December 17, 2015
By Anietra Hamper
Fishing for the monstrous European wels catfish comes with a warning from my guide:
"You sit here for hours waiting, then that 10-seconds comes. The best fish is the first one because you don't know what to expect and most people don't expect anything that big to come out of the river," said Niall Hulme, Catmaster Tours Guide.
I am in a tiny village called Mequinenza in northern Spain where the Ebro River and its tributaries flow. When that first-fish moment happens, time seems to accelerate and stall at once.
At 8 p.m. on the first night of my weeklong stay, the alarm on one of my two rods sets-off frantically. I catapult out of my sunken river chair and dive for my rod where the 150-pound test line is ripping out like a dragster revving its engine.
I have to grab the rod with excessive force because the hook easily ricochets off of the wels' immensely thick and boney jaw.
The rod tip barely moves from the solid resistance. I wrestle to stay back from the edge of the water as my arms quiver, heart races and sweat rolls down my cheek.
My pals on the riverbank cheer me on in their British and Scottish accents during the 20-minute fight of raw adrenaline.
Then, like a sudden left-hook in the boxing ring, the fish lets-up and I recoil from the tension. I drop to the ground as if I am on the receiving end of a snapped rubber band.
This demonstrates the immense force created by the wels' torpedo-shaped body and its powerful tail.
As the fish gets into more shallow water, its broad and bowed head breaks the surface. It looks like the hood of a car and its tiny eyes seem disproportionate to its size.
The fish gracefully churns in the water before we take it out for some measurements and photos.
I sit on the bank attempting to lift the front end of my 150-pound, 7.5-foot catch that eclipses most of my body. As I peek around its head for a photo, I hear my own voice echoing in its megaphone mouth.
I never imagined a catfish this big, and to think — they grow much larger.
The Ultimate Catfish
To say that the wels catfish is a conversation-stopper is an understatement. This gargantuan catfish can grow to over 800-pounds and it can swallow prey whole with its barrel of a mouth that opens directly to a potbelly stomach. It has a massive girth and tail and can grow to sizes we do not see in the U.S.
My host, Catmaster Tours has raised the bar for catfish anglers on the Ebro River for 25-years. The stories about the wels dragging anglers into the water are real.
It happened to Catmaster Tours Owner, Colin Bunn several years ago. He tells me not to underestimate the wels' strength as he preps me for my weeklong visit.
"The wels catfish are so long, with such a powerful tail and such a powerful fight. We've had them up to 8'7' and every year they're getting bigger and bigger and bigger," said Colin.
Wels catfish are not native to the Ebro River, but the catch-and-release policy has enabled them to grow and breed since they were introduced here in the 1970s.
This region has established an entire economy around anglers who come here for the chance at catching the ultimate catfish.
Why come to Spain when there are so many monster cats to catch in the U.S.? Simple, the wels catfish is one of the largest fish in the world, and it can only be found in Europe.
The Po River in Italy and the Danube River in Hungary also harbor mammoth wels catfish, but the Ebro is ideal because of the high concentration of wels that live in these riverbeds.
This gives anglers the best chance to lure the serpent-like creatures from the deep where their massive bodies sit on the bottom waiting for food.
Along the Riverbank
Catching this catfish is not an easy endeavor. It takes time€¦a LOT of time. I sit on the riverbank with two British anglers, two Scottish anglers and two guides for 14-to-17 hours a day for the week.
I rarely see my apartment except to catch a few hours of sleep each night and shower off the quarter-inch thick slime from my clothes and body after handling the wels.
The riverbank set-up reflects the many hours that we spend here: a collection of coolers filled with beer, chocolate, orange Fanta and meat for the occasional cookout; previously fish-slimed clothing draped in the trees; bivvys where the guides sleep at night to hold our fishing spots and the camo-green chairs where we congregate to share fishing stories and comradery while waiting for the bite alarms to sound.
This works out to a 90-hour investment in six days just for a chance at the catch of a lifetime.
How Do You Catch the Wels Catfish?
Live bait and cut bait are illegal in Mequinenza, so we use a stack of three-to-four 22-millimeter halibut pellets on each line.
It appears to be small bait for such large fish, but the pellets are high in protein and the wels catfish are conditioned to eat them. Fishing lines are set two at a time.
We do not cast, but instead my guide uses a rowboat to drop the line with the bait into the deepest beds of the river.
There are one-pound and two-pound weights on the line to keep the bait securely on the bottom. We attach bite alarms, and then it is a waiting game.
The Bites Keep Coming
The wels catfish season runs from March through November. Anglers have more bites earlier in the year, but the fish are smaller (50-80-pounds).
September through November, the fish bite less frequently, but it is when anglers catch the 100 and 200-plus pound giant catfish that roam these waters.
The occasional albino is what every angler hopes to see appear from the water.
"It's a really good fight. It seems like it's over in a flash but in reality you're fighting the fish 10-to-20 minutes and its a big massive tug of war," said Catmasters Owner, Colin Bunn.
"The harder you pull, the harder they pull and you have to fight them hard because there are so many underwater snags."
My fishing mates and I caught nine wels during the week ranging in size from 96-pounds to 203-pounds.
I was elated to catch four of them. I even caught a baby weighing in at 25-pounds.
"This experience turns grown men into little kids again. I've seen grown men cry — they've never caught something this big," said Niall.
The sheer size of the wels catfish is overwhelming and catching one for an angler is like reaching the peak of Mt.Everest for a climber. I think of my grandpa Helman who taught me to fish on a cane pole as a little girl.
He would be so excited for me in this moment. All anglers have nostalgic memories of that person who taught them to fish.
Those memories run deep and catching a wels is the kind of ultimate experience that bubbles all of them to the surface.
If you are interested in setting out on the ultimate catfishing experience in Spain, Catmaster Tours is all-inclusive. Apartment lodging, licenses, tackle and a guide for the week starts at $545 depending on the time of year.
The only additional costs are your bait for the week (approximately $100) and your food. I recommend Iberia Airlines, which has comfortable seating and impeccable customer service with convenient itineraries.
A round-trip coach ticket on Iberia from Chicago to Barcelona is approximately $1299. It is an easy 9-hour flight from Chicago.
The Tourist Office of Spain in Chicago is an invaluable resource that I used for planning my trip.