Almost as obvious as the bivvies was the lack of beach, the water was a good 4feet up on last year and going like the veritable train! We had a quick word with the anglers already in situ to get the lie of the land. It turned out they were all from up north (England) and had fished the spot (the same as us, testosterone beach, named such due to the countless acts of bravado, and manliness of the previous year) with Naughty Nick in the past. They had been there for a week with nothing to show for it, but really their methods weren’t really up to scratch for the conditions. To be fair, bait fish were scarce too so they had to resort to dead baits acquired from the local supermarket.
Closer inspection of the flooded margins upstream of where the northerners were revealed a multitude of fish life. Small mullet and carp were darting through the grass! "If only we had some electrofishing gear" I said. Just upstream of the other anglers was a small area, just big enough to get a couple of rods out - if only for that night. To be honest we were very tired and didn’t have too much knowledge of this part of the river. We decided we would have to search for pastures new in the morning. Anyway, Pete and Dan were coming down in a little while, they might have a better idea of what to do or where to go.
In the meantime we set about the onerous task of trying (heron like?) to sneak a few mullet or carp from the sodden banks. After half an hour I’d only managed one mullet of about two pounds, far too big for this flow, so I released him. During this time, Geoff and Ian had set up the bivvies and Pete and Dan had arrived.
"Any ideas?" Geoff asked Pete. "We have got one place in mind" he said "but not many people know of its existence, so you’ll have to keep it quiet" (it's the same the world over isn’t it?). Geoff and Ian went off to have a reccie. Feeling sorry for myself, I decided to sit down and start demolishing some of the Roija we had purchased on the way down
They returned in about an hour with smiles from ear to ear "You're gonna like what we’ve just seen" grinned Geoff, "Oh yes" smiled Ian, "everything’s gonna be just fine!".
Over another bottle of wine they described the area Pete had showed them. Maybe it was the description of the swim or possibly the wine, but I was now feeling a little happier.
That night, as we were planning on moving anyway we decided to get to know the northerners a bit better. (Rough as you like but likeable guys nonetheless). At about midnight one of their gang shouted "I’m in!!" from the landing stage a couple of hundred yards downstream. We unhurriedly made our way to his swim to watch the events unfold.
All along this stretch of the Ebro are landing stages for boats, basically floating pontoons joined to the bank via a walkway at either end. When we got there the chap who’d shouted was leaning with all his might into the unseen fish which, judging by the angle of his line was about ten miles downstream! He had to winch this beastie directly against the flow of which, as mentioned earlier there was plenty. The banter was now in full flow with all of his mates shouting instructions, abuse, and generally winding him up. Eventually after about half an hour the fish was brought alongside the jetty. Two of them grabbed its lower jaw and hauled it up onto the smooth wooden surface amongst rapturous applauseand more abuse! The fish was weighed at one hundred and seven pounds. 'Nice one' I thought. At least one cat was willing to feed in this cold water, and it was caught on a deadbait. After much congratulations, and drinking of more wine we eventually retired to the bivvie.
The next morning arrived far too soon, My head was banging and my back was aching from the ever-so-long car journey. Geoff and Ian were in better health than I because Geoff (being a grown-up) has had much experience of abuse over the years and like most grown-ups knows when to stop, something I still haven’t grasped yet, and Ian only needs one or two glasses to get him under the influence anyway!
We packed the gear away, loaded the car, said goodbye to the northern chaps and headed for our new camp.
The new swim was on the other side of the river and if we hadn’t been shown its whereabouts would never have guessed its existence. Tucked away down a small track with barely enough clearance to get the car down, after about a hundred and fifty yards, the track opened up into a large pebbly beach, with a massive bay in front of it. Basically it was like a twenty acre eddy. It looked sexy!
I was really suffering now as I tried to put my bivvie up. Unfortunately, and this is a tip, it was a Nashy Profile umbrella, with infill panels, and this design is completely reliant on tent pegs, which were not going to go into the rock hard ground. Thankfully Geoff said could share with him, as long as I behaved myself and kept the bum music to a minimum - which I knew was going to be difficult as I was now in the land of the chorizo sausage!
We got the bivvies up and Pete arrived, he offered to fetch some maggots for us and to visit the pharmacy for me to acquire some of the donkey-choker style pain killers which are available over the counter in Spain. The maggots by the way were very expensive and quite a rarity.
