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Catching the elusive River Monster in SW France

Catching the elusive River Monster in SW France

If you fancy catching a river monster, Ron Cousins explains where to go and what you will need...

Shortly after my next door neighbour rang the doorbell and asked if I had a large landing net, I began to have second thoughts about paddling in the River Charente as it flows by my quayside home. A family were fishing and now the husband was battling with a large fish so powerful that, with rod bent double, he had been forced to follow it 100m along the quay until he played it to the bank. He had hooked a catfish so long that even with the biggest landing net, only part of the fish would fit into the meshes and a combined husband and wife effort was needed to finally drag it onto dry land. The 1.5m long fish weighed over 19kg and had a mouth big enough to take a dinner plate, but as Siluris Glanis, the Wels Catfish or silure in French goes, this was a small one.


A flat elongated mottled grey body, slimy skin with no scales, big flat head, tiny eyes and huge mouth with six barbules giving the whiskers effect, all combine to make this a real river monster. Adding to a fearsome reputation is its predatory scavenger lifestyle eating worms, fish, frogs, water fowl, small mammals and just about anything that will fit into that cavernous mouth. Just what a catfish will do for a good meal can be seen on the River Tarn near Albi where large numbers of pigeons gather on a small gravel island and the fish cruise the perimeter and lunge out to grab birds from the water’s edge.

A native of Eastern Europe, the Wels catfish was introduced into France in the 1970s and, with a lifespan of 30 years or more and able to grow at 6kg a year in ideal conditions, is now found throughout the country’s rivers and lakes. The River Rhone downstream of Arles in Southern France is home to the biggest with fish over 90kg caught there, while anglers catch catfish weighing 50kg or more from the Seine in the heart of Paris.
The biggest river Charente catfish come from the tidal water downstream of Saintes and can weigh 40kg or more. The Vienne, Dordogne and Isle also turn up fish this size.

Apart from the size and weight of their catch, seasoned catfish anglers prize two variations of the Wels that show up occasionally. The Mandarin has an orange or yellow belly and little mottling and the even rarer, and to me a rather frightening sounding, Albino has a pink to white body and red eyes.


So how do you go about catching a catfish? Although they are spread throughout the waterways they are particularly partial to shallow, warm water where the river bed is either sand or mud. Water with lots of weed growth is a likely spot as are boat moorings where food scraps are thrown into the water and backwaters where water fowl congregate. When frogs are singing their early summer mating songs on the lily pads, catfish will be underneath waiting to add grenouille to their menu.

An alternative to finding where they are by trial and error is to use the services of a river guide who will know exactly where and when to fish or go out on a boat equipped to find the catfish in water that can’t be reached by the bank angler. Jerome Lacorte does this on the Dordogne and Isle and has three echo sounders on board so that it is possible to watch the reaction of the fish once they have been located and a bait dropped amongst them.

Wherever you fish, the tackle has to be up to the job of controlling what could be 50kg of muscle and powerful tail intent on accelerating downstream with the flow or hugging the river bed and challenging the angler holding the rod to stop it. A powerful carp rod with a 1.5kg test curve is up to the job but if there are snags in the water, a purpose built catfish rod with a test curve of 2 to 2.5kg is required.

The reel is going to be subjected to a big load and a large bait runner type, fixed spool reel is needed otherwise the gears will fail on smaller, cheaper models. When really big fish are expected some prefer to use a multiplier sea reel, which helps when playing fish for a long time. Whatever is used should be loaded with specialist abrasion resistant nylon line of at least 15kg breaking strain or the finer braided line of at least 20kg breaking strain.

Run of the mill hooks will straighten out under the pressure applied when playing a big catfish, so high strength models like the Owner or Eagle Wave in sizes 4 to 10/0 are used in conjunction with 50kg Dyneema or Kryston Quicksilver braided hook links to stop the fish biting its way to freedom.  

The choice of baits is a wide one. A bunch of worms, a ball of dough, a dead fish or a lump of liver all work well or you can buy large halibut or tuna pellets from the tackle shop.

Finally, the landing net. The largest triangular carp net with the frame arms at least 1.25 metres will be needed because the fish that has to go in there could be over 2 metres long. A strong reinforced carbon fibre handle will be up to the job of lifting the fish out but it must be long enough to easily reach the fish from the bank. Having looked a catfish in the mouth I certainly wouldn’t want to have to step into the water. Would you?



River Guide Clement Bauret: 

Boat Fishing River Guide Jerome Lacorte:

All you could want to know about catfish: 

Advice on catfish tackle and baits: 

Suppliers of specialist catfish tackle and baits:  


© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. First published in October 2014