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The Wels Catfish Pilgrimage

The Wels Catfish Pilgrimage

Wels cats on fly has become a pilgrimage to Norfolk for several of us insane cat hunters and this trip was our second this year (5th Anglia trip over last 3 yrs). Would Oliver’s record be bested? Would any of the float tubers break the newly created record? Would any new records be set?
Part of our endeavour to see if there is a “best time of year” to consistently hook and land cats on the fly. One (or a few) theory was to target when Cats feed up before they hunker down for winter, hence the time of year this trip was booked. If anyone has missed it, I’ll repeat: Wels cats on fly is STILL in its infancy, we are still trying to work out what or how they want that fly, at times can be very frustrating and there has been plenty of swearing!

12#’s to the ready!

Day one – Wednesday
Midday onwards we get the bivvys and truck tent up. Something as a fly only method angler that I am, I have had to adapt a little to the “Bivvy” camping side of angling that cat fishing needs. We knew we needed to get set up as on the horizon were dark rain filled clouds that were heading our way, around 5pm the heavens opened, and it royally pissed it down! Couple of us were caught out and dove into our trucks to ride out the heavy rain. Thankfully it didn’t last long, and we were back out fishing again. Some out on tubes with a couple of us casting from the banks, the venue is 80% fly fishable with only really one area that’s not suitable for a back cast and that area is covered by the float tube or boat.
Dusk fell, spirits were high with hope of a decent cat into our nets that night. Night time fly casting takes fly fishing on to a whole new level, you need to feel your rod loading, listen to the line/fly to know when to shoot and I know it has made me a far better caster as I am more tuned to my cast. It is always best to start your casting in an area before dusk, so you get to know what’s around you before it does get dark. We do not use our head torches until we get a fish on or need to tie knots.

Truck tent makes things easier

It was around 7.30pm, the waxing moon was up with the moonlight helping with moving around peg to peg. I decided to clip on my 6” long Moggie Hunter Magenta Nayat with Alpaca/flash head bulkhead fly I had tied for the trip. I kept the wind on my left shoulder making it a bit easier or rather safer to cast. I was keeping my retrieve slow as something Stuart said earlier stuck in my mind that we might be retrieving too fast for the cats.
I was fishing in a 3-meter gap between 2 large bushes and 3-4 casts in this spot. I had around half my line retrieved in when things went solid. I did 2 sharp strips keeping the rod tip aimed at the water and held/paused…………
I felt 2 head shakes through the line before it decided to run, it took some fly line through my hand as I hand retrieve my line. I locked the fly line with my left hand in to the cork which acts as a brake while I can spool the slack line on the floor back on to the spool. We do fight cats off the reel and bet get the fish on the reel asap. It decided it wanted to take off to my right, with the bush in the way I didn’t want that to happen, so I lent the rod over opposite to steer it off its run. It decided to turn and run left; rod goes over to the right to steer it out of that run.
By now Dave was beside me with net waiting, and the fish was not taking any more line. I used the brute force of the 12# Predator rod to lift the fish off the bottom, brought it closer to the bank and walked backwards for Dave to net it. Relief when I saw it was completely in the net as Cats can reverse back out a net given the chance!
Dean was on his float tube and had joined us to start resting the cat in the net while Dave and I set to getting the unhooking/weighing gear ready. This moggie had inhaled the fly, once unhooked the fly was just a ball of slimy mess! We rested the cat again ready for photos and its weigh in.
The moggie fly weighed in at 21lbs 10oz, this is officially my biggest UK fish I have landed as my PB Pike is also a 21lbs fish. Dean mentioned that it had not taken long to land it, it took less than 4 minuets. A little longer than my PB wild fenland Pike I landed on my 10# 3 winters previous which was in the net well under 2 mins and the Wels certainly put up a better fight than the Pike had. But on a 12# fly rod, that cat had no chance to get far.
Only after the cat had safely swam off do I really take in that I have had my 1st ever Wels cat, on a fly rod, my own fly and a fly line I had made for this very job! Did I celebrate? I just carried on fishing with a quiet proudness and waited for the next fish.