We spent the rest of the day getting the catfishing gear ready and trying to catch some bait. Things were slow from the beginning, but we weren’t surprised. Ian was first in, getting towed all around the bay by a largish common carp of about four pounds. Unfortunately this happened a lot. I was always under the impression that large baits were used for these monster cats and maybe some people use them that size, but with the flow speeding around the bay it was impossible to present a baitfish of that size on a bottle rig.
For those who have never fished for catfish using this method, I shall endeavour to explain it. The bottle rig is exactly as it sounds. An empty plastic 2 litre bottle is tied to a rock, or bag of stones with strong twine or string. (Getting the distance between rock and bottle right is imperative, I cocked it up a couple of times, and when you’ve got a man on the oars, battling against the current to get the rig out to where you want it, and you drop the rock, and it snatches the bottle out of your hand, which then sinks without traceyou may find it frustrating!! Not only do you have to set another one up, you’ve left a fairly hefty snag for a hooked catfish to run through - sod’s law an all that). A link of about three to four feet is tied to the neck of the bottle, onto which a large snap link type swivel is attached. The rod is then set up free roving style. Trace (eighty pound braid is my particular favourite), lead (one to four ounces depending on flow and bait size). Float (large) and then the stop knot. The whole set up should be set fairly shallow as this is a surface fishing technique, about three to four feet from stop knot to bait. About two feet above the stop knot a weak link is tied. Attached in the same way the stop knot is tied with a four-foot tail with a large loop tied at the other end (this loop should be big enough to get your hand through).
Two people then take the bait out whilst another holds the rod and pays out line. It is a good idea for the person holding the end tackle to have a bucket with the already mounted bait in so as to keep it alive longer, and to avoid it thrashing and attaching itself to a part of your body you would rather not have it attached to. (Not a good idea). Once the bottle is reached, the tail from the bottle with the snap link tied is found, and the loop of nylon (the eight- to-ten pound weak link) is attached. It is wise at this point to shout to the person holding the rod to take any slack out whilst you’re holding the line. The bait should then be placed over the side with a final shout to the man on the shore to take up the any more slack. The rod is then placed into the sea-fishing-style tripod, keeping as much line off the surface as possible to avoid any debris floating past. (Dead sheep, cows, trees, etc.)
We did manage to catch a couple of smaller baitfish throughout the day, mullet and crucians, (the crucians are actually some sort of weird hybrid!) these were all set up on bottle rigs before nightfall. At this point the boat had an outboard which worked, so setting the rigs was fairly easy in the fast current, a situation which was soon to change.
With all the flow and rafts of weed washing downstream it was very difficult keeping the bite alarms from bleeping continuously. I found a kind of solution. My bite alarms were the old style optonics, and by cutting down the vane inside they only bleeped once every revolution of the wheel. We were not exactly fishing for twitchers so this modification did not prove a problem!
The first night passed uneventfully other than Geoff racing to his rods every time the bite alarms let out more than four bleeps in a row! He may old and grey (I suppose he’ll edit that out?!) but can he move!! He nearly gave me a heart attack on many occasions when weed suddenly attached itself to his line in the middle of the night! Every morning we would have to re-set the rigs as there was so much weed about. It usually took until after lunch each day to get things sorted. On the morning of the second day the outboard packed up, and we had no rowlocks.
Pete came down at lunchtime to see how things were going. We told him of our predicament. He left in search of another outboard. About an hour later he came back with another, exactly the same as the first. This one worked momentarily then also refused to start. By this time we were getting in a bit of a state, how were we going to get the baits out? We cobbled together some rowlocks from pieces of un-ravelled rope and took to the water to see if they would holdyes! Geoff had agreed to do the rowing as my pathetic excuse for a back wouldn’t cope and Ian being the hard-core predator hunter that he is didn’t like boats! (Apart from the remote control sort.) Right, so we were in business again.
After a supermarket / toilet / brush-up type-run, much to-ing and fro-ing ensued as we set the bottle rigs again, then it was down to the serious business of food and wine. I will say at this point that too much alcohol can be a little inappropriate in these kind of circumstances. I’m sure some anglers would say any angling situation is the wrong one for alcohol. It was one of very few offerings of advice I remembered from Nick the previous year. He’d said, 'You can drink if you want to, or you can fish, don’t do both'. Wise words indeed. Until you’re doing battle with a large catfish you can’t appreciate the amount of power they posses. You really do need to be in control, especially at the end of the battle when there’s a foot wide head thrashing at your feet with a size 8/0 Owner Stinger treble waving back and forth just screaming to be stuck into your hand as the catfish makes off towards France on another run! Get the pictureit doesn’t mix, as Nick said
At about two in the morning my buzzer screamed! I think Geoff was out of the bivvy before me, as usual, but I was soon on it. It was still motoring when I picked up the rod. "Hit it then!" shouted Geoff. Now, this part is a moment to savourthe line belting out and I mean belting! You quickly tighten the clutch, as tight as you dare, then hang on!
Now, I’m a big bloke and apart from my knackered back I’m pretty strong - but these fish can pull. By some strange quirk of fate the fight was a kind of forwards and backwards affair. If the fish had kited either left or right it would’ve taken out the other rigs but it came in straight (eventually). We caught the first glimpse of it. "It seems fairly small" Geoff said. 'Absolute crap' I thought. I haven’t seen too many big cats but it’s well over seventy I was sure. After making a few more runs (straight out again!) it was ready for gloving. Geoff was prepared to do the honours, not an enviable task I can assure you, a wide gaping mouth swaying purposefully left then right then left with a huge exposed treble waiting to snag your hand. Wait for itGrab!! His hand was thrust forward onto the cats lower jaw. Ian now joined in as they both hauled it ashore.
Jubilation. "How big Geoff" I asked breathlessly. "It could be ton-up" he retorted. It was at this point we realised that the weigh sling, which had been adequate for Ian in France, was too small. We had to improvise. With a lot of messing about we eventually settled on a weight of ninety six pounds, a new personal besttime to relax. We set it up on a stringer and tied it to a tree.
It was the first time I’d done this. My introduction to this method of restraint was at Claydon when a couple of Mancunians (coincidence I’m sure) were poaching overnight, leaving the cats on stringers, retiring before daybreak then rising with the legitimate anglers. They then proceeded to extricate the bounty from the night before to photograph them! They had the gall to wear CCG badges as well! Everybody just looked on in amazement, myself included.
Nothing else occurred during the night. At daybreak I got the kettle on, knowing I’d got the pleasure of photographing a personal best to comea sweet feeling as I’m sure you know. When Pete arrived, and after another brew, we went for the rigmarole of photographing the catfish, she looked even more monstrous in the daylight.
The usual routines were carried out during the day. Ian and I went to the supermarket at about eleven o’clock, to stock up, wash etc, then returned and proceeded to put out the baits again. Pete and Dan came down to see us and they brought some goodies. The Mancunians had left, and had left a set of garden type recliner chairs for Pete to look after, along with a bar-b-cue! Life from that moment on was a bit more comfortable.
That night, I can’t remember when, I had another screaming run. It was the same rod as before, we thought we must have inadvertently placed the bottle on a hotspot. The battle was similar to the night previous inasmuch as, although the fish was exhibiting signs of pure animal power, it didn’t kite. The same amount of time had elapsed, about twenty minutes, when Geoff again masterfully hauled it up onto the grass. This one seemed bigger.
This time we were going to have to find another method of weighing it. We had with us a couple of airbeds, the canvas type. By using two storm rods, my Swiss army knife (I never leave home without it) and some dried flower arranging wires (ask Ian, not me!) we managed to cobble together a relatively safe weigh sling. We dragged her onto the contraption, moved the ropes into position, then, making sure she was balanced, Geoff and Ian hoisted the sling into the air. Well grunted it into the air! Bouncing , bouncing we finally settled on a weight of one hundred and two pounds!! Was I over the moon or what? From those far off days as a teenager, staring at pictures of the monster cats in the magazines to actually being there and doing it and achieving my goal of a ‘ton-up’ catfish… It was a special moment in my angling career, I can tell you.
We stringered it in the margins as before. I sat down and drank in the surroundings. The water rushing against the channel marker in the main flow, the beetle behind the bivvie chirping for all he was worth, the far off lightening over the distant mountain rangelife was sweet. We sat for a while longer absorbing the night air. "I’m gonna turn in" said Geoff. I joined him. No - not like that!
About two hours later, Ian’s buzzer sounded, the bait in the main flow had been taken and was heading rapidly into the bay. Geoff got up in his usual fashion, scrabble, scrabble, rush, hurry, whilst I lay there knackered, trying to muster enough energy to get involved in the proceedings. Almost simultaneously Geoff’s buzzer started humming, this meant I had to get up, someone or both were going to need a hand! Ian remained calm, even though his fish was now well into the bay and in danger of getting tangled with the other lines. Geoff in the meantime was playing his fish and remarked that it didn’t feel all that big. Slowly it came towards the shore, and I was dreading seeing a massive head rise in front of me……I’d never had to land a catfish by this method before. Oh well, I had to start somewhere…. Up it popped. I’d seen catfish this size in England before, unlucky for Geoff, I was relieved to see its size. I grabbed and lifted it ashore. It probably weighed about thirty to forty pounds, we unhooked it and put it straight back, ready to concentrate on Ian’s ongoing battle.
"How’s it going?" asked Geoff. "All right" answered Ian, as calm as ever. Slowly he pumped the fish back to the bank, his rods now seemed like small matchsticks, totally inadequate for the job, but they managed it. "Another big one" said Geoff as he bent down to do the business. I waded in next to him ready to help. He made a grab for the lower jaw, hauled it bankwards, with me trying to join in. I helped Geoff drag it up the bank. Definitely another hundred pound plus fish, I thought. "What do you reckon?" I said…We all looked at each other….We collectively thought it was over one-twenty.
It was deep hooked. Earlier in the trip we’d caught sight of Ian’s special gloves and I have to admit it - we took the pee a bit. These gloves were almost shoulder length, cow birthing gloves! We really didn’t think that they could be of any practical use whatsoever, until now. The lower single had all but disappeared down the leviathans throat, and when fish have a chomping end that big, that’s a long way down! Ian donned his glove, laid down and slid his arm in! After about three minutes, the hooks were free and we were sliding the fish onto our makeshift weighsling. Slowly Geoff and Ian tried to lift it. Everything had to be balanced spot-on, if not the fish would slide forwards or backwards. They took the strain and lifted. The needle hovered around a hundred to one-ten. They lowered it again as the fish was slipping to one end and in danger of sliding out. We re-positioned it and lifted again. 'One hundred and six' I read. "It must be bigger than that" they both exclaimed. No, that was its weight. We tied it up in the margin alongside my one from a few hours previous. Ian, for the first time this trip showed signs of emotion, he was happy. It was his first catfish over a ton also. I guess we were as happy as each other!!
Two hours later and the sun was rising. I put the kettle on fully anticipating the monumental photographic session that was to come. I sat there on the ultra comfortable garden chair supplied by Pete and was surprised by the massive upheaval in front of me as the catfish, both of them, now fully recovered tried to make a break for freedom. There was a huge vortex, then a massive tail waved in the air before slamming down on the surface. A sight I shall remember forever. After breakfast we retrieved the fish, a job on its own, and had a joyous photographic session.
We carried on the rest of the week with much the same routine. One event though which could’ve been a life or death situation left me shaking, both with anger and fear.
Pete was down chewing the cud one afternoon. For some reason, nearly all of the rigs were in. Only one was still out, mine on the far right of the bay. Without warning, three jet-skiers appeared from downstream, tore into the bay leaving us little time to shout any warnings. These nutters were really motoring, to be honest they probably didn’t realise we were there. We all jumped up and down and shouted abuse. On the far bank there was an island, one of the jet skiers drove round it at full speed…blind! Only the day previous one of the many Ebro guides was fishing behind it in a fifteen-foot Dory. God knows what would’ve happened if they’d been there at the time. The jetskis disappeared off into the distance only to return about an hour later to do another lap of the bay, can you imagine a jet skiers neck meeting eighty pound braid whilst attached to a twenty pound rock? On the other hand…. Don’t!!
We had little action for the rest of the week, apart from a great bar-b-cue on the last night with Pete and family, and a lost fish to me, an event that sparked long knot-tying discussions! Possibly another hundred pound fish lost due to human error!
On the journey home we met even more impressive storms, much more serious than on the journey down. It wasn’t until we saw the news after arriving back in Britain that we realised the severity of the rain we had witnessed in France, it had cost the lives of quite a few people.
I really want to return again later this year. It seems Ian will be too busy. Hopefully Captain Geoff will be up for it, we’ll see. No doubt though, if we do venture south again the trip will throw up complications and hardships, such is the nature of a river as big and wild as the Ebro.