Fishing magazine articles...
by James Peacock
Catfishing in Asia - by James Peacock (2009)
The Giant Mekong Catfish (Pangasianodon gigas)
Over the past twelve years I have been fishing for various species of catfish from around the world. There has been one catfish from Asia that I had never caught before and I was very keen to learn more about this extremely unique species. This fish has had many globetrotting anglers from all over the world talking about it, most of the fishermen I have met claim that this is the hardest fighting freshwater fish on the planet. This fish comes from the Pangasiidae family which means it is a member of the Shark Catfish family, it also shows one of the fastest growth rates of any fish in the world, reaching between 150 kg (330lb) to 200 kg (440lb) in just 6 years. It has been cited in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest freshwater fish and can grow to an incredible 3 metres. Well after hearing and reading all those long and hard battles between the anglers and the fish I was definitely up for the challenge of trying to land one of these tough monsters.
After much research I had found out that to get a bite from the Mekong Catfish the most important thing was the choice of venue. Although choosing the venue is very important with all species it is more so with the Mekong Catfish because of its natural diet. In the wild the fish feeds on various vegetation like algae, plants and weeds, although when they are stocked into lakes in high numbers their diet will have to change and it will feed on other food sources. To locate the fish in it's natural habitat it would be very difficult because it is a migratory species that is found mainly in medium to large sized rivers, with very little known about its general, pattern of life and its migratory journeys for spawning. This fish is sadly becoming endangered with many local fishermen netting rivers for food and money, which in turn is stopping the adults reaching their spawning grounds. With man planning to build dams across the rivers in Asia it could be another obstacle which the diminishing Mekong Catfish does not need.
There is one particular fishing venue that keeps appearing on the internet when searching to fish for the Mekong Catfish. I have also spoken to many friends who have visited this lake and it is quite famous world wide, it is called Bung Sam Lan. I have fished many lakes and rivers in different countries but I was very surprised on arrival when I found out where some of the anglers had come from to fish Bung Sam Lan. There were anglers from America, Australia, England, France, Germany and Japan that I had met. There were also ex pats and naturally Thai anglers.
I had also researched the best time of year to fish and luckily for me it was February which had been named in Thailand as big fish month, although here the Mekong Catfish can be caught all year round. I have read that the Mekong Catfish in this lake have been caught to 110 kg (220lb) with the average fish being 14 kg (30lb). Luckily the Mekong Catfish is the most predominant species in Bung Sam Lan and it has been stated that it is probably the most prolific freshwater fishing in Asia. This lake is 20 acres in size with an average depth from 3 metres to just over 7.5 metres. Unlike any lake that I have fished before there are bungalows, huts and bridges built on top of the water. They are suspended above the water on wooden posts that have various struts and supports to keep the buildings stable. Not the best thing for a fishery to have when you are trying to catch a large hard fighting catfish but again it does add to the challenge. I hired the fishing tackle and was supplied with a very powerful one piece spinning rod and a shimano 6500 bait runner reel. This was loaded with a soft 50 lb mono line and the rig was a method feeder suspended under a float. This float is very buoyant and is fished slider style with a stop knot at 3 metres. A very strong thick hook is used with a micro barb and is tied to a braided hook link of around 85lb, it is pasted through the eye of the hook to help set the hook and the hook length can very from 50mm to 250mm. Then the method feeder is put on to another length of braid and has a bead either side of it, then it is fixed between 2 swivels, I do not understand why they do not use one swivel and some power gum but all of the guides fish with the same rigs and bait.
The Method Feeder Rig
The Method Feeder loaded with Rice Flour Groundbait
As for ground bait rice flour is put into a big bowl, then they have a separate bucket of water and some strawberry flavouring is added to the water and then stirred, which is a very good way to add the flavouring. Then the flavoured water is slowly added to the rice flour, I thought is smelt like a sweet bubblegum and you could smell the sweet scent even when some ground bait was being mixed up a couple of huts away. A big round ball is then carefully squeezed on to the method feeder and then the hook is pushed into the ground bait. Finally it is ready to be cast out. The guides say to start about casting medium range to start with between 35 to 45 metres, this requires a bit of a technique as it has to be swung back to the side of the stage and cast upwards with a short rod and the heavy mono line. It does not take long for me to get the cast right and then the rod is placed down on the stage with the bait runner on. It is just past 8 o'clock in the morning and although it is cloudy it is very humid.
