This was to be the most exciting and potentially difficult trip to date, we had been doing the research for a couple of years or so and despite a previous knock back in the autumn of 1998 (when we couldn’t get visas issued), the hard work was finally coming to fruition. The UK party consisted of myself, Kevin Maddocks and Lez Gajur. The destination was Kazahkstan; or more specifically, the waters of the River Ili and its delta that flows north west into Lake Balkhash, home of truly monstrous catfish. "Where’s Kazahkstan ?" I hear you ask. Well, it used to be part of the USSR before the break up and lies to the south of Russia between China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan and Mongolia. Amazingly for a country that few people have heard of it is actually one of the biggest countries in the world having an area five times that of France and more than half that of the USA.

The number of anglers who visit the country each year is clearly low although, there are a few companies, mostly German or Austrian based who have been running angling trips to the Ili delta for a couple of seasons and Anglers World Holidays in Derbyshire have also started this year. We, however wanted far more control and input with our trip than you could get from an organised holiday so the decision was made to enrol the help of Eddie Grabbe of Edro Tours in Germany. Eddie sorted out the logistical problems for us whilst we organised the equipment and angling agenda. He was also instrumental in helping with visas, transport and setting up the camps and the recruitment of our camp cook, driver and desert guide.

I am a firm believer that the secret to any good catfishing trip abroad is advance planning and research and this trip required far more than normal due to many factors. The biggest problems were largely geographical and logistical and it didn’t help that there was a general lack of useful information available to us. It soon became apparent that we were going to incur great expenses and that this was going to be a physically and mentally demanding trip. Much time was spent discussing, planning and gathering together all of the specialist equipment that we envisaged; all part of the fun and adventure of such an outing.

The aim of the trip was to put together a team of experienced international catfish anglers to tackle new or rarely fished areas of the Ili and its tributaries in order to try and realise its full potential and to have a crack at setting a realistic world record. For those of you who are unaware, the current IGFA record for catfish stands at 80 lb; a ridiculously low weight when you consider how many bigger fish have been caught. All the anglers that travelled on our adventure to Kazahkstan had landed many fish bigger than the ‘official’ world record and we felt that it was time to register a more genuine record - if only to set a weight for other anglers to aim for. I know that fish of well over two hundred pounds have been caught previously but none have been accepted (if indeed they were ever submitted) as records.

We had decided to start our adventure in early August. The weather was likely to be really hot which we expected to suit the cats (if not the anglers) and there was far less chance at this time of heavy rain or flooding - which can ruin any fishing trip. I was only able to fish for the first two and a half weeks but the remaining anglers and those that joined the party half way through were staying until mid September when the weather was expected to start cooling off. The advantages of such a long trip were largely obvious and it allowed us to try many different methods, areas and times. On the downside, it was physically and mentally tough going and the length of time away and distances involved really added to the costs. We also had to have a huge number of licences and permissions to fish on many different sectors of the river. As it turned out, this wasn’t a problem as we had a fishing bailiff with us in our camp for the entire visit which ensured that everything ran smoothly and that we stayed within the law.

The direct flight from Heathrow to Almaty was without incident and British Airways delivered us and our tackle safely and on time. The Kazaks though, as expected took an absolute age to process our passports and entry visas and we eventually made it through customs unchallenged despite being laden with mountains of electrical items like echo sounders, GPS and battery chargers. I was questioned as to whether my rod tube contained a rifle or any other kind of weapon or military hardware but thankfully my explanation was accepted without the need for me to demonstrate. We were met at the airport by Sasha who ensured the smooth running of everything whilst we were in Almaty waiting for the party to arrive from Germany 36 hours later, he also relieved us of far more US$ than one might have expected for two meal-less nights and a breakfast in a very ordinary Kazak hotel !

The old Russian Zvarowski bus containing Eddie Grabbe and two more of our fishing party arrived at the hotel at 4 am. shortly followed by a knock at the door of our room by Olivier Portrat (a veteran of many foreign fishing trips together), and his companion Roman Seiderer. We packed swiftly and were on our way within half an hour totally oblivious to the incredible journey that still lay ahead. I was however glad to get out of Almaty; the city was far more modern and commercialised than I had expected (although it was even quite nice in places) but the noise and pollution (mostly from traffic) had started to become tiresome and the humidity was definitely unpleasant.