An hour later Dave wandered by moving to his next peg, he had hooked into a nice fish but had managed to get off only to lose his fly in the reeds casting back to the lost fish.
Both Dean and Stuart had a fright in the dark from a couple of big cats that got curious to their tubes 😳. When we do these sessions, we do also put a couple of bait rods out while no one is fly fishing. Around 2am Dean had a run on his bait rod that resulted in the 2nd Cat of the session and weighed in at 32lbs.

Deans 32lbs bait caught cat
Norfolk sunrise, stunning as usual

Following day chatting to the guys in the group that it came apparent that I am the first woman to get one on fly in the UK, all records start somewhere, and it can only get better from here!
Midday rolled round, enjoying the bit of sunshine when the local Environment Agency bailiff rocked up to check people’s licences. I am told this is a rare thing and one of the guys in the group hadn’t had his licence checked for almost 40 years! For me this was my second check in 4 years from when I got my first licence. The rest of the daytime remained quiet on the fish front, early evening Alex was on the float tube and hooked into a cat, after a brief fight it too got off with Alex swearing (as most of us do when we lose a fish!) or was it Dave’s lost float tube flipper he had hooked? 🤔….. Although whatever it was did fight back so Dave’s flipper is committed to the depths and a few of us would love to see the face of the poor sod who hooks/lands that into their net! WTF… 🤣
The rest of the night was quiet despite 2-3 of the tubers out to the weeee hours of the morning.

Alex float tubing in to the night
When things start getting hard & you resort to….

We had been invited to test out the new lake at the fishery to see if it was castable (fly fishing), The last of the landscaping took place several weeks ago. Stock wise there are cats up to 50lbs as well as Pike, as the lakes at this venue all have a water clarity that’s only 12” at best. You have no idea what you have hooked in to on the new lake until it surfaces, potluck surprise?
We all took turns spending a few hours on the lake, most of us had a take or knock. But none of us saw anything to the net. 90% castable lake which holds a lot of potential, I have already booked a shorter session on the lake for next May. The plan is to use it to introduce newcomers to catfish without needing the 12# set ups as it stocks smaller cats than the main lake we fish. Watch this space for the May dates/info.
Late afternoon Oliver hooked into a kitten that had eyes bigger than its tummy! 😸 But this was Ollies first cat on float tube, all PBs start somewhere and get better from there. As the evening drew in, more rain was forecast, and consensus was that no more fish would be showing. True to that, only action was the odd cat bumping into a float tube scaring the shite out of the tuber!

The Wels Catfish Pilgrimage
Olivers 1st cat on float tube

Last morning of the pilgrimage was a little down beat, most of us had started to pack up as soon as the sun had dried off the night dew. We did carry on fly fishing up to about 10am when we called it a day, Stuart had an 890 odd mile trip back home to Scotland!
Stood in the carpark mulling over the last few days, could we have done things differently? What we had changed this trip, did it work? What we do know so far:
-Fly colour does not matter; Cats have poor eyesight. But they do have excellent sense to pick up movement.
-Fly type: Bulkheads, baitfish patterns with and without tails have seen cats to the net.
-Catfish are bastards! Just two days after the end of our trip, the fishery posted reports of 80+lbs cats out with a further 96lbs cat out a day later!
We know that fly fishing for catfish is not easy, if we wanted easy; we’d all just lob in worm bombs or smelly baits! But that is not what this is about, however long it takes; we will eventually start seeing a trend emerge that we can use to home in onto catch MORE Wels Cats on fly rod.

Gear used on the trip
I know a couple of people think that what we use is over kill and it probably is for the small fish waters they fish! But the 5 acre venue we fish has cats up to 120Lbs with 20 off over the 80lbs mark and 100s more under that. We simply do not mess around with light gear at this venue, nor will the venue owner allow light gear to be used on this lake.
-Dave: Hardy Zane #12 fly rod, Orvis Mirage VII deep fly reel, WF12F Rio Outbound Short Fly Line, 60/80lb Fluorocarbon.
-Andy: 12wt bloke rod with Reddington Behemoth 11/12 wt
-Alex: 12# Hardy Zane rod, Zane carbon reel and a 12# Epic boca grande rod, Tibor Gulfstream reel with Cortland Compact Float & Int


Stuart: 12# Epic boca Grande, 11/12 Behemoth reel, Cortland compact floating and intermediate, 60lb fluorocarbon.

