If ever an organisation was ill-named, it’s the Catfish Conservation Group. Though this doughty band of feline fish fanciers would surely disagree, silurus glanis can look after itself perfectly well, thank you. In fact, it’s every other water creature that needs protecting from the ugly brute.
The Wels, or European, catfish, is not a team player. Apart from the fact that it grows very big and is tougher than anything found in British freshwater, it has few redeeming features. It has mean little eyes, a huge mouth that gives it a smug, self-satisfied look, and sickly colouring. It looks like a cross between a Lord Of The Rings orc and a giant slug.
I once interviewed a shadowy character who knew all about how to smuggle them into the UK from Eastern Europe. He said: “Can’t see why people want them in their waters anyway. They end up eating everything else. In the end, you’ll just have one bloody great big hungry catfish in the water.”
We are talking about an eating machine. There are rumours of them eating all sorts of things, from dogs (the cats’ revenge) to small children. When I was in Russia some years ago, our guides told the story of a youngster who was drowned by a catfish. He had wrapped his line round his foot and gone to sleep in the sun. A catfish had taken the bait, and pulled the lad in.
Most killer-cat stories are doubtless apocryphal, but catfish are perfectly capable of trenchermen tuck-ins. This aspect of their appetite was illustrated this week by a rant from the respected big-fish columnist Des Taylor in Angling Times. He pointed out that Spain’s River Ebro was once famed for its barbel fishing. Now there are fewer barbel and more big catfish. (Curiously, the same issue has an angler posing with a 200lb catfish from that very river.)
If catfish had stayed in Spain and Kazakhstan, the two favoured venues for catching a whopper, all would be fine. But already several UK waters hold cats around the 100lb mark. Not one is a native fish.
Before the smugglers got to work, catfish were confined to a couple of lakes. My 1973 British records book doesn’t even mention them. But now the record-fish committee has had to scrap all claims because so many illegal immigrants have been smuggled in. It reached a peak when a tiny Essex lake tried to claim a record with a 102-pounder.
The trouble is, catfish-loving loonies are illegally stocking them everywhere. I’ve just heard that one of more than 30lb was caught from the Great Ouse. Another around 40lb turned up on Berkshire’s River Kennet, a third in the Darenth, a Thames tributary. Good news for catfish, bad news for most anglers.
In the US, they have a far more healthy attitude to catfish: catch ’em and eat ’em. Here, we are much more precious. What’s caught is invariably returned. To eat even a catfish would be like, well, eating your cat.