine with as much time he’d spent thus far on the water paddling, casting, fighting in fish to do it all again repeatedly! Many do not realise just how much fishing time goes into these trips, from when we arrive to leave; there is someone fishing. For those of you who have cast 9# or heavier rods for a whole day. Wels Catfish on fly rod is still a very new side to UK fly fishing, it’s not easy, a lot of hours go into targeting these fish and many occasions we have come away having blanked with lessons learnt.
During Friday afternoon someone mentioned Carp on fly; are they those fish that jump out the water scaring us witless in the middle of the night?! We all turned to look at our lightweight rods still sat in their rod tubes, naaaaaaaah! We are here for the cats!
The venue has 3 lakes, one is a smaller lake with Carp and cats to 80lbs, another is a private Syndicate Lake and the main 5-acre lake which we fish. The main lake does boast an excellent head of Carp in to the 35lbs and bigger, it also has 100s of catfish to the 80lbs range, 25 odd cats to 100lbs and 5-7 cats pushing between 100lbs to 125lbs. Often sees cats out on baits into the 90-100lbs, with the fly fishing side; we do not pre-bait in any shape or form or use scents on the fly. Keeping things as natural as we can in a lake that’s often has tons of food going in over the year, this is why it is much harder to catch cats in the UK; they are used to being fed and happy to wait. Compared to our European brethren who have been targeting wild river catfish on fly, wild fish take every opportunity to feed.
Last night of the trip and a big push for those last chances to land more cats. Flies being clipped on had tails, rattles and were variations of bulkheads, colour is one thing we know does not matter. The water clarity is 1-1.5ft cats have small eyes but super sensitive whiskers to pick up vibrations of their prey swimming past. Through the trip all kinds of flies were landing cats, from your bog-standard pike red/white pattern to 6-8” bulkheads. We now knew when the cats were switching on in the early dusk into the night, middle of the night and into dawn. By this point a few of us had only slept a few hours between fishing, nodding off in the float tube or getting more leg cramp. We had a couple more cats in the net and we were starting to lose count! Was it 12 or 13? Already this trip had out fished trips in Somerset and the night was not over!
It was around midnight when Stuart hooked into a big lump while on the float tube and after an epic battle it was safely in the net and heading to the landing station. It weighed in at a WHOPPING 79lbs pushing the biggest Wels cat on fly record by another 5lbs AND smashing the biggest landed on float tube in the UK! The Float tube record broken three times in 48 hours!
Things seemed to go quiet for the next couple of hours across the lake, Oliver wakes up in his tube bobbing about in the reeds and they all decide to call it to get some sleep before the drive back later that morning.
Saturday morning once things were packed into the vehicles, we set back out for that usual last cast which did manage to entice 2 more fish out! A few times someone had been fishing a spot, decide to move, someone else drop in that spot and hook up! It was a fantastic trip, 15 Wels cats landed, several hooked and got off; ranging from 20lbs up to the 79lbs moggie.
We often get asked what gear we use, bear in mind the potential size of cat in the lake we fish, and we never know what size of cat will decide that that fly looks yummy! All of us are using 12# set ups, 2-3 are even on Fiberglass rods while the rest of Carbon Fibre. Below is the list of gear we used on this trip.
Oliver Cullingford: 12# Hardy Zane Sintrix 330 9ft , also a 12# Redington Predator 9ft, Reels: ALEKA A6 10/12# and Hardy Ultralite 10000 CAD, Fly Line: Cortland Compact floating line in WF11/12F, Leader: Cortland Fluorocarbon XTR in 50 lb.