We have a kettle supplied so I make a cup of coffee. I sit on a chair and watch the water, it is dead still with no wind but the float is constantly moving around, sometimes going under for up to 5 seconds at a time with the fish hitting and biting the ground bait from the method feeder. I look at the guide and he says to wait. Suddenly the bait runner starts spinning and line is pouring off the reel, I pick up the rod and then reel into the fish after striking hard, the fish feels big and the line is getting pulled off the clutch. I am standing there holding this short rod, and line is just getting ripped off the reel as the fish runs about forty metres and starts to turn to the right, after a while I turn it and it starts to turn back to the left. This happens a few more times with each time I manage to retrieve some line, I cannot believe the strength of this fish and after twenty minutes the fish is right in front of me. Sweat is running down my face and dripping off me. Then the Mekong decides it is time to go crazy, it tries to go under the left corner of the stage, I give it some side strain and manage to turn it, then it goes off on a twenty metre run straight away from me, all I can do is stand there and let it take line. It kites again around to the right and gradually I pull it back in, then it runs to the right there is a gap about four metres wide between my stage and another stage. The fish is now in a gap, I get it up on to the top of the water, it is facing the bridge between to two stages, if it swims two metres straight forward or to the left or right it will either be underneath the bridge or one of the stages. It turns left away from me, I bully it and make it turn back and it kites around to the left swimming back into open water. It makes another run and swims off again for another ten metres, then it comes back up to the top of the water. It then swims straight towards me trying to get under the stage again, I pull on the rod hard lifting the fish up on to the surface, the fish then gives up and lays there and the guide nets the fish for me. We lift the net with the fish up on to the stage and unhook the fish, it is estimated at 20kg (44lb). I am very happy but drained by the fight. I lifted the fish up for some quick photos and afterwards gently lowered it back into the water, it waved its large tail powering off straight away and splashing water all over me.
I cannot believe that after about forty minutes of fishing I have landed a very nice Mekong Catfish, I also cannot take in how powerful these fish are. I kept on fishing and caught a few more fish about the same size, they all fought as hard as the first one. As mid day approached more anglers turned up and the fish moved away a bit more towards the middle, so then I have to try to cast out further. This is a balancing act because if you cast out too hard the ground bait will explode on the cast.
1st fish - 44lb Mekong Catfish
My float went under again but no line got pulled off the reel. I looked at the line and it was a little slacker than it was before, instinct took over I picked the rod up and reeled in very quickly until I felt a weight on the end then striking hard I was into another fish, this one had swam towards me. It felt a good fish, well they all did. This fish turned and went away from me slowly starting to take line and then it kept going and going. There was no stopping this fish, its first run must have been 70 metres, then it just stayed in the middle of the lake moving across from left to right then back again. I heard one of the guides say "Big fish". It then started swimming to the left and it must have had over 130 metres of line out, the spool on the reel was under quarter full. The fish was not taking line now but was kiting to the left and the anglers fishing from the platform to my left had reeled in for me. Although the fish was a long way further, beyond some more huts and houses that were all on stilts sticking above the water, I was doing all that I could leaning out with this little rod trying to give some side strain to turn the fish. I was getting nowhere but could not do anything else. More line started to pull off the reel and the fish started to move away from the house towards open water, I could not believe it. Eventually it was straight out in front of me again, but still further out than where I had hooked it from. The fish came up to the surface and a big tail waved out of the water, my guide said "Big fish", then it moved away from me towards the other side of the lake. The guide got a cup and started to pour water all over the reel, the mono line, and the eyes on the rod. This fish was now staying straight in front of me but kept taking line, only now each run was about 40 metres and slower than before. It wallowed up and down in the middle of the lake for a while, then it decided to make a run away from me but to the right. More people were saying "Big fish, big fish". It was taking more and more line to the right, more water was poured over the rod and reel, the fish moved towards the huts to the right, I lent over and gave some left side strain. The fish just stopped by a hut. I kept the pressure on but nothing happened for a while, then it slowly started to come back towards me. I was thinking 'how am I going to stop it from going under my fishing stage when it gets close?' It kept coming from the right towards me, I kept pulling it gently towards me getting the line back on the reel quickly and keeping the pressure on the fish. Was I finally in control? I was unsure. Its tail came up to the surface again and the fish was doing nothing, so I kept pulling it, showing him I was in control. Then it was on the top in front of my platform and I was holding it on the surface with the rod. The guide got the head of the fish in the net, the net was full so I lowered the rod and grabbed the massive tail, we had it. A guide from the next hut appeared with some scales and the massive Mekong was weighed, it was 47kg (103lb) wow, what a creature and what a fight?
1st big one - 103lb Mekong Catfish
This fish had taken about 55 minutes to land, please remember that I fought this fish hard and always kept it under a lot of pressure. We lowered the fish back into the water for a few minutes and one guide got my camera, then we got ready and quickly got the fish back out and took some photos, after we returned the fish carefully. I held onto the tail for a while and the fish was swimming slowly but I held it there for another minute and watched it and felt its power, I then let go as it gracefully swam out of sight. What a fish! My right leg was now swollen and sore where the rod was held against it during the fights, I put on the fishing belt that was supplied and wore it all of the time from then on. I was lucky enough to land plenty more Mekong Catfish and at 18:00 we stopped fishing and returned to the hotel for the night. While I got ready to have a shower I looked at the top of my right leg which was still swollen, now it had turned black. I thought tomorrow I will wear the belt. I had been fishing with two rods, the other rod was fished with the method feeder on the bottom with no float, and the only difference was that two small polyballs were put on the hook to counter balance the weight of the hook. This rod produced many Striped Catfish (Pangasium hypophthalmus) which are quite similar to the Mekongs.
