Kevin Haddocks, the king of catfishing, tells you all you need to know to catch your first ‘cat’.
Perhaps, like most other anglers, you think the catfish is an ugly beast and are glad there aren’t any in your waters. But no-one who has ever caught one thinks this way, for it is a truly extraordinary animal. No freshwater fish in Britain fights harder, yet on the bank it is the most docile of creatures and could be handled safely by a child. So instead of recoiling in disgust, why not give catfishing a try? You won’t regret it – and that’s a promise.
Catfish live in only about 50 waters in England, most of which hold only very small stocks. In fact, nearly all of the best catfish venues for the beginner – ones with large stocks of catfish of all sizes up to around 30lb (13.6kg) – are in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.
To begin with you can do no better than join the Leighton Buzzard Angling Club. Membership gives you access to three of the country’s top catfish waters: Clay don Lakes near Winslow in Buckinghamshire; and at Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, Tiddenfoot Pit and Rackley Hills. Claydon Lakes is definitely the best place to start – it holds an enormous number of catfish, is more or less snag free and is one of the easiest waters in the country.
But beware of the word easy – catfishing is generally a very slow sport and you must be prepared to put in a lot of time for very few fish. This is because catfish tend to go for long spells without feeding. Unlike most freshwater fish, a catfish has a true stomach. It fills its stomach when it does feed, then lies up for a long time while it slowly digests its meal. Only by putting in the rod hours can you be sure of having a baited hook in the water when a catfish goes on a feeding spree.
Night fishing isn’t permitted at Claydon but this doesn’t matter as the water is very heavily coloured and the usually nocturnal cats feed well during the day. In clear waters, catfish almost always seem to feed at night.
A few days at Claydon should produce your first catfish and you can learn a lot from the more experienced catfish men. Tiddenfoot Pit can be fished at night and is another good venue for the beginner. Rackley Hills, though, isn’t really suitable for beginners. It is snaggy and deep, holds just a few, very big fish, and is generally a very difficult water.
Airman Pit near Shefford in Bedfordshire is another ideal place to look for your first cat. If you fish for four or five nights here you can expect to catch.
When and where
Like the tench, the catfish is a warm water fish and the best time of the year to catch one is from the beginning of the season until the end of September.
Actual choice of swim is not usually particularly important as a feeding catfish is a cruising predator and scavenger and covers a lot of water in its search for food. It’s best not to fish close to any snags, however, as it is virtually impossible to keep a catfish out of them on its first, powerful run.
The basic tackle you need for catfishing in this country is an lift (3.3m), l/2-2lb (0.7-0.9kg) TC, through action rod; a good quality fixed-spool reel loaded with 10-12lb (4.5-5.4kg) line; and size 4-1/0, forged hooks. Buzzer bars and electronic bite alarms complete the set-up.
Smelly baits are best
Good baits for catfish are 5-10cm (2-4in) live or dead fish. Livebaits are best hooked through the top lip or the root of the tail. Dead fish are best mounted so the hook is near the middle of the bait, with the point facing the tail, as catfish usually pick up deadbaits head first.
Pieces of liver and squid are also excellent baits – in fact, anything that smells meaty or fishy can catch catfish. But whatever bait you use, always try to match the size of the hook to the size of the bait, and be careful to ensure that the hook point is exposed—you invariably miss the bite if you bury the point.
Basic catfish rigs
Most catfishing is done either by freelining – with a swivel 60-75cm (24-30in) from the hook — or by using a running leger incorporating a l-3oz (28-84g) bomb stopped by a bead and swivel .
Deadbaits are usually best presented hard on the bottom, so make sure you puncture the swimbladder when using a whole dead fish. Livebaits are normally best popped-up (with a polystyrene ball) in mid-water, otherwise they tend to skulk motionless and out of sight on the bottom.
Striking and playing
Generally, catfish drop the bait if they feel any resistance so light indicators and an open bail arm are essential. When you get a run, strike immediately to prevent deep hooking — and strike firmly, as a catfish has a tough mouth.
Make sure you are able to give line immediately, because catfish fight incredibly hard and are impossible to hold. You can give line by backwinding but the tremendous speed of the catfish can make this difficult, so on the whole it is better to use the clutch.
Landing and handling
A big landing net – one with at least 100cm (40in) arms – is essential. Once you have got your prize safely on the bank, use forceps to take the hook out. But don’t worry about the big, ugly mouth – although it contains many tiny teeth at the front, it is completely harmless and you can even put your hand inside without fear of losing your fingers!