Oliver: 12# vision SWS Venus fly rod , Hardy CADD Titanium 10000 reel , Cortland compact floating line in 11/12# with 200 odd feet of 60 lb backing , leader 50 to 60 lb fluorocarbon x 4 to 9 ft long.

Babs: Predator 12# rod, Behemoth 9/10 reel, WF12F Lunker Hunter 50lbs core fly line, 50Lbs Berkley Big Game Fluorocarbon.

Dean: Epic boca Grande 12#, Behemoth 9/10#, WF12 Cortland compact and WF12F Lunker Hunter, 50lbs Berkley big game fluro.

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Wels Catfish on Fly Spring 2022

Wels Catfish on Fly Spring 2022

Will records be broken this trip? Time to see if those waders are truly watertight! Did flashing of body parts to appease the catfish gods? Read on to find out.

Each session sees extremely experienced Predator/Pike fly anglers, most of whom have fly fished all over the world for much bigger, harder fighting species. To include several Pro-Fly anglers to boot, everyone in the group knows how to handle/land/unhook a catfish. The core people who systematically target catfish on fly is a VERY small one and we all know each other very well. Each session we do have one or two spots available for newcomers with the right equipment and attitude have the chance to learn knowing they are in safe/knowledgeable hands.

Equipment is extremely important for cats and there is simply NO getting away from the fact that you need a 12# set up for these fish at a venue that holds 80-140lbs cats! Below is a run-down of the gear that was used over the last three days.
– Babs Craig (Predator Fly Fishing UK) :- Rod: Predator 12#, Reel: Behemoth 9-10, Line: Lunker Hunter WF12F 50lbs core & 50lbs Big Game fluro leader
– Dean Barker (Pike Fly Fishing Association England RO):- Rod: Epic Boca Grande 12# Fast Glass, Reel: Behemoth 9-10, Line: Cortland Compact WF12F & 50lbs leader.
– Jo Stephenson (International Fly fishing Guide):- Rod: Hardy Zephrus 12#, Reel: Hardy Fortuna 10,000, Line: Lunker Hunter WF12F & 80lbs Suplex fluro
– Stuart Smith Scotland (International angler and pro-fly tyer) :- Rod: Loop 7X 12# and Epic Boca Grande 12# Fast Glass, Reel: Behemoth 11-12#, Line: Cortland Compact WF12F & 80lbs Big game fluro.
– Andrew Eglon (Experienced Catfish angler + Pike Fly Fishing Association member):- Rod: SeaWolf by Justin Anwyl 12#, Reel: Behemoth 11-12, Line: Airflo WF12I & big game 60lbs fluro.
– Alex Mason (Guide, St Croix ambassador, Predator Tackle Pro Team and LAS Committee member):- Rod: Epic Boca Grande 12# fast Glass, Reel: Tibor Gulf stream 12#, Line: Lunker WF12F or Cortland Compact WF12 & 60lbs Seaguar.
– Martin Redman (Lure Magazine editor, LAS committee member and experienced catfish angler):- Rod: Snowbee Deep Blue 12#, Reel: Behemoth 11-12#, Line: Lunker Hunter WF12F.

Our session started as an overcast, high pressure with temperatures of 10C highest, lows of 0C with a North/Easterly breeze; not ideal after the warmer weather just the 2 weeks before hand. But we will persevere.
After their first launch of the float tubes on the first day, some found leaks in their waders, and some had very sloshy boots. Leading the debate on what would people prefer? Wet feet or wet crouch!
Alex and I were on the boat the first evening, taking it in turns to cast/row. The first night was a quiet one, long distance travel to the venue catching up on a few, most had an early night and were tucked up by 2am.

Float tube and fun n games

During the day we mainly relaxed, chatted to each other about all sorts. From the ins/outs of fly fishing, fly rod building to difference in language or translating things into English; Cuppy into cuppa. Catching up with old friends and getting to know new folks… or in my case, getting to meet people I have spoken to online for a long while.

