The Cult of the Wels: Catching Giant, 200-Plus Pound Catfish in European Rivers

You may think trophy catfishing is a distinctly American activity, but across the Atlantic there's a group of anglers who share a similar passion for their own species of whiskered freshwater monster. I'm talking about cats so big, hundred-pounders are routine. Cats so powerful anglers come from all over the globe for a chance to catch one. This is the story of the Wels catfish. NOTE: Most of these photos come to us via Wels guide Colin Bunn of CatMaster Tours. These are his clients and though we don't know exactly who they are (or why so many go so scantily attired), you've got to see the size of these cats to believe it.
No one knows just how large this European behemoth actually grows, but accounts dating back hundreds of years tell of giant water monsters eating peasants unfortunate enough to fall in the water. These days Wels are best-known as a trophy angling prizes.
Wels catfish are rumored to reach 15 feet and upwards of 600 pounds. Bringing them to shore is hot work. Yes, this woman is topless. Maybe she was sunbathing when the fish hit (Europeans see these things differently than we do).
This large and powerful fish is becoming more popular with international anglers as Internet tales and photographs of monster Wels keep trickling out of Europe.
Just how big are the fish being landed by European anglers? Czech Republic angler Jakub Vagner used live bait to catch this giant Wels from Italy's River Po earlier this year. The fish weighed 242 lbs, 8 oz and, if certified by the IGFA, will be the new all-tackle world record. The current all-tackