Who am I?

An individual, of no great importance, who is unable to see the natural world as a place for competition. I catch fish, watch birds, derive immense pleasure from simply looking at butterflies, moths, bumble-bees, etc - without the need for rules! I am Dylan and this is my blog - if my opinions offend? Don't bother logging on again - simple!


Tuesday 12 March 2013

Catfish capers

With snow falling, I am sat indoors awaiting the start of yet another shift at FSIS. I've once again delved into the archives and discovered some photos that I had used for a talk that I gave at the National Angling Conference - way back in the 1980's at Loughborough College - Junction 23 on the M1.  The subject of this illustrated lecture (slide show) was the catfish (Wels Catfish) of the Leighton Buzzard and District AC waters at Claydon and Tiddenfoot and how me, and my gang of merry men, went about catching them. This was a period just before Kevin Maddocks and Bob Baldock elevated the status of this species out of the "localised"  and into the "global" awareness of UK anglers.

My PB Catfish - 25lbs 2oz - taken from the Middle Lake at Claydon - one of the original stock fish from Woburn!
By today's standards, these fish are small fry - Wels Catfish of 100lbs+ can be captured within the UK, a trip to Spain's River Ebro can produce a fish of twice this size! My youngest brother, Simon, has gone there and taken some fantastic fish, but that is not what this post is about. Back in the early 1980's, the only realistic chance that an English angler had, of capturing a Wels was to visit the Shoulder of Mutton Lake at Woburn, or join the Leighton Buzzard & District AC who contolled four waters that held these enigmatic fish - Claydon, Tiddenfoot, Rackley Hills and Jone's Pit. Living in Hemel Hempstead meant that I was right on the doorstep of the action! Cuddles, The Mitchalek Brothers, Simon and myself set about doing battle with these fish, armed with a great deal of enthusiasm, but very little skill. We caused utter chaos; Cuddles and the Mitch's capable of downing a good few cans of Tennants Super during a day! I could manage about half their total - so just a light weight! We brought more than a little anarchy into the genteel world of angling; we could certainly match any of the "carp boys" when it came to bank side lunacy - we were either loved or hated - but we weren't ignored! The bottom line was that we were catching a lot of fish and many others were wanting to find out how and why!

My set-up at the Shoulder of Mutton lake at Woburn. Very early in the 1980's - it wasn't a very productive venue.
The original stocking of Wels was made at Woburn, home of the Duke of Bedford. When a netting operation was required, members of Leighton Buzzard AC were involved and part of the reward was some catfish to put into their club waters. The Middle Lake at Claydon being the most well known; many of the top specimen hunters of the period took their PB at this venue - the same five or six specimens which topped 25lbs - the heaviest weighing in just over 32lbs. As far as I am aware, these fish were the original stock fish and the origin of the population that rapidly spread around the fisheries of the local area. (All very covert and highly illegal!)

Not a lot of room! A typical Claydon swim consisted of a small gap in the marginal reeds -
allowing the angler to get two baits into position.
Fishing at Claydon was a dawn to dusk activity, the club rules not allowing night fishing since a break in at the Manor House, which overlooked the lake. It didn't mean that there was a total observation of this particular rule - it was stretched on many occasions and resulted in the club printing the start and end times in the membership book. Trouble is that catfish are very much night feeders, and in the shallow muddy water of Claydon trying to catch them during the middle of the day was usually a fools pastime - no wonder we played up so much! Swims at the lake were small gaps in the reeded margin and could be at a premium during the school holidays, such was the popularity of the venue.

Playing a fish at the  Dam end of the Middle Lake, even at its deepest, the water was little
 more than 4 ft.
My youngest brother, Simon, with a nice Claydon fish of around 18lbs
At the time, just before the launch of the Catfish Conservation Group (The Kevin Maddocks Travel Agency and Tour Operation) there was very little written advice on how to set about tackling these enigmatic fish. The 1979 publication "The Big Fish Scene" has a nicely written chapter, by Pete Frost; but, by and large, apart from odd articles in the angling monthlies, it was a matter of getting out there and doing the spade work for yourself. Claydon was a fantastic place to start! If ever a decent fish was hooked the ritual "Claydon Wave" as a 4ft long fish tried to dive in 3ft of water, so the tail showed above the surface, followed by the Claydon "excuse-me" as the angler did his/her best to stop the fish from going through the lines of the adjacent anglers - never a dull moment once the hook had been set. Catfish, like Eels, can swim backwards just as easily as they do going forward and I have witnessed, on many occasions, an angler heave a sigh as the fish enters the landing net only to see it immediately engage reverse and swim back out again!