A 24lb Striped Catfish
Striped Catfish are a grey to silver colour with a glowing iridescent stripe along the lateral line where the Mekongs are grey to white. I was having a great time and decided to change the method feeder on the bottom to a legered live bait. This was done because there is another type of catfish in Bung Sam Lan, it is called a Chao Phraya Catfish (Pangasius sanitwongsei). This is also a member of the Shark Catfish family it is a very beautiful catfish with black drooping elongated fins. This fish is a must for all catfish fans especially when it is a predator, they can grow to 3 metres long and weigh 300kg (660lb), but in Bung Sam Lan they are an average of 10 to 15kg (22 to 33lb) with the biggest going to 25kg (55lb). It was good to be fishing with a live bait, I was using a simple free running leger with a 30lb mono hook link and the live bait was a Tilapia. The guides prefer not to use polyballs to keep the fish working, which is something that most English anglers would not dream of doing as we believe it will tangle. I have used rigs like this before in Germany and also on some rivers, they do sometimes tangle in certain situations but I did not have any tangles in Thailand. I cast the rod out about 20 metres and put it down with the bait runner on. The fishing was good and just after I released another Mekong Catfish the line just ripped off the reel. I picked the rod up quickly turning the handle on the reel until I felt the fish and then struck hard to set the hook, the rod bent right over and more line quickly came off the reel. This is a very fast moving fish, it kept making short but very fast runs, many of them turning time and time again. After 25 minutes I got the fish up to the top and we netted it. We then lifted the fish out, what a beautiful fish, it was estimated at 18kg (39lb) and after a couple of quick photos it was released. Another new species for me, I was well pleased.
Both rods were recast and in a matter of minutes the float went under and the line went slack, I reeled in fast until I felt the fish and struck hard. It felt like another good fish, it slowly turned away from me and swam away slowly taking line, the fight was very long and hard, similar to the 103lb Mekong. After about 50 minutes we netted it, then it was weighed at 42.75kg (94lb). This fish looked like a big old warrior, some photos were taken and then the fish was released.
A big old warrior Mekong that weighed in at 94lb
My live bait rod kicked into life, the bait runner screamed, I jumped up and struck the rod again hard. All was good as the fish raced away from me, this fish was very fast, thumping away turning from left to right taking line quickly. Although the runs were short compared to the Mekong's, the fish kept turning again and racing away from me. I could not believe the acceleration of these Chao Phraya Catfish, these lightning bursts of speed lasted for another 25 minutes before netting the catfish. We lifted the net and fish onto the platform to see another beautiful Chao, this one was a little bigger than the other fish, it was estimated at 20 kg (44lb), again some photos were taken and the fish returned.
A 44lb Chao Phraya Catfish also known as a Giant Pangasius
My final day was already here, I was keen to go all out for the Mekong's so both rods were set up to fish for them. It was not long before I got a bite, the float went under but no line moved, I reeled in until I could feel the fish and struck again, the rod bent right over and line was quickly leaving the spool, I played it cool as it took about 70 metres of line on its first run. Again this fish stayed right out in the middle of the lake, big Mekong's just swim where they like and all you can try to do is keep them in open water and stop them kiting. For some reason this Mekong did not go towards any huts or stages, it just kept swimming away from me to the left and then to the right. It was still early and there was not anyone else fishing near me so it was less to worry about. This fight must have lasted over an hour with the guide constantly pouring water from a cup over the mono line, the reel and the eyes of the rod, eventually the fish came in and again the head filled up the net and I grabbed the tail. We weighed the fish with the scales, they read 47 kg (103lb) again, then we put the fish back in the water for a few minutes to recover before we got it back out for some photos. This fish looked very young and healthy, a perfect example of a Mekong, I just could not believe how lucky I was to have caught three very big Mekong's.
Last day on Bung Sam Lan and 1st fish of the day, a 103lb Giant Mekong
I watched an old wooden canoe rowing across the lake, there were two men in the boat with some black sacks that looked full. As they rowed across the lake the man at the front emptied the sack into the water. He was feeding the fish with bread which stayed on top the water, the man in the back carried on rowing, pulling the oar through the bread to sink it and spread it out. I watched the Mekong's feeding for a while on the surface, then my float went under and the bait runner started to spin, I reeled in then struck into a fish. This felt massive, it was swimming away from me fast, it kept going and going, it then was over three quarters of the way across the lake heading towards some anglers and a bridge. I had to tighten up more and more, the anglers had reeled in but it was getting closer to the bridge and I tightened up on the reel some more. There was a lot of line out and I knew there would be a lot of stretch so I tightened up some more, a big tail came out the water and the fish was on the top. My guide laughed at me and said that it was hooked in the tail. I kept the fish on the top and slowly pulled it all the way back, I got the last laugh as the guide got a good soaking as he tried to net the fish, it was estimated at 30 kg (66lb), I really did think I had an absolute monster.
If any of you would like to fish in Asia for the Giant Mekong Catfish or any other species I can recommend Jean-Francois Helias:
IGFA Lifetime Achievement Award
IGFA Representative - Thailand
172 IGFA World Records
Fishing Adventures Thailand
Inter. call: +66 8 1 846 98 94
Local call: 08 1 846 98 94
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