Wels Catfish are the largest freshwater fish in the UK and probably in all of Europe. Their distinct appearance and large size (100lb plus in the UK) make them a highly desirable fish for sport, specimen and match anglers alike!
Wels catfish (scientific name Sirurus glanis) are a freshwater fish which are native to Central and Eastern Europe and Asia. They are also known as sheatfish, European catfish or simply “catfish”.
They swim in a similar way to eels and can actually swim backwards – which makes them interesting when caught on a line!
Wels catfish are edible, however only the young specimens (less than 15kg) are thought to be palatable. As it grows larger, it becomes fatty and can accumulate toxins from the other species which it consumes.
In some European countries it is farmed for food and is considered a delicacy in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Lithuania. In the UK, the fish is caught as a sport fish and returned to the water.
There have been reported of attacks on people. As recently as 2009, an Austrian fisherman was allegedly attacked whilst fishing near Hungary. The German naturalist Alfred Brehm claimed in the nineteenth century that there was several instances of catfish attacking humans.
Distribution and Habitat
Catfish prefer warmer weather but have been successfully introduced to several countries, including the UK, Spain, Italy and France.
Catfish were introduced to the UK in the 1860s as a source of food, with the Times newspaper proclaiming that it was superior to salmon. This did not really catch on as a delicacy however they proved to grow and reproduce successfully in the colder waters than what they were used to.
Wels catfish can currently be found in the South East and Midlands of the UK.
Wels catfish have been found growing in the Chernobyl exclusion zone and have grown to a very large size, possibly as a result of the radiation but also as a result of no human activity (fishing has been banned in the zone since the nuclear disaster).
Wels catfish are thriving in the Rio Ebra in Spain (which is remarkable considering they were only introduced in the 1970s) and in the River Po in Italy where over 100kg specimens have been caught.
Catfish prefer slow flowing lowland rivers, backwaters and weed covered lakes. Within these, catfish look for tree roots and stony holes in the water for cover. They also use burrows in clay or mud for refuge and cover.
They can even be found in the brackish waters areas the Black and Baltic seas.
Catfish are one of the most easily identifiable fish in the water. They have long, slender bodies with large heads, wide mouths, small eyes and six barbels. Their bodies do not have scales and they are covered in slime.
The body ranges from dark brown, olive green and dark blue to black and even brighter colours like orange and yellow. There are even albino catfish with whiter bodies and red eyes.
Their belly is usually a cream or yellow colour. The base colour is usually blotched with spots to provide the perfect camouflage.
The dorsal fin and pelvic fins tends to be relatively small. The anal fins are the most impressive as they are long (around half of the length the body) and almost look like a skirt.
The fins are a dark red, brown, purple or brown.
The mouth of the catfish contains numerous lines of teeth. The teeth are gripping teeth and tend to cause a rash or graze like mark of they bite your skin.
Catfish have distinct barbels which they use to detect their prey. Two long barbels are on the upper lip and face forwards. Four smaller barbels are on the lower lip and tend to face downwards.
It is thought that catfish can grow over a whopping 300kg and 5 meters (16ft) in length.
The largest European catch was in the River Po in Italy which was 316lb 80z (144kg) and 2.78m long. This is particularly impressive considering it is not native to the area.
Russian trawlers are known to catch even bigger fish, at 600lb and scientific studies suggest over 1000lb may be possible in lakes which trawlers cannot reach.
The British Record Fish Committee stopped accepting claims for record in 2000 due to illegal fish smuggling into the UK from Europe.
Catfish are incredible long-lived and can live for up to (and maybe over) 90 years.
How They Feed
Catfish have a broad diet. Their prey are detected by both smell and vibration. The catfish have a large, well developed type of bone in the back of their head which increases their sensitivity to sound and vibration.
The barbels are also used to detect prey as in front and below the catfish. Although they will actively seek out live prey as predators, they are mainly scavengers and have an incredibly diverse diet.
Once the catfish have caught their prey, their gripping teeth pass the food to the back of their throat where there are two sets of crushing pads.
There are a number of spikes on the edge of their gill rakers which also help to move the prey towards the back of their mouth. Once the prey reaches the crushing pads, it crushed and then swallowed whole.
As with most fish, the catfish’s diet varies with age. The smaller and younger catfish seek out mainly invertebrates and other organisms found in the water. These include insect larvae, tadpoles and worms.
During their first year the catfish will branch out and eat many of the juvenile fish of other species. The adult catfish will eat larger crustaceans, fish, crayfish, leeches, frogs, mice, rats, ducklings, worms and other small birds and mammals.
They have even been known to leap out of the water to feed on pigeons which are on land!
