It’s 10 o’clock at night, and a howling wind is blowing across the flat expanse of Claydon Park, near Winslow in Buckinghamshire. It’s July and we’ve been sitting here for about 12 hours doing very little except grow cold. But Kevin Maddocks is still optimistic and enjoying himself.
Kevin has just, reluctantly, lopped the head off a number of huge leeches that he has brought along. No he’s not gone mad, he’s using them as bait for the new love in his life, the wels catfish.
Since the leeches cost several pounds each, cutting their heads off is an expensive idea, and a bit of a last resort, but on the Continent it’s not unheard of – since the juices may help to attract catfish. Cutting the heads off also stops the leeches burrowing into the mud — well, it would, wouldn’t it?
It all seems to no avail until suddenly the Optonic alarm bleeps. We’re stunned – it’s the first sign of life all day. Kevin strikes -but there’s nothing there. Soon the cause of the bleep becomes apparent: a bat is doing kamikaze aerobatics around our heads and it is flying into the line. So much for radar.
We’re fishing Claydon Lakes, in front of Claydon House where Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse of the Crimean War, lived. It’s pretty dark now and we could do with some light from ‘the lady of the lamp’.
At 10:10 bailiff Jim Brennon arrives to make sure we leave before it’s pitch dark -night fishing is not permitted here. Jim’s a welcome sight. As well as being a marvellous character, with a fund of fishing stories, he’s also the only thing that’s ever going to get Kevin to move.
This is the second time we’ve gone catting with Kevin and caught nothing. But Kevin cheerfully suggests a third go. Catfishing isn’t like gudgeon bashing; it needs perseverance… will this be third time lucky?
A month has gone by. It’s now August and the longing to see a whopping catfish has overcome the horror of spending a day doing absolutely nothing but freeze slowly. In fact summer has decided to put in a late guest appearance and it’s pretty warm.
Kevin arrives, optimistic and cheerful. If you ever find yourself standing round a breezy lake for 12 hours with nothing to do but swap fishy stories, make sure you have Kevin with you. His knowledge of and enthusiasm for catfishing are boundless.
The trouble is he has a keen sense of humour, and having discovered that we’re really rather squeamish when it comes to the huge leeches, we find them cropping up in unexpected places.
They are in fact medicinal leeches imported from Iraq. It seems that the trade embargo imposed on Iraq before the Gulf War doesn’t stretch to blood-sucking parasites.
In case you’re worried, leeches are not your average catfish bait. Bits of squid, mussels or livebaits are far more usual -and much easier to obtain. But Kevin heard leeches do well in Germany, and tried them here last season with great success.
Kevin sets up two lift (3.3m) rods, both with a 2lb (0.9kg) TC, a good through action and a compound taper. He uses baitrunner reels with 15lb (6.8kg) b.s. main line, a long 25lb (11.3kg) Kryston Quicksilver shock leader and 23cm (9in) 15lb (6.8kg) hook-length. Last time we fished he included a l’Aoz (35g) Arlesey bomb with the rig. But since Claydon catfish seem to be shyer than he thought he uses just a V20Z (14g) lead this time.
On his left rod there’s a size 2 Kevin Maddocks (what else?) Cassien hook, and on the right rod he’s put a size 1/0 stainless steel sea hook. them in your hand. Ugh!
Once in the water there’s not much you need to do to leeches. They live for months without feeding, and being hooked seems to do them no harm at all. It’s better to leave them undisturbed, believes Kevin -Clay don Lake is small and one of the many catfish will discover them eventually. So it’s time for chat, meditation, or even sleep if you’ve brought Optonics.
The leeches like to bury themselves in the mud – which makes it hard for catfish to locate them, even with their sensitive whiskers. So a polyball is attached to pop up the bait and keep the leeches from burrowing. There’s also tubing round the line near the hook to stop the leeches wrapping round the line.
Kevin casts out about a quarter of the width of the lake. Ideally he likes to keep his two baits about 6m (20ft) apart. Claydon Lake is very cloudy and the water is so murky that the light scarcely penetrates. Catfish normally feed at night, so perhaps the cloudy water is the secret of Claydon Lakes’ success.
The only problem with using leeches is that they refuse to accept their role as bait, and tend to start feeding on you if you leave
Kevin is something of a legend in the carp world. His book Carp Fever launched a whole generation of carp anglers and is the most successful specialist angling publication ever; he invented the hair rig; was the first to introduce carbon carp rods; was chairman of the Carp Anglers Association; and he has caught a huge number of specimen carp including around 200 of 20lb (9kg) and over.