We travelled throughout the remainder of the night and into the following morning. Eight people in total were crammed into the modestly sized bus along with a plethora of angling paraphernalia, whilst the equally overloaded trailer dutifully followed behind. Several hours after it had become light we caught our first sight of the Ili; or at least what used to be the Ili before it was dammed to form the massive Lake Kapchagay. The bridge over the lake was used as some sort of check point. The bus stopped and we were all told by Eddie to be silent as a military style jobsworth with an unfeasibly large hat looked the bus over. Kyril, our Ukranian driver collected our passports and papers and took the official to one side for a ‘chat’ he returned a short while later and gave us the thumbs-up, we were on our way once again. We carried on travelling for several hours more and the road got smaller and less road like the further we drove. Eventually we pulled off what had now become a dusty path and pulled up. We were ushered into a small but well kept farm garden and then shown a small outbuilding where we were told to remove our shoes before entering. Inside lay a small but well stocked breakfast table with places set for all of us. We ate a hearty meal of bread, salami, cheese, sprats and tomatoes before the farmers wife brought out a huge iron platter piled high with fried potatoes and onions; I wished that I hadn’t eaten so much bread and cheese as I was nearly stuffed by the time that the spuds arrived. This feast was followed by spoonfuls of home-made jam with our bowls of Kazak tea. We took it in turns to nip back to the bus to keep an eye on the gear (despite the fact that there was barely a soul for miles around) - our western habits are hard to break. We were soon on our way again but this time, the bus was locked into four wheel drive as we headed across the steppe and scrubby desert that stretched for miles in every direction.

After several more hours of the most uncomfortable and dusty journey that I have ever experienced including the negotiation of some decidedly dodgy looking bridges (not too mention digging the bus and trailer out of a sand dune with our bare hands !) we eventually arrived tired and filthy at a small fishing outpost on the River Zhideli; a tributary of the Ili. We spent the next couple of hours transferring all our equipment and gear onto the boats and ferrying it the short journey through the reeds to our camp. We had arrived.

Amazingly, the gear that we had sent out by bus via Germany, Poland and Russia two months previously was actually waiting for us (although it took us nearly a week to find everything secreted about the camp) and the next few hours was spent sorting out the gear and setting up rods and mosquito nets before retiring for the night. The following morning, we set about rigging the boats with the Echo sounders, GPS and rod holders. The outboard engines that we had bought especially for the trip and sent out ahead of us were fitted and tested and before long we were fishing.

The first couple of days were spent exploring the channels and lakes and fishing the likeliest looking spots. We tried a little klonking, but mostly we legered fillets of freshly caught asp. Several small catfish were caught without too much difficulty but there seemed little evidence of larger cats. The current was strong and swirly in many areas and the ‘banks’ were largely massive beds of twenty foot high reeds. there were virtually no trees which didn’t seem to bother the green cheeked bee eaters that were flitting around everywhere.

Every evening we all met around the dinner table to discuss the day’s results and plans for the following day. We had been fishing separate areas in order to try and cut down the length of time that it would take to locate the bigger fish. We were by now starting to venture further away from the camp having found a route across a couple of the large lakes to some more attractive looking and deeper spots (the GPS was invaluable when it came to finding the way back). We also changed tactics, the legered fillets were producing too many small fish, (we had not travelled 4500 miles to catch thirty and forty pounders) and it was obvious that livebaits should be given a go.

I don’t recall which of us caught the first of the bigger fish nor its exact size; but it was over two metres. It didn’t matter anyway, at last we were getting somewhere and catching the size fish that we were hoping for. Over the next couple of days we started to find some really good water on the main River Ili and although the windy conditions were making drifting difficult, I was klonking well and we were picking up a few decent fish along the way. The fishing was not at all easy and we were only taking about one fish each per day but the average size was now excellent.

Concludes next month