In terms of fish, catfish have been known to eat ruffe, roach, rudd, dace, bream (silver and common), eels and crayfish. In total, there are at least 55 species which catfish have been known to eat.
Catfish can spawn when they reach 3 – 4 years of age, by which time they are approximately 39 – 71cm long.
Reproduction in catfish in determined by the environment. They will start to migrate spring once the temperate reaches 8 – 10 degrees Celsius.
Males and female pair during the migration and will then compete for the best spawning areas in river banks, tree roots (willow and alder are popular) and heavily vegetated lakes.
The spawning can begin once the temperate reaches 18 – 22 degrees Celsius which is usually between the months of May and July. A “nest” is made where the males excavate a depression in which the female can lay her eggs.
Females can lay up to 30,000 eggs per kg of weight and the male will fertilise them. The eggs are approximately 3mm in diameter and are protected by a sticky mucous.
The male will guard the eggs until they hatch (around 2 – 10 days depending on the temperature) and will keep them ventilated by fanning his tail fin.
The larvae (also known as “kittens”) live in the nest until the yolk sac is absorbed. They are approximately 8.5mm once they hatch and grow rapidly, growing up to 30cm within their first year.
The males remain with the juveniles until they are large and strong enough to fend for themselves. Only 10% of the fry are likely to survive.
How To Catch
Catfish are excellent fighting fish due to their combativeness and strength. They often strike the bait extremely aggressively so you need to keep on your toes when this happens so you don’t lose your tackle!
Catfish live in quiet, dark lairs until they are ready to feed.
Look for weed beds, overhanging trees and hollow areas under the bank, lake or riverbed as these are perfect locations.
Although catfish live in these locations, they will actively hunt in the open water so you could cast into the open areas too. They live in rivers, lakes and ponds where, as both scavenger and predator, they will react for a variety of baits.
They will feed during the day but you are likely to have more success at night as this is when they predominantly feed.
In terms of bait, strong smelling bait is definitely the way to go. You could use smelly dead bait such as mackerel, sardines or sprats as these are oily and the catfish are likely to detect the smell easily.
You could try livebait which, although somewhat controversial, would suit the catfish’s ordinary eating habits and they are likely to detect the movement.
If you would like to try livebait then the species in the water you are fishing would work, such as silver fish, perch or gudgeon (two to three on the hook would work well as they would move more).
Worms and leeches are also known as good livebait. Finally, pellets and boilies have been used in recent years and have met with huge success and are probably the preferred method now.
Some anglers have accidently caught catfish using carp tackle as they can be attracted to the same bait. Sadly most of the carp fishing tackle isn’t ideally suited for catfish.
There is a lot of bespoke catfishing tackle on sale and a lot will be determined personal preference. You will need strong tackle commensurate with the size and power of these large fish.
In general, you will need as least a 2.5 – 3.5lb TC rod, 200m of 15lb mainline on a reel as a minimum, abrasion resistant hook links and large strong single hooks larger than a size 2. In addition, a very sensitive bite indicator is recommended and be alert for any large bites!
You can fish off of the bottom using hair rigged pellets for very good results. We like to use halibut pellets soaked in fish oil for maximum smell.
Try to fish over an area of small pellets and you should attract some nice fish. You can also use ledgered livebait such as roach just below the surface using various rigs to good effect.
Whichever method you choose, make the most of your time catching these large, beautiful and fearsome creatures. Once you have caught a large catfish the memory will always stay with you and you will go back time and again.
Catfish have soft skins with no scales so they are delicate creatures and may be injured if not handled correctly. Many anglers are afraid of handling catfish due to their size and strength.
They are probably one of the biggest fish which you will ever catch, but they are surprisingly still when landed and relatively easy to handle. Their teeth will not cut you and they have been described as feeling like sharp Velcro. You can unhook catfish easily most of the time as the hook will embed in the soft cheek.
To pick up the fish, reach under the head and grip the pectoral fin on the other side and bear the weight. If you are taking photos try to keep the fish out of the sun and try to keep them moist with water. As with most fish, try to minimise the time they spend out of the water.
In terms of tackle, you will need a large landing net and some of these are especially designed for catfish. There are also glide nets which assist landing.
These are nylon mats are placed on the bank and will go into the water to minimise stress on your tackle (and the fish) and prevents snagging.
In addition, you will need a good unhooking mat which is at least as large as you are expecting the fish to be. Finally, some good forceps or pliers are a good idea for unhooking, similar as you would use for pike.
If you would like more information on how to fish for catfish, or would like some further information on angling techniques, check out our fishing tips page for more information!