An Angler's Journey to Thailand: Catching the Mekong Giant Catfish
April 22, 2015
Can you imagine a catfish with such strength that it can reduce even the most testosterone-filled fisherman to a fragile stupor after just one fight?
The Mekong giant catfish is a behemoth. It is the subject of myths and defines unmeasurable strength — a monster that lurks in the brackish waters of the Mekong Delta in Southeast Asia. Few fishermen know how or where to fish for the rare colossal beast, and even fewer can withstand the physical punishment should they dare to try.
I set out on a quest to find the subject of impressive fables told by elder fishermen and tribesmen who live along the Mekong River that stretches 2,700 miles through Myanmar, China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Prepare for a Fight
I arrived at Bungsamran Lake, operated by Fish Thailand, near Bangkok early in the morning. Walking the planks to my bungalow for the day, I see the gargantuan fish churning in the shallow end of the water.
Their enormous great and white girths remind me of the Hindenburg blimp They are slow moving, but graceful and powerful with the kind of confidence that can intimidate even the most seasoned angler. My heartbeat raced with anticipation.
Within 20 minutes, I have my first bite. Like a gun shot at the start of a race, there is simply no time to ponder a game-plan, no build up to a big fight — it is abruptly "game on!"
In an instant, my rod bends nearly in half. Setting the hook feels like snagging a brick wall as the fish pulls me with magnificent force. My dough ball bait is the size of a baseball, so I know the predator taking it is likely the size of me.
The Mekong catfish, with its titanic, solid body, drags me and the rod like a bus driving away as I try to hold on, refusing to succumb to defeat. I stand on the edge of the open, wooden platform and realize the only thing keeping me from being pulled into the water is my fight. When the fish abruptly changes direction, he aggressively jerks my entire body like a dog mauling a chew toy.
I struggle to re-gain my balance over and over again. My adrenaline is off the charts, my muscles shake and I can hardly keep the sweat out of my eyes from the 110 degree Thailand heat.
My guide Alley, who barley speaks English, screams with enthusiasm, "Strong woman, strong woman!" As I reel in the fish, Alley instructs me to steer the giant away from the side of the bungalow before it tangles in the line around the pillars beneath us. "Up left, up left" he shouts.
This moment is like a boxing match where the final outcome is too close to call. Everyone is riled up, the commotion is defining, water is splashing me from the impressive force of the fish rising to surface and the battle of wills was intense.
This struggle lasts for 25 minutes before I finally land the 75-pound fish. I am both exhausted and exhilarated. And, to think this one it just a baby!
Fascination with the Mekong Catfish
There are catfish, and then there are CATFISH! The Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) is intriguing of its breathtaking size and power.
"At 100 pounds, a Mekong catfish will bend a 50 pound class boat and rod to the butt and strip line as if not even hooked," says Eddie Mounce, Managing Director of Fish Thailand. He gave this description referring to fish even at a young age.
If that's what a young Mekong catfish can do, can you imaging multiplying that strength by hundreds of pounds? Eddie even warns anglers on his website that they likely will not last all day fishing at Bungsamran Lake. As I pull in one fish after another at 40 pounds, 55 pounds, 68 pounds, 74 pounds, then 80 pounds, I can see why. The sheer physical and mental stamina required to wrestle this kind of power for hours is extreme.
The Mighty Mekong Catfish
This impressive, primitive looking fish defies what is deemed "typical" for most catfish. For starters, the Mekong catfish does have barbels.
As one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, the growth potential of the Mekong giant catfish is off the charts. Native to Southeast Asia, it lurks in the waters of the Lower Mekong River Basin and has a life span of nearly 60 years.
The biggest one ever caught and measured was in Thailand in 2005. It was 9-feet long and 646 pounds. You can imagine that the record sizes only represent the science we know, but the mysteries of the deep prevent us from truly grasping the potential of this enormous fish, which is estimated to grow much larger.
The rare Mekong giant catfish, a rare species to begin with, is nearly extinct in the wild. This is why fishing for it is illegal in most Southeast Asian countries.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural resources (IUCN), lists the Mekong giant catfish as "critically endangered." They estimate that the wild population decreased 80 percent between 1990 and 2003, resulting in scarce opportunities for people to fish for them, or even see them.
Thailand allows fishing parks like Bungsamran Lake to operate with stock from fish farms. This provides anglers a rare opportunity to legally fish for Mekong catfish.
Fishing for Hours
The shot of adrenaline I got every time I saw my rod bend nearly end to end is akin to an addict's fix.
By noon, I was getting tired; by 2 p.m. my muscles were tearing and shaking; by 4 p.m. my lower back was nearly immobile and wrenched forward; and by 6 p.m. not a fiber in my body could hold out any longer.
I came here to catch just one Mekong catfish. Covered in fish slime and drenched in sweat, I examine the tally in my soaked notebook at the end of the day. Could these numbers be right? The bleeding ink reveals an incredible 25 Giant Mekong catfish, tipping the scales at more than a half ton that I fought with my bare hands.
Barley able to walk on my own after nine solid hours, my biggest surprise was yet to come. After I returned home, I learned that I set a female record at Bungsarmran Lake for the most Mekong catfish caught at these sizes in the 10 years it has been in operation.
My record still stands today.
Watch the Action
Check out the video of me taking a 75-pounder to see just how tiring, exhausting and exhilarating fishing for the Mekong giant can be:
How to Make it Happen for You
Fishing for the Mekong catfish is the ultimate experience for a catfish angler. For many people, this kind of adventure may seem exotic and unreachable, but I share my story to showcase the opportunities for anglers who want to up the ante. Saving up to experience a rare pursuit like this one is worth every penny.
An entire day of fishing at Bungsamran Lake through Fish Thailand costs $236 a day for one angler or $190 each for two anglers. Day rates include a guide, bait, lunch, bungalow and tackle.
The most expensive part of this trip was the trip flight back to Bangkok, Thailand. Once there, the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar makes everything else affordable compared to lodging, food and transportation rates in the U.S. I do recommend staying an extra day to recover. Trust me, you will need it.
The opportunity to fish for such a rare species and the largest, most unique catfish in the world is an adventure that I live over and over in my mind. This is one fish story that does not need any exaggeration.