As the second evening was drawing in, Andrew was the only one out drifting about in the tube with a slow steady retrieve, bouncing the fly off the bottom and a 5lbs kitten decided it liked what it saw and latched on. After a short fight on the float tube the kit was safely netted bank side and after a couple of photos; the wee moggie swam back happy as. This was Andrews first catfish on fly as well.
Everyone had a revival of enthusiasm and set to getting on to the water. I worked an area I knew produced cats from the last trip, borrowing Alex’s boat and had the mud weight out to keep me in one spot. Casting toward trees that you knew you had to avoid when it got dark and being aware of your surroundings.
An hour in and I hear fish on nearby, look up to see Andrew into another cat. He thought he had hit a snag and didn’t want to set the hook resulting in losing the fly/forcing a break off…. But when the snag started to move, he realised it was a cat; but was too late to do a strip strike and the cat got off.
In the dark of the night, with absolute quiet; the imagination can often run riot. Probably didn’t help with telling of stories of big cats bumping float tubes/brushing up against legs in previous trips or one trying to attack a float tube in Europe. Dean had a kitten swim into his foot while out on float tube and quickly swim away. I am sure the kitten was more startled from the encounter than Dean was. Sort of leaving Jo creeped out that something BIG would bump into her in the dark and instead bumped into a gravel bar, thought it was a cat with the munchies for Jos feet. Few swear words were heard across the lake followed by a sheepish… No, It’s OK, just the gravel bar….
Stuart scarified his sleep to keep things alive fishing throughout the second night in his float tube, working his way through his fly box… twice! Starting off at 9pm on the tube, the catfish started to show in periodic bursts. Stuart often casting toward any sounds/swirls. At one stage during the night, a catfish ripped the wiggle tail off Stuart’s fly, the wiggle tails are clipped on as an extension to create extra movement/noise on a fly. Around 4.20am Stuart hooked into a much bigger sized moggie than the record he set on the last trip for float tube in the UK, had it on for several minutes before it got off. It then went quiet till first light the lake came alive, and Stuart was able to sight cast to cats, but none came to pass.

Andrews first Catfish of the session

Third day was much like the last, everyone just relaxing chatting about various things with a beer in hand and then catching up on sleep as another long night on the water was planned.
Anglers are superstitious folk; I know for one I do offer a small sacrifice start of each Coarse season to the river deities in hope they grant me a good season. (I do need to have a chat with them on getting a refund on this past winter or maybe my offering wasn’t good enough!) Late afternoon it was decided that a sacrifice to the catfish gods was needed to bring good fortune for that night. Some words were said, and offerings given in the form of flashing boobs/moobs to the water for extra good luck!

Did the sacrifice work or did we leave catfish gods wondering what the hell had just happened!
As the dark drew in, a couple hours later Andrew did indeed hook into another cat in the same spot that he had the one from the night before. Successfully landed a low double into a net he kept on the float tube all on his own and on the same fly as last time. With a pretty much moonless night, it got very dark which meant you must rely on memory of where structures/trees/reed banks are, listening and feeling your cast. If you need to fly fish as night, always best to get to location before sunset so you can familiarise yourself with the area.
The night grew colder, the forecast said low of 3C….. but that means it will get lower in rural/exposed areas. The lads started to see gloves freeze, rod eyes start to ice up from the air temperature; but kept at it. Jo had set her alarm for 4am to get up and start fishing in to the dawn, slid her van door open to see Stuart and Dean huddled over a camping stove trying to keep warm. She thought screw that and went back to warm n cozy bed. I had decided to hit the hay in my truck tent much earlier that night as I knew it was going to get very cold. The whole lake had gone quiet after Andrews fish much earlier in the evening, no other cats were hooked.

Andrews second Catfish on Fly of the session aka Catfish King

Dawn rises on the last day to frost on bivvies/vans/trucks, a few did manage to get another hour or so in on the water. But most set to packing up and chatting about the last 3 days, Stuart had a 462 mile return drive to still do!

Thoughts: – We are still figuring out what Catfish want with fly fishing. Any particular pattern emerging? Or just potluck that you cast one on top of the cats whiskers? Still a lot to learn and we have the time to do it with each time we book these sessions. BUT no matter what, fishing with like minded anglers is always great fun and that is one of the main parts of these sessions.. enjoying it.