Alternative River Ebro part 1 – zander, roach & carp

Alternative River Ebro part 1 – zander, roach & carp

It must be the best part of two decades since I first gazed at photos of John Wilson et al posing with huge catfish they’d caught from the Ebro.  I’ve wanted to fish there ever since, but had been put off because in many popular areas such as Mequinenza and Caspe, the “fishing” has evolved into nothing more than sitting back while your rods are positioned for you by someone in a rowing boat, your hair-rigged pellet hookbait tipped over the side with several kilos of loose pellets.  When a bite materialises there is little more to do than winch in an overfed, pellet-addicted lump of a catfish.  This is a far cry from the traditional tactics employed on the Ebro such as “clonking” and boat fishing with a float or lure.  This is what fishing on the Ebro is all about to me – putting in the effort yourself whilst drawing upon the experience of a good guide – and I‘ve always felt the river could offer me more.

Despite this watering-down of methods, there are still alternatives available if you can find the right guides in the right areas.  A chance conversation with Will Barnard a couple of years ago reminded me of a trip he and Ian Welch had been on.  Will spoke very highly of the outfit they‘d gone with – Rio Ebro Angling, run by Carl and Angie Allman – and crucially, they‘d done a fair bit of boat fishing with baits and lures.  In February this year, I got a phone call from Shane Calton.  He was visiting the Ebro in September with his mate Dave Newby-Thornley and they were looking for a third person to make up the group.  Shane was keen to catch cats, carp and whatever else was on offer, whilst Dave – an avid roach & bream angler – had heard of the Ebro’s big roach potential.  I remember laughing on the phone because it was exactly the kind of Ebro fishing trip I’d been waiting for!

We contacted a few companies to see if they could offer us the more traditional and mixed fishing we sought, but Rio Ebro Angling seemed to have more knowledge and experience with roach and zander as well as the cats.  They soon emerged as our clear favourites and a booking was made!

Riba Roja d'Ebre as viewed from a boat on the Ebro

After 6 months of the excitement building, we flew out to Reus airport – 70 miles West of Barcelona – and were met by a friendly chap named Keith, who delivered us to the village of Riba Roja d‘Ebre, our base for the week.  The accommodation was clean and comfortable with air conditioning and was handily located in the centre, close to a bar and amenities.  The only downside was being opposite the church, which has the loudest bell I‘ve ever heard!

The river Ebro at Riba Roja

The landscape surrounding the river at Riba Roja is stark and intriguing.  It’s reminiscent of a scene from a spaghetti western, with large, sparsely vegetated hills sloping quickly down to the Ebro, which is flanked – surprisingly – by bamboo.  I half-expected to see the entrance to a goldmine heading into the hills!

On to the fishing!

I’ve broken this article in two; the second part will cover the catfish and this one will cover everything else…

The first species we went after was zander.  After breakfast on the first morning, we headed up towards the hydroelectric dam with a stash of bleak, which we saw shoals of all over the river.  We lip-hooked these on a size 1/0 treble attached to two feet of 60lb mono, above which was a sliding 2.5 ounce lead.  First we anchored in the flow & bottom-bounced the rigs downstream in the current, seeking out the gullies & troughs carved out by the dam outfall.

The dam at Riba Roja, complete with AT-AT Walker!

This method was predominantly aimed at zander, but with catfish in the vicinity there was always a chance of hooking one, hence the heavy mono leader.  Dave had the first fish which was a reasonable zander.  He’d never caught or even seen one before, so Carl quickly showed him how to hold a zed safely and the fish was returned after modest Dave reluctantly posed for a few photos.

Dave with our first zander of the trip

About 10 minutes later I felt a couple of gentle shudders, followed by a sharp pull.  The initial fight was strong, but then the fish rose to the surface quickly, in typical zander fashion.  After a couple of headshakes, Carl had it in the boat and unhooked.  The zander weighed about 6lb and was hooked cleanly in the scissors.

zander caught jigging on the river Ebro

The swim went dead, so we moved as close to the dam wall as Carl dared take us.  I couldn’t buy a bite here, but Dave had a fish hit hard, which pulled far better than a zander.  The scrap had Dave bewildered by the power of the fish, due to his expertise with bream & roach, but Dave’s crash-course in playing a specimen resulted in our first catfish!  It weighed around 25lb and was another absolute first for Dave.  He ended up wrestling with the creature to hold it for a photo, before it gave him a soaking as he returned it.

River Ebro catfish caught from a boat at Riba Roja

The following afternoon, after trolling lures for catfish, we decided it was worth another go for some zander.  We motored up towards the dam and switched to jigs & shads, which we fished between the weedbeds as we drifted in the current; to no avail.  Again, a catfish could have struck a jig at any time and Carl seen plenty of monster cats hooked, with a fetish for the little rubbers.  We moved nearer the dam and experimented with different coloured shads.  Out of the hundreds I’d taken with me, I ended up using a pearlescent bleak imitation, complete with blue-coloured back.  This worked almost instantly and when I flicked the lure up off the bottom, it was grabbed by a decent zander before it could sink back down.  After this fish the action slowed.  We were all tired from the sun, which had relentlessly beat down on us for the past two days, so we headed back to shore in time to visit the tackle shop at nearby Flix to pick up some groundbait & maggots for the roach, carp & barbel fishing the next day…

We arrived at our roach swims above the dam and mixed up our groundbait, which was a combination of a fine, dark crumb and a curious, lemon-scented, bait which had the appearance of washing powder and soap flakes!  We set up standard quiver tip rods with 6lb mono mainline through to 3lb Maxima hook lengths and size 14 hooks.  No finesse required here, even for fish which could far exceed the British record.  The small open-end feeders were setup on loop rigs and we made a few casts to get some groundbait into the swims before tying on any hooks.  Being above the dam, the river was really wide here and despite fishing at such close range, we were casting into 12 metres of depth!   I clipped up at about 40 yards range and made a dozen casts to lay down a decent bed of bait.