So what’s the magic of catfish? Why has he suddenly abandoned his beloved carp for them? Kevin smiles: ‘It’s the best waste of time I know.’ In fact Kevin is a true specimen hunter. For him it’s simple: ‘The bigger the fish, the better the fish.’
For years Kevin had been inspired reading stories of fights with catfish. He caught his first in 1981, and in 1983 he succumbed to cat fever in a big way for the first time. Now catfish are his main love. ‘They are the hardest fighting fish in the country. Catching one is absolutely exhilarating.’ The trouble is that waiting for one to bite is about as exhilarating as watching paint dry. But, Kevin assures us, ‘When they do, they leave carp standing.’
Kevin has time, in fact plenty of time, to tell us about his future plans. The following weekend he’s scheduled to go to Russia, in search of really massive catfish and elusive sturgeon. Once the desire for big fish sets in, nothing can stop you.
However, there’s a hitch. There’s just been a coup in Russia and the new leaders seem to have more on their mind than allowing Kevin in to do a spot of catfishing. Kevin’s been planning the trip for months and he’s a bit fed up. (In fact, as things turn out, the coup is over by the weekend and Kevin is able to go).
Kevin has taken a number of precautions just in case he should get a bite today. First and foremost, he’s made sure that his clutch is properly adjusted to cope with a big cat. He’s also ensured his hook is very sharp. Some parts of a catfish’s mouth are very tough and gristly so hooks need to be extra sharp to pierce the skin.
Two pieces of advice he gives newcomers to catfishing are: firstly, to get experience catfishing during the day: ‘It’s no fun battling with 30lb (13.6kg) of muscular fish at night; try fishing on decent daytime waters – such as Claydon – first.’
Secondly, if you have two rods in the water and hook into a catfish, remember to get the other rod out of the way – take it off the rest and undo the bail arm so that it won’t tangle with the catfish, should the fish decide to dive to the bottom.
That comatose feeling that comes when absolutely nothing’s happening takes effect. On the last visit the only fish we saw all day had batter round it. Today seems no different, and the visit to the chip shop in Winslow could again be the high point of the day.
Suddenly the Optonic screams. If we’re nodding off, Kevin certainly isn’t. He strikes hard. Something fairly big has taken the leeches viciously and now eases itself into gear. It’s making off with its prey like a dog with a bone.
Whatever it is, it heads two-thirds of the way across the lake and then hugs the bottom. Kevin is pretty sure he’s into a cat at last. He doesn’t think it’s a particularly massive one, but it’s still like trying to fight a truck.
The fight goes on. There’s nothing Kevin can do at first; the fish seems almost eel-like in the way it clings to the bottom. Kevin assures everyone that a hooked catfish is normally a landed catfish. It’s rare to lose one, provided your tackle is strong enough. This fish has been three days coming – we hope he’s right.
Fifteen nail-biting minutes pass. Kevin is being pretty rough with the fish and at last it begins to get a bit tired. Twisting and turning all the way, the fish is heaved towards the bank. At last there’s a glimpse of a repellent grey head which doesn’t seem to have any eyes. In fact the thing looks like a vast, evil version of the leeches it has just attacked.
By the time its head appears it’s pretty well exhausted. But netting the fish is yet to come. As Kevin wrestles to get it all in the net, he tells us that things can still go very wrong. Don’t ever lift the net with just three-quarters of the fish in; it could easily slip out. Make sure every inch of that squirming body is in.
Fortunately, Kevin can get it all in the net and he heaves the fish up on to the bank. It weighs in at 14lb (6.3kg). Now considering that the wels is Europe’s biggest freshwater fish, this isn’t a large specimen – but it’s big enough for us.
The fish is surprisingly docile on the bank. A carp of this size is quite a handful, but the catfish just looks at us coolly through tiny, piggy eyes, pure contempt written on its face. We’re hoping not to meet it when it’s bigger – one from the Dnieper in Ukraine is said to have reached 675lb (306kg)!
It was hooked right in the scissors of the mouth. Kevin assures everyone that it’s okay to put your hands in the cat’s mouth but, as it moves its head sharply, he adds that forceps are a good idea.
Unhooking is closely followed by weighing and photographing – then the fish is returned to its murky home. Kevin fishes for a few hours more, but a massive storm arriving at 4:40pm puts paid to hopes of another cat. No matter – the one Kevin caught was enough.