"Trees" - the most famous cat in Claydon; so named because of the branched feeler.
It was one of the hardest fighting fish in the lake, although we never caught it at
a weight above 15lbs 8oz.
The fishing at Claydon was always fun; the chance of hooking a catfish was realistic, the company was first class and life was good. We realised, however, that if we were to discover more about the species we would have to spread our wings and look for new challenges. Just outside of Leighton Buzzard is Tiddenfoot Pit, an old sand quarry that had flooded and contained catfish along with a healthy stock of carp,tench and roach. It also possessed variations of depth; over 20ft in places, and extensive weed beds; so nothing like the featureless puddle at Claydon. Best of all, however, was the fact that this fishery allowed night fishing - so another dimension to our ongoing quest.
Looking down on Tiddenfoot Pit, the extensive shallows and associated weed beds
clearly visible to the left. The water quickly dropping away just beyond the
edge of the weed growth - providing an obvious feature for us to position our baits.

It was at this venue that we really started to feel like we were learning about the species. The best fish we took, fell to Simon, and weighed just over 23lbs, yet it was the diversity of the features and the influence that weather played in fish location that made the fishery such a great "classroom". Our behaviour hadn't improved, but as fish became less frequent, so Cuddles and The Mitch's spent less time in their pursuit - hence the local off-licence didn't reap the rewards they might have done.

Simon with one, of many cats, that he took from this fishery.

Despite our raucous behaviour and associated lunacy, there was a lot of serious effort put into learning about how best to catch these fish. We developed a live-bait rig specifically for fishing tench, which were abundant, around the shallow margins, and weighed little more than a couple of ounces. We also played around with various fish oils and attractors (colour being of no consequence as catfish feed by taste and feel, not sight, as is obvious from their appearance - long feelers and tiny eyes!). Baits were allowed to go rotten, our thinking being that bacterial action would release enzymes that would render our baits more attractive; this was certainly the case with eel sections.

A selection of flavours, braided hook links, hooks and light weigh monkey climbers.
We did actually put an awful lot of effort/thought into our angling.

And, on the subject of eel sections, I digress for a short tale of our antics. Within the National Association of Specialist Anglers was a network of regional groups, the London region being one of the best run, and forward thinking. They arranged regional conferences and many other activities which put the rest of the regions to shame. We went to many of these shows with the sole objective of causing havoc - usually in the bar area. However, there were many tackle stands and trade stalls where a few freebies could be had, if your face fitted - mine did! David Hall, the publisher of Coarse Fishing Magazine, ensured that our reputation was enhanced by frequent (almost monthly) mentions in the "Snide Rumours and Dirty Lies" column. I also wrote several articles for him. It was at Reading University where we first saw the National Anguilla Club's superb photo display (Eel anglers). One particularly passionate enthusiast brought to earth with a juddering thump when, on inspecting the photos, Simon Mitchalek (all 25 stone of him) was approached by said disciple who asked "what did he think of the display?" to which Mitch's reply was "so, that's what a whole one looks like!" Priceless - the guy went into rant mode which was signal for our hysterical laughter and subsequent torrent of abuse. Happy, crazy days!

One of the early Tiddenfoot "doubles" - a fish that Neville Fickling was to capture
a few years later.

Back to the catfish of Tiddenfoot Pit and those enjoyable night sessions; many of them total blanks. Slowly, however, we began to unravel a few of the mysteries and solve problems of bait presentation and fish location. These fish were much better looking than the anaemic individuals in Claydon, maybe something to do with the water quality/clarity? The Tiddenfoot fish were nicely marked, very dark, individuals which, as with pike, can be recognised by their individual patternation. Sadly, the work that we undertook was fairly quickly surpassed with the advent of fishmeal boilies and the advances in bolt-rig type carp tactics. Whilst we had concentrated on resistance free presentations, the use of fixed (semi-fixed) leads and mass baiting has seen a new generation of catfish anglers who have approached this fantastic fish from a very different perspective. One thing is for sure, once you've stuck a hook in one the conclusion is far from certain - they certainly know how to have a row!
The late Vic Gillings with his PB - from Claydon.
Memories of crazy times, great company, loads of beer and some fantastic fish.
I'm not sure I want to try to relive this period, or just allow it to be in my past?

Thirty years on, I still look back on this period as some of the happiest times of my life. There are a few local waters that contain catfish, can I be bothered?
P.S. - apologies for the poor quality of my accompanying photos, they are copied from some very old slides which have not been particularly well cared for!

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