Saturday, 23 June 2012

An Ebro Week

I sit here, in enforced idleness, prepared to suffer the rain down by the riverside, but unable to easily get there due to some severe sciatica that sneaked up on me whilst tench fishing a couple of days ago.   I never fully understood what people meant by "shooting pains", until Wednesday.  I had planned to target some grayling ( I think they are grayling) in a very difficult swim, where I have seen a fair number of delicate rises of late.   But my chances of getting down to the river, and less importantly, getting back to the car, are remote, given the pain of the sciatica.  As remote as my chances of winning the lottery.  Even my wife's dreams, in which the Pope whispers the winning Euromillions numbers to her, have not yet translated into Aston Martins and big riverside houses.

So by popular demand...OK, OK, one person casually asked me...there follows a report of my recent catfishing trip to the Ebro.  May/June, 2012.

I had foregone a trip the previous year, because the company I had contacted told me they only flew from London.   A long way to tote gear from Manchester, so I declined and fished locally instead.   This year I decided I really had to go somewhere spectacular, somewhere for an experience, and the Ebro seemed to be calling me.   I have caught a few small catfish in the UK, including a beautiful jet black specimen, and the species has in turn captured some of my interest.  So I booked with a company called "Angling Direct", recommended by a very, very famous barbel angler, whose name completely escapes me.  Well, I had never heard of him at all until someone told me he was famous. Angling Direct told me they only flew from Gatwick, so, based upon last year's information, this seemed realistic, and so I booked the trip, together with some return train tickets to Gatters.   Packed my bags the day before, managing somehow  to get two rods and reels, some baits, plus other appropriate tackle into the 20 kilogram allowance.

Suffered the long train trip, cursing myself for having packed the full 20 kilos, plus 7 Kilos of hand carry.  Tubed it from Euston to Gatwick, and spent half the night bored to death in Gatwick.    Passed the time teaching a couple of airport first aiders how to juggle.  No objection to my smelly baits by the baggage handlers and so I caught the plane to Barcelona.   Out through customs and scanned the area for the guy in the yellow T-shirt, whom I was told would have my name on a card.  The only yellow T-shirt was playing mother duck to a gaggle of OAPs who looked more Bingo than Catfish.    Decided not to join then, as I don't qualify for either my government pension nor "clickety clicks" for a few months yet.   It became very lonely at the airport, everyone else had left. Oh my God, the solitude!   Getting a little worried, as I had no idea even of the town name where I would be staying, let alone the hotel name.   

Eventually a dubious looking character in a grey T shirt, advertising another company approached me. Martin from  "Catfish Capers".  This was the first time it became apparent that Angling Direct had  sub-contracted my trip to another company.   They had not informed me of this, and in consequence "Angling Direct" appears to be something of a misnomer. They don't appear to have their own direct presence on the Ebro.  So I was taken to join some of Catfish Capers own clients in a ramshackle old minibus,   a group of lads who were on a stag do fishing trip, and who had therefore been drinking since early morning.  Some more drinks, and then back to the airport to pick up the final two anglers.   It was at this point that I discovered that Catfish Capers regularly met planes from Manchester, as well as from London.  Not a bad bunch the Catfish Capers' Crew. Angling Direct were somewhat incompetent in not having researched this, and hence I suffered an extra cost of 84 quid for the train tickets and a considerable amount of inconvenience and extra time spent, as a direct result of their poor knowledge.   I tried to reclaim the extra cost from A.D.on my return, but they were having none of it.   They offered a discount on a second holiday, but that was just not appropriate.   So any future trips will not be with Angling Direct...I will deal directly with companies who have their own presence at the venue. Or perhaps go it alone, now I have the base knowledge required. I was the only A.D. client, the others all being with C.C.

