No time for a cat nap

The fish on Spain’s Ebro River are big and full of bite

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - MICHAEL KERR

When we ar­rive on the river bank at 8.30am, it sounds as though a bear is snor­ing in the bivouac sack. We peek in to find the red-bearded Kings­ley squint­ing back at us.

“Typ­i­cal bloody stu­dent,” says Niall, our 25-year-old guide, with a grin. “Can’t get out of bed in the morn­ing.” Still, this Bri­tish vis­i­tor has slept out­doors for four or five nights. When you’re fish­ing the Ebro River at Me­quinenza, in north­east Spain, and you’ve found a pro­duc­tive “swim”, you don’t want the has­sle of set­ting up rods afresh ev­ery day. So Kings­ley, on a work-ex­pe­ri­ence stint from his grad­u­ate course in fish­eries man­age­ment, is dou­bling as guide’s helper and se­cu­rity guard. If he seems dozy first thing, he’ll be dili­gent later. You have to put in the hours to land a gi­ant cat­fish.

The wels, or Danu­bian, cat­fish ( Sil­u­rus gla­nis) is a scale­less cross be­tween slug and snake, with a flat head, whiskers and a mouth like a cav­ern. It’s an aquatic hoover, sweep­ing up in­sects, fish, ducks and even pi­geons that dally too long by the wa­ter. It also puts up a hell of a fight when it’s hooked on a line.

In­tro­duced into the Ebro in the 1970s, the cat­fish has pros­pered for three rea­sons — the wa­ter is warmer than in its na­tive rivers, so it feeds and grows with­out pause for win­ter; a live fish is worth more to the tourist trade than a dead one, so most fish­ing is catch-and-re­lease; and the river is full of food, and not just indige­nous roach and carp but the buck­et­fuls of bait that an­glers chuck in. The re­sult is that cat­fish can reach phe­nom­e­nal sizes. That’s what has brought our group to Me­quinenza with Cat­mas­ter Tours. The com­pany’s record “cat” weighed 110kg, and there have been nearly 130 catches of fish top­ping 90kg.

Yes­ter­day, three of us were on the bank with Niall and Kings­ley from 7.30am to mid­night, and one of us added to the haul. Around 8.30pm, un­der a sky that was a pin­cush­ion of stars, Mark, a Na­tional Trust ranger from Lon­don, reeled in a cat­fish of 38kg mea­sur­ing 1.6m. Now he’s hav­ing a lie-in on day two, leav­ing Roger, from Read­ing, and me to see what we can do.

We are close to the con­flu­ence of the Ebro and Se­gre rivers, on “the bar­be­cue swim”, so called on ac­count of the pic­nic ta­bles and benches erected by the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. We look across to clumps of rushes, half a dozen tum­ble­down houses, an in­dus­trial plant and a blaze of pink blos­soms, as cher­ries are among the fruit trees that pro­vide many with a liv­ing here. Be­yond are sandy hills, bare in some parts, tree-cov­ered in oth­ers. To our right on our own bank, is a dam built in the 1960s for a project that led to the flood­ing of the orig­i­nal town. On a spur above is Me­quinenza’s cas­tle, dat­ing from the 14th cen­tury.

Each of us has two cat­fish rods with mul­ti­plier reel set in a ver­ti­cal rod rest. There’s a braided main line of 68kg break­ing strain, a hook length of 99kg and what Niall calls “a nice, big, heavy lead” of a bit less than 1kg. Hav­ing baited the hook with hal­ibut pel­lets, we draw off enough line to drop it to Niall in his dinghy and then he rows out, places our lines and throws more hand­fuls of pel­lets over the side. Then he comes back in to tense and tweak the lines, and to en­sure that the “trem­bler” alarm on each rod will sound at the slight­est twitch. It’s a process he’ll re­peat ev­ery six hours.

“There isn’t an­other fresh­wa­ter fish in Europe that can fight like these,” Niall tells me. “You can have re­ally good scraps.” But you have to wait, of course. When I tire of watch­ing rod tips, I turn my binoc­u­lars on the cor­morants and egrets, which have more suc­cess at fish­ing than we do. I marvel at Niall’s tire­less en­thu­si­asm and at­ten­tion to de­tail as I lis­ten to sto­ries about fish­ing trips past.

We peel off lay­ers as it gets warmer dur­ing the day and put them on again when the sun sets. Eleven o’clock comes with­out a bite, and I re­sign my­self to writ­ing about a fish­ing trip with no fish. At 10 min­utes to mid­night, a bell jan­gles.

“Who’s on that rod?” shouts Niall. It’s me. I lift it out with my left hand, thumb over the line on the reel, as I’ve been in­structed, and, walk­ing back­wards, reel in with my right to wind up the slack. The weight on the line is def­i­nitely more than just 1kg of lead. I yank as hard as I can and the fish yanks back.

“Let it take line if it wants,” says Roger, eas­ing me back­wards by the el­bows. Then Kings­ley, or is it Niall, is at my side, ad­just­ing the ten­sion on the reel. While I am fight­ing the fish, there’s a flurry be­hind me. Kings­ley and Niall are fetch­ing the bag with which the cat­fish will be hauled out of the wa­ter, along with scales and a cam­era.

Some­body closer to the wa­ter says, “That’s a big fish.” It doesn’t feel enor­mous to me, though, per­haps be­cause I’ve never fished be­fore with such heavy tackle. I catch a glimpse of a white belly and a mas­sive mouth as I bring it to shore. Then Niall has his hands on the jaw and a rope around the fish, and is hand­ing me the rope to hold while he and the oth­ers get ready to haul the fish up the bank and on to the mat. It is the big­gest fish I’ve ever reeled in at 1.96m and 61.6kg. I get a pic­ture taken to record my tem­po­rary pos­ses­sion. And then Niall, hav­ing re­turned the fish to the wa­ter, sends it back home.

I go home, too, with a few more sto­ries about the fa­bled wels cat­fish, in­clud­ing the one about how Cat­mas­ter Tours is now guard­ing its swims by leav­ing a “bear” all night in a bivouac sack.

Michael Kerr was a guest of Cat­mas­ter Tours. TELE­GRAPH ME­DIA GROUP

Me­quinenza’s cas­tle, dat­ing from the 14th cen­tury, over­looks the Ebro River

Fish­er­man takes on a wels cat­fish, above; get­ting to grips with a size­able catch, be­low

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