River Ebro roach fishing at Riba Roja

We had a sandwich while the groundbait settled, then the baited hooks went out and we set about staring at the tips.  Dave soon showed his silver fish pedigree by landing the first roach, which was a quality fish of about 12oz, which set the standard for the average size of roach we would catch.  I struck into my first bite of the day and felt a welcome “thud-thud-thud” in return.  This fish was a good 10 to 12oz and after this I was getting a bite every cast, but for ten frustrating minutes, I couldn’t hit any!  Every cast I reeled in either a bare hook or shrivelled maggot skins.  We had no imitation maggots with us (and this would be a definite “must-pack” item for any future trips), so I improvised to try and get the fish to take the hook as well as the bait.  I threaded the hook inside the first maggot and slid it up the shank, “mag-aligner” style, then conventionally hooked another two maggots to tip it off.  This worked instantly and I landed 2 fish in my first two casts with it.

Sane Calton playing a large River Ebro roachShane was having a hard time, he had the only peg with no shade and he was getting frustrated by a lack of bites, so he moved up a few pegs to the other side of me.  Shane started getting bites but only landed a tiny sunfish, so he tweaked his rig by shortening the feeder loop and hooklength.  On his very next cast Shane’s experimentation was rewarded.  He latched into a huge fish, far bigger than anything we’d hooked and – as it turned out – bigger than any roach I’d ever seen.  He could tell immediately that this was a serious roach, so I headed over with the camera to get some shots of his battle.  In doing so I caught a glimpse of a massive silver flash as the fish turned, about 8 feet down, and my jaw dropped.  What a relief it was to see the fish slide over the net; Shane was absolutely made up!

Shane guides his 2lb River Ebro roach over the landing net

This pristine, plump, 100% true roach weighed 2lb 5oz, which set him a new PB.  It was a pleasure to see a roach of this size in the flesh.  If only they were more common back home.

Shane Calton's 2lb River Ebro roach

We each caught more roach but nothing came close to this fish.  I caught a couple over 1lb in a bag of over 20 fish.  Between us we caught around 50 roach, with nothing smaller than 6oz, plus a couple of sunfish.  This was roach fishing at its best!  It was a truly enjoyable day for all of us and I think that many British anglers who travel to Ireland to target roach could happily exchange a week fishing there to instead chase the big silvers of the Ebro.  I think they’d find it just as enjoyable and end up with a better tan to boot!

Andrew Kennedy big roach from the river Ebro

The last of the “alternative” Ebro species we targeted was carp, though these are almost as popular as the catfish and specimens are caught regularly throughout the river.  Most anglers opt to use scaled-down cat gear and bank fish with pellets in the hope of picking up both carp and cats.  But if you yearn for something a little more involving and unique, there are alternative methods for targeting carp on the Ebro.  We sampled some of these, albeit unsuccessfully.

All week we had pre-baited with maize in a lovely slack behind an island, to attract the carp without also drawing in catfish.  We’d previously spotted a few carp including one very large common which was easily 30lb-plus.  On the final morning we could resist no longer, so we made an early start and nestled the boat up against a large reedbed beside the 3 metre-deep, weedy hole.  We tackled-up the lure rods with simple free-running lead rigs through to braided hooklengths & hair-rigs, baited with single 12mm pellet baits so they stood out from the loosefeed.  Despite sitting there silently for an hour and a half, the only carp we saw were cruising rather than feeding.  The sun slowly crept up the hills over our left shoulders as we fished and as it reached the summit to illuminate our swim, we left to do some more zander fishing.

Earlier in the week we’d also tried downstream near Flix.  We couldn’t reach Carl’s preferred swims so we grouped into a wide, beach-type peg below an island.  This area was noted for barbel as well as carp and it certainly looked the part; with features akin to the Trent and Derwent we’re used to back home.  We tried corn, maggot, pellets & maize, again on free-running lead rigs but this time with Avon-style rods.  A few carp rolled, but the only fish caught was a bleak, which Dave took on maggot.  So after a couple of hours here, we headed up above the dam for the aforementioned roach session.

Other species present in the middle Ebro include barbel, crucian carp and black bass, which all grow to good sizes, but take some finding (though some guides offer opportunities to fish for them).  So, whilst the big cats look likely to justifiably remain the key focus and draw for anglers heading to the Ebro, there is plenty to have a go at for those who crave something a little different.

In my next, and final, chronicle of the trip I cover catfish so, if you’re interested in fishing for wels by means other than with sacks of pellets, click here to read part 2…

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