After a narrow squeak with the police at the airport, who came close to arresting one of the drunks, during a comfort break, the stags  and the other three of us were ferried into Caspe, a small town near the Ebro, at a speed that I found somewhere at the completely petrified end of worrying.   The drunks slept through it all.  C.C. have a bar/guest house in Caspe, and I was told I was the lucky one, and had been given the luxury of a single room.  To their surprise I reminded them that I had specifically  paid a single supplement.  More Angling Direct miscommunication.  Very basic room,  bed, two drawer cabinet, and a broken bedside lamp.  Luxury item was a waste paper basket.   Make your own bed and empty your own waste bin.  En-suite?   Don't be silly.   But I was not expecting luxury. Indeed I prefer the informality of such arrangements...as long as the wife is not with me!  Food truly excellent, but far too much of it to aid my diet plan.
The most drink affected, and indeed obnoxious, member of the stag party ventured out late to one of the few local tourist attractions: the out of town brothel. Having, apparently, enjoyed himself rather more than his inebriated state should have allowed, and refuelled by a bottle of vodka (the brothel bar only served it by the bottle), he got a taxi back which dropped him right outside The Jolly Fisherman.  However he was too drunk to recognise his surroundings, and so hailed a taxi to take him to guess where:... The Jolly Fisherman.  A car whisked him away to an industrial estate where he was mugged and relieved of all his money.   He did not fish the next day!      But his lack of cash watered down his less appealing qualities to an acceptable degree for the rest of the week.

I had learned, during the evening, that the usual catfishing areas were all completely closed off to fishing, because there was a three day World Catfish Classic Competition taking place.  55 teams of three, each fishing for three days. Effectively the world championship. This had a major effect on swim availability, and so I was ferried well upstream the next day after breakfast. The river was very high, up into the trees, eliminating 99% of the remaining swims, and I found myself having to share some 8 metres of muddy and rocky bank with three other anglers.   The contest was something else I feel Angling Direct should have told me about.   I would have gone a week later or earlier, had I known to avoid the crowds.

The location was in a near desert: very dry, very rocky, and the far bank looked almost like a mini Grand Canyon.

 Many outcrops of rocks protruded between the fields of spindly crops, which survive only because the river is used as an irrigation source.  I was told the area had been used to film a number of spaghetti westerns, and indeed the area was more  Rio Grande, than what I had imagined the Ebro would be.  The swim was on a section of  river well over two hundred yards wide, with the main channel being over against the far bank, so fishing was at a range of 150 yards plus.  C.C. had provided a guide, and a small inflatable dinghy, to allow the baits and groundbait to be rowed out to the fish.   Unfortunately there was a force eight downstream wind active all day, and it made quite a slave out of the guide, who despite working very hard, had great difficulty in getting hookbaits anywhere near groundbait.   He then was swept well downstream by the wind and wasted considerable time getting back up to us in the inflatable. A more unsuitable boat could not be imagined.  Day two was similar, the wind having abated to a mere force 7.  It wasn't until day three that a powered boat was finally provided, an error that certainly cost me a few fish.  Day one produced just one catfish for me, but at 35 pounds it was a new personal best.  The fish was a superb green colour, almost similar to the green of some of the paler tench I have caught. Quite pretty.
Photo: 35 pound tiddler.

Day 2 produced a blank for me.  
Day 3 dawned with still weather conditions, ideal for getting the bait into the water accurately, and, now that there was a powered boat, getting it in quickly.   So each of the next four days produced four or five fish for me, for a total of 19 catfish. The still weather brought other problems:  Mosquitoes.
 Voracious buggers, that were biting right through my jeans, and through my denim shirt. Tiger mosquitoes the locals called them, and they appear to be an import from the other side of the Mediterranean. Day 4, 5 and 6 saw me fighting back against them.   Newly purchased mozzie spray, but wearing two pairs of jeans, a T-Shirt, denim shirt and a woolly jumper, together with a scarf wrapped around my neck, kept all but the most persistent mozzies at bay.  A Crocodile Dundee style hat kept the sun off quite well.   Not ideal though, for the temperature soared into the forties.  The area is a haven for birds of prey, and there were Egyptian vultures circling overhead, ready to pick up whatever the mozzies might leave. This shot, taken at extreme range of a vulture overhead...thought I was joking about the vultures, didn't you?


  Other birds were eagles ( of unknown species), ospreys, black kites, kestrels, and a pair of peregrines with a newly fledged young bird were constant companions on the cliffs opposite.  Goldfinches were nesting three metres away, and the odd hoopoe flew past.  No ducks though, or rather none that landed on the river.  I was informed that any ducks landing would end up as catfood.
The third day saw my personal best beaten twice, initially with a fish of 74, and finally with one of 82 pounds.

