No time for a cat nap
The fish on Spain’s Ebro River are big and full of bite
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