This year a lot of anglers will be going abroad to try for that first big catfish. The fact that continental cats are so much easier to catch than our UK ones is one reason and another is that they grow so much bigger! And big cats draw anglers like Leonardo Decaprio attracts women.
The UK cat angler who is used to using upgraded carp tackle is going to have to re-equip himself for the monsters to be found in Europe. He is also going to have to rethink his bait presentation and tackle problems that he will not encounter in this country for many years. The reason is that catfish in the UK are found only in lakes - or rather, that is where anglers normally fish for them. On the European mainland the cat anglers will mainly be fishing rivers. Rivers - y'know, those venues where the water moves?? I'm only going to talk about rivers because many of you'll probably already know about catting on lakes and will have your own ideas. Most cat anglers in my experience seem to be converted carp anglers, used to fishing flat calm waters where the fish are as likely to take a boilie as a dead or livebait. These guys are in for a disappointment if they think that catting on the Ebro for instance, is like fishing at Claydon or Wintons. I'll use the Ebro as an example water, mainly as most of my continental catfishing experience has been on that water. However, what I write should apply equally well on the rivers in most other countries.
The first problem, once you get past the myriad local and geographic problems of permits and language barriers, is that of fish location. In short, you need a boat. Not 'a boat is desirable' but you NEED a boat. The better the boat, the better your chances of catching. You will also need much stronger tackle, though this part you probably already figured out, and you need to adopt a totally different approach for these river cats. Methods that you would never think of using in the UK will be the norm. In short, no matter how good an angler that you are in the UK, you will be a novice on rivers like the Ebro.
The majority of good catfish anglers do not come from the UK. They come from mainland Europe and they snigger behind their hands at the antics of many of their British counterparts. Justly so I might say. The Europeans can teach us a lot about catting but only if we will listen, watch and learn. And that is not something that the average carp-now-catfish angler is good at doing. I couldn't count ten carp anglers who don't consider themselves experts, can you? This attitude simply won't wash in Europe. No matter how good you are at knocking out 20 or 30lb carp from a UK lake, you are merely a beginner when it comes to those monster rivers and their equally huge catfish. Be willing to learn from others, don't be a know-all, watch how the local anglers do things and you'll probably start getting into the fish. Don't sell yourself short though. Always be aware that a foreign angler would be as poor on a British lake as you will probably be (at least for the first trip) on a continental river. It does take a little getting into. Hopefully the info in this article will make it a little less painful for you.
The three main methods of catfishing used 'over there' are the bottle rig, boat drifting and lure fishing. You can use UK tactics like ledgering deadbaits that will catch fish in certain places, but to really be in with a chance you'll need to learn these newer different methods. Some of you will be experienced pike anglers and the knowledge you have of that type of fishing will give you a head start. All these new methods require a boat to get the best from them.
The first method is the bottle rig. This is a standard approach method used by those wishing to bivvy up and night fish. It's not the best method but it does allow the angler some degree of comfort and security when long-stay fishing. Nobody likes leaving unattended tackle and camping equipment and this method scores in that you can fish with all your gear in sight around you.
Uptide rods with multipliers and at least 25lb BS line is best. Yes, you can fish lighter - but it could cost you dear. If you lose a big one due to your rod breaking (I'm serious!) then you can't go back next week, the river is just too far from home. So fish heavy. Your choice of hooklength don't seem to matter as long as it's really strong and abraision resistant. At least 50lb BS and heavier won't hurt either. I use 80lb mono these days . What you will find very helpful is a sea-fishing tripod. This can be adapted to take your buzzer-bars by use of some strong gaffer-tape. In heavy winds you can weight the tripod down with a carrier bag full of rocks hanging from the apex to keep it stable. Most makes of tripod have a hook positioned there specifically for this purpose. I use clothes pegs on strong rubber bands, which are tied to the tripod, to act as 'springers' between the reel and buzzer. A lot of takes are drop-backs and carp-style springers often won't be man enough for the job if there are fast currents.
If you insist on using singles, Owner hooks (or similar) are recommended, size 6/0 are not too big, otherwise galvanised short-shanked trebles of about 1/0 or 2/0 are better. I use one treble as the bottom hook and a single as a nose hook, anything more is overkill with most baits. A lighter rod for boatfishing work is a good idea, as those uptiders can get a bit heavy. Greys do (did?) a 10ft 5lb TC job which is ideal. Don't forget to take a bait snatching outfit along as you'll have a lot of fun with it in between the lumps. Try wobbling dead-baits if live-baits get hard to catch as this is a most killing method which is very under-used.
From the bank, fish the bottle method. The diagrams should help.
Tie up a super sized, in-line pike trotting rig. E.g. Rod - line - float - weight - hook. Set it at just a couple of foot deep. The float should be a big sea-fishing sliding job and if you fit it with beta-lights to make it visible at night, then so much the better. Above the float, tie a weak link of 5 to 10lb BS depending upon the conditions and bait size. Make the weak link about 5ft long with a loop at the end.
Now the next part, which should all be set up on the bank prior to taking out in the boat. (Don't try and do it in the boat or you'll be 2 miles downstream before you know it.) Anchor a lemonade bottle to a big rock with a length of strong string which is set about 5ft deeper than the rivers depth. Tie a snaplink to the bottle. Drop the rock in where the drop-off for the boat channel is. (Use an echo sounder or plumb it.) You now have a permanent buoy equipped with a snap link. To this you attach your weak link loop. If you have both the loop and the snap link, it is a doddle. If you don't have these it's a right b****d to set up with the current flowing and dragging you downstream. Once the loop is in the snap link, get your partner on the bank to tighten up and put the rod on the tripod. The mainline should all be out of the water with only the hook-length submerged. This helps avoid problems with floating weeds or other debris coming downstream. (See diagrams)
Change the bait regularly and ensure that it keeps kicking or you are wasting your time. It's hard work but worthwhile. If you examine this rig you might think that the float is not needed, but it is. The float tells if a fish has broken the weak link. If it has, then strike. If it hasn't, don't! A screaming run don't mean that the cat has taken the bait. It might have grabbed it, swam a couple of foot and spat it out. The weak link doesn't break that easy, the slack in the rock's mooring string ensures that.
These 'non link-breaking runs' can happen a lot, especially with big baits and/or smaller cats. Even a lively 2lb baitfish can give you a screaming run if it gets scared by a big cat coming up to sniff at it. These are examples of false takes. If you strike at these takes you will break the weak link and the whole thing will need to be re-set. Not a good idea at 3 am in the rain. When you get a take and the weak link breaks wait! Don't strike too soon, as this is the major reason for most people to not hook the fish. Give it time, count to 5 whilst feeling the line running out, then hit it with everything you have - catfish do not hook themselves too often and, despite the similarities, this is not a bolt rig. You must strike the hooks home.
Setting the bottle rig will find the first use for a boat and in this case a small rubber inflatable will often be quite sufficient, as long as the flow is not too strong. I started off using a £12 job from Toy'sR'Us but these are not to be recommended. Now I have upgraded to a Sevyor Carphunter from Relum which coupled with a small electric motor is a lovely little tool that packs up into a rucksack. You'll need something like this to set your baits out and to periodically renew them. The worse the boat, the less likely you are to want to renew the baits, so get a good one from the start and take the hard graft out of it. Trying to paddle a kids toy out into a fast flowing current will exhaust you. Exhaustion means that you are not at your fishing best. Even better is a real boat, ask your local guide nicely!
The bottle rig is good. But not that good. It relies upon a fish finding you, which is it's drawback. Better methods are lure fishing and dead-bait wobbling. These are also best done from a boat, but this time a little inflatable is not good enough. Now you need a real boat because a six or seven foot catfish needs the kind of muscle that cannot be exerted from a little inflatable. You'll need the extra leverage that a solid floor can provide. The final method is drifting a bait. This is probably the most productive method when continental river-cat fishing and, like lurefishing, allows you to cover huge areas of water looking for the fish, instead of waiting for a fish to come to you. Try a livebait set at 4 ft deep drifted down the centre channel in the boat - even if the river is 40ft deep the cats will come up for it. Set one rod with the bait fished close to the boat, under the rod tip even, and use a clonk. They work. The CCG can supply one if you are a member. If you are not a member then you should join.
I don't bother with a landing net - rubber gloves are better. The bottom jaw of a catfish has a perfect hand-hold, your fingers go in the mouth and the thumb(s) goes under the jaw. Many river guides use landing nets but without the handle, holding each net-arm to scoop around the fish once it is played out. If you are going to try gloving the cats, be careful, watch out for those hooks. If you are in the process of gloving a very big cat and it decides to take off just as you snag your hand on a loose treble, you could die. Think about it!
One last thing - Practice your knots and test them on a bench with a spring balance. I'm serious, I've lost more cats down to the knot going than for any other reason, especially with braids - and my knot skills are better than most - Despite what some of my 'friends' say!