  All took large halibut pellets, and each "cast" was accompanied by a small bucketful of freebies to attract the cats.  The cats, and the odd carp were making themselves known on the surface. The cats  surface head first, and then vigorously slap their tails as they go back down.  The idea seems to be that they disorientate or perhaps stun the bleak, which are then mopped up.  I had no previous idea just how much of a predator the Wels is, but they have been caught with 20 pound carp inside them, and a 5 pound zander makes a frequent livebait choice.  I was even told of someone using a 3 pound roach as livebait...that's right: a 3 pound roach.  They are very active predators, not at all the bottom hugging, find me a dead fish, catfish that I used to imagine they were.  But livebaiting for them is illegal in Spain...as is night fishing for them!   Oddly you seem able to night fish for the carp.
As I played the 74 pound fish I was standing on a rapidly eroding foot wide section of mud bank,  and at one point was quite taken by surprise, for the fish came quite close to having pulled me in.   A sudden power surge on the 5 pound test rod, 12 feet long, caught me unawares and I came near to making a practice dive for the Olympics.  Make no mistake about it; any catfish over 50 pounds is a prodigiously powerful fish which will bore its way along the river bed.  Any 100  pound plus fish will almost certainly take considerable line from you, no matter how hard you may be pulling back, no matter what your clutch settings.  And it might well be heading upstream as it does so.

Photo: 74 pound fish.  Note the Velcro like toothy pads.

Day 4 and 5 produced more good fish, more PBs, and I had to chase one of 88 pounds by taking to the boat, so as to drag it out of the trees.   Entertaining, especially when it dragged me and the aluminium boat, complete with idling outboard, upstream.

Day 6 more of the same.   Entertaining to see a parent peregrine fly right across the river to chase off a black kite that had appeared some 50 feet above my head.   Wrong lens on the camera unfortunately. Having had a few cats, I then lost a certain hundred pound plus fish, still unseen after a long fight, to an unexpected hook pull.  But all was not lost, and on the very last cast of my final day's fishing on the Ebro I hooked another good fish.  This was a different beast again, and for some time seemed not to notice any of my attempts to slow the fish down.   Upstream, downstream, across: no difference, it simply took back any line I gained and more.   I was visibly tiring, prompting a passing idiot angler to ask me if I would like him to take over.   Daft question of the day, and I informed him I would rather lose the fish than let another person land it.   Eventually I did land it, after some 25 minutes of heaving as hard as I could.  No strength left to lift the fish, and I needed help to hold it for the photographs.  When I released it, I was shattered, but the fish swam off as if nothing had happened to it at all.  So much strength, so much power and stamina.  It weighed 151 pounds.

Not at all sure if I would go again, for it was expensive for the trip, more expensive than I thought: for I needed to buy an additional 160 Euros worth of bait, on top of the 50 or so kilograms of pellets that came free with the trip.  I cannot say the angling involved any great skill levels, some experience in playing big fish certainly helps, so it is, and will probably remain, a one off experience.  I certainly would not fly there again with Angling Direct.  If nothing else, the fact that they sub-contract their  Ebro holidays, suggests that without their cut of the profits, going with an on-site company should be significantly cheaper. They were not properly sympathetic to the problem they caused me, and it would not be difficult to assume they would take a similar attitude to other problems.

A few notes on the World Catfish Classic:
The match was won by a Dutch team, the Captain of which, and overall winner of the match, had by coincidence, spent a number of days practising in the same swim that he drew during the week before the match.   And thereby prebaiting it!   This invoked various comments of the "lucky bastard" genre.   But if we add the fact that he won the match last year, and that he runs a guiding company on the river, his website and reputation, deserved or not, now looks set to gain him a few clients.
All fish caught in the match had to be killed, as, in theory do all other cats caught.   The Eastern Europeans have been seen to take vanloads of fish, but most British anglers tend to return them of course.   But increased European presence may well reduce the number of the larger fish. During the match itself 4215 Kilograms, about 4 tons of Wels catfish were removed from the river!
Of course there is the inevitable difference of opinion: that of the Spanish EA who see the cats as an environmental disaster ( quite rightly in my opinion), and that of the town Mayor, who wants to promote the tourism in the area.  I was also told that in the extensive area where the cats are commonplace, they have exterminated, note: exterminated rather than decimated, the barbel, the chub, and even the pike.
 Another huge figure is the estimate of how much bait was used.   Over 20 tons of pellets was a figure I heard. I have no confirmation of that being accurate, but I should not be at all surprised: I saw quite a number of pallets of bait by the roadside one morning.  I used over a hundredweight myself.   Multiply that by 165 anglers, who were probably not being as conservative as I was with bait use, and you get big numbers.


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