French River Monsters

The large rivers of France, particularly for UK anglers, are synonymous with two species of fish – carp and the European wels catfish. Both species grow to huge sizes with carp exceeding 70lbs, and catfish reaching almost 3 metres in length and weights of nearly 300lbs!

Having moved to France in 2019, these fish offered me the best chance of catching a truly large fish from freshwater. However, with virtually no prior experience of fishing for either species it was hard to know where to begin.

A few carp had graced my net over the years, but always by chance rather than design, and honestly speaking it has never been a branch of the sport that has particularly interested me. However, as a keen pike fisherman – the pike being the apex freshwater predator on the UK rivers where I grew up – I was intrigued by the prospect of tracking down a wels catfish using scaled-up pike tactics. I say ‘intrigued’ rather than ‘enthusiastic’ for a number of reasons …

The European wels catfish – the apex predator in French rivers

Known in French as silure, the wels catfish was introduced to Western Europe in the mid 1970s and has since spread widely. The species has developed a reputation as a fearsome predator of gargantuan proportions and is much maligned for further reducing the already dwindling stocks of native fish. Moreover, although beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, most folk would say (and I would agree) they are not the most attractive species. Finally, most of what I read advised that one should not fish alone for catfish as, due to their size and strength, landing one alone could be difficult, if not downright dangerous. For all these reasons, I was not desperate to track down one of these big, ugly, dangerous beasts, preferring to spend my first season in France exploring my local lakes for pike and perch. However, in the back of my mind, I could not help thinking what it would be like to hook one of these river monsters, at least once …

Mindful of the advice not to fish alone for the silure, it was not until my friend Andy visited from the UK during the summer of 2020 that I decided to give it a go. We planned to have a evening’s fishing on the river Garonne where chub, roach, bream and carp can be caught. I had also previously been told of a known catfish hole under a road bridge, so at the last minute I had thrown my pike rod in the car for good measure. Whilst we fished for the coarse fish using maggots, worms and sweetcorn, I also put out my pike rod in search of a wels with half a roach for bait.

We chatted away and enjoyed a few beers in the evening sun. A few small coarse fish were caught, but nothing of note. I had almost forgotten about my pike rod propped up on a broken stick to my right when about 9pm I heard a couple of clicks on the reel indicating that something had picked up my bait. Turning around I saw the rod lurched forwards as the reel squealed as line was pulled from it. I immediately grabbed the rod and pulled back, but remarkably there was nothing there. Certainly though something big and whiskered was lurking under that road bridge. This had piqued my interest further, so I returned a couple of evenings later, this time, alone …

Tactics remained the same – my trusty 11ft pike rod, a reel filled with 30lb braid through to a strong swivel, a leader of 40lb fluorocarbon and a size 1 hook. Half a roach was mounted on the hook and the tasty morsel lobbed out into the deep eddie under the bridge. Nothing happened again until the light began to fade around 9pm. Out of nowhere the stillness of the summer evening was interrupted by the screaming reel and sounding bite alarm. This time I struck into solid resistance and the rod bent double. The fight was violent, like nothing I had experienced before. My previous biggest fish was a pike of around 15lb, which, whilst heavy, was easily landed . The two salmon I’ve caught before, both around the 10lb mark, gave much more explosive fights in powerful river currents, but with those fish, once I knew they were securely hooked, I never doubted I would get them in the net. This catfish however was something else. It stripped line from my reel at will and its sheer power made the rod and reel creak under the strain.

The night had quickly drawn in and I was now battling the beast in the pitch black. It was still warm and I was beginning to sweat under the strain of the fight. Finally after 20 minutes or so the fish began to tire and I drew it closer to the bank, but how to land the thing? I had read that the best way to land them was to grab them by the lower jaw, but to be honest I didn’t fancy doing this in the dark on my own. Instead, I managed to get the fish into a shallow sandy bay slightly downstream where I could unhook it in the water and take stock of its size. The single hook was easily removed from the roof of its mouth and the fish was laid against my rod for a quick measurement before I released it back into the depths of the river Garonne. At 1.55m in length I estimated it to weigh 40lbs at least – a pretty impressive first capture and certainly a memorable adventure.

A brutal fight draws to a close

I returned several more times that summer and caught three more silure – one of circa 25lb was caught on a large soft plastic lure, and a couple more which I estimated at 15lb and 30lb respectively were caught on chub live baits. I particularly enjoyed the live bait sessions spending an hour or so wading the shallows catching small chub on bushy dry flies, which were then kept in a bucket for use as bait for the catfish as night fell.

Bushy dry flies for catching livebaits
A fly caught chub – perfect catfish livebait

So an interesting summer catching these powerful and impressive fish, at least twice as big as anything I had ever caught before. It was fun catching them on a variety of methods too (I even invented an interesting approach to presenting those chub livebaits that I will share on here sometime). That was now two years ago and I have not really had the urge to go back, I would still much prefer to catch a 10 inch trout on a mountain stream or a beautiful pike or perch, but maybe I will give it another go one day and try to break the 50lb barrier or maybe even get one on my fly rod, now that would be a challenge!

A lure-caught 25lb silure
Safely releasing a 30lb wels caught on a livebait

One thought on “French River Monsters

  1. Gaines April 30, 2023 / 10:31 am

    Great stuff! And good times! X

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