Catfish are amongst the most difficult fish to target in the UK. Certainly in the East Midlands, not many fisheries are licensed to stock them and they can be sporadic feeders with a tendency to feed primarily after dark. Add to this the species’ abrasive pads lining the mouth and throat, along with a reputation as a strong fighter, and you have a highly prized and very worthy adversary.
My previous two outings targeting catfish – both night sessions at Willowbank Fishery and Shatterford Lakes – had yielded me nothing. So when I saw a report on the Anglers Today website – detailing an unbelievable capture of 810lb of catfish and carp in a 48 hour session from Willowcroft Fisheries, near Wisbech in Cambridgeshire – I was more than a little intrigued!
Upon contacting the fishery, I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the staff, who duly answered my (many!) questions about the fishery, its fish, its recent form, etc. As luck had it, the cats were feeding well, following a recent warm spell, so a date was arranged, and accompanied by Craig Croft-Rayner, I made the trek down to Wisbech, arriving just before the gates were closed for the evening.
There is a lodge on site, from which you can purchase any emergency items of tackle or bait. The lake at Willowcroft is around 8 acres in size, and features 6 islands, which help to divide the lake up to prevent any cross-lake casting arguments! As angler numbers are rightly limited to 12 anglers, we were last to arrive, so didn’t have much choice where to set up. That said, we opted for a corner swim, with a lovely deep hole a rod-length out, and casting access to open water and the tip of an island.
Most UK catfish can be caught using stepped-up carp gear. It’s advisable to use an extra-strong hook (Owner and ESP make reliable patterns), and a hooklength material with a high abrasion-resistance. Aside from that, 15lb mainline and a rod with at least 2.5lb test curve will be enough to land most UK cats. At Willowcroft, hooks must be barbless, with a maximum hook size 4. Any braided hooklengths used must be the coated type. One brand I already owned was 25lb b/s Fox Insider, which is a coated version of their Armadillo braid, which has superb abrasion resistance and makes an ideal catfish hooklength material. An alternative to using braided hooklengths is to try a mono shock-leader material, such as Amnesia.
The rigs we opted for ranged from standard running-leger rigs with popped-up boilie and pellet hookbaits, to a weed-beating set-up combined with a popped-up worm medusa rig, which I had devised specifically for catfish (I shall describe this rig in more detail later).
Willowcroft’s cat population responds well to heavy, but tight concentrations of pellets. When they’re feeding well, they cruise the open areas between weed-beds, mopping up as much bait as they can.
As we set up and cast around with a feature-finding lead we realised that, aside from the deep marginal hole, there were very few clear areas in front of us – seriously limiting our options. We had a very quiet night, with Craig having a few indications which never developed into runs, whilst my buzzers remained silent all night. I was restless, and surfaced at first light, scanning the lake for signs of movement. Towards the middle of the lake, I saw several large carp cruising, with the odd catfish showing itself too. To have cast to them would have meant casting over other people’s lines though, so the fish were frustratingly out of reach. By lunchtime, however, the lake had emptied, leaving just two other anglers on the bank. We decided our only remaining chance of a catfish was to move to a clearer area for the remaining few hours, so we packed up all but the essentials and put them in the van.
Having settled into a new swim, I put out the remainder of my pellets and a few fishmeal boilies and crossed my fingers. Within about half an hour, I got a steady run on the pellet rod, and struck into a powerful fish. Just as I was coming to terms with hooking my first catfish, the hook pulled, and I was left cursing myself, knowing my best (and possibly only) chance of a landing my first cat had gone. But as things turned out this was not to be my last run, because shortly afterwards something picked up my medusa worm offering and this time the hook held. A couple of tense minutes passed before I saw the tell-tale white belly of a catfish, as it rolled in front of me… Craig did the honours with the net and – mission accomplished – my first catfish was landed!
My worm rig consisted of a Fox “Buoyant Bomb”, which is a slow-sinking leger designed for pike fishing, which falls slowly onto the top of weed-beds, reducing the risk of your bait being dragged deep inside the weed. I attached the buoyant bomb to a clear gum Middy Feeder-Link, which helped further with keeping my bait clear of the weed. For the medusa rig itself (which I’m nick-naming “wormedusa”!), I tied a size 4 Owner Mutu circle hook to 14 inches of 25lb clear Amnesia mono – using a knotless knot – leaving a 4 inch hair. Using a stringer needle, I threaded half a cork ball onto the hair, followed by four large lobworms, leaving a good length of each worm free to wriggle. I followed these with the other half of the cork ball, then passed the hook point through the loop at the end of the hair. To make sure this stayed put, I nicked on an Enterprise Tackle imitation prawn, which also helped disguise the hook. The stiffness of the Amnesia hair makes the worms stand proud in a circle, and when tested in the margins, the rig gave a highly enticing mass of worms wriggling in all directions! No wonder it tempted a cat in the daytime.
After the first fish, I baited with fresh worms and cast back to the same area. Within an hour, the alarm was sounding again, as another cat was fooled by the wormedusa. This one was just shy of double figures (and small for Willowcroft), at 9lb 15oz. I somehow managed to lose a further 2 fish (both on worms), and miss a couple of runs too, which made for a very hectic 4 hours. Certainly more action than I expected in bright sunshine!
Interested in trying worms as catfish bait? Find out more information on keeping worms without a wormery
The only negative thing I can say about Willowcroft is that terrible weed problem. I would say that at least 70% of the lake bed is covered in thick weed, which creates obvious problems for the angler. That said, I’m assured that this problem is in hand, and measures are being taken to control and eradicate the problem. Plus, if you go to the fishery prepared to deal with the weed (The reason I took the buoyant bombs was because the bailiffs had told me about the weed on the phone), then it will present you far less problems. Arrive at the fishery as early as you can, and you’ll have the pick of the pegs too.
The stocking density makes Willowcroft unique. Most catfish waters in the UK are primarily carp lakes, with a few catfish to target, but here the cats vastly outnumber the carp! If the catfish are feeding well, there’s a very real chance of an absolute red letter day. Plus, the fact that the catfish here feed almost as hard during the day as they do at night, means that if you’re looking for a water to catch your first few catfish, I can think of nowhere better in the country. You can contact Willowcroft on 01945 701625 or at www.willowcroftfisheries.co.uk
Further information about the history, life cycle and biology of Silurus glanis – the Wels Catfish (which is not native to the UK) – can be found on Wikipedia here: Wels Catfish Wiki
And on Fishbase here: Wels Catfish on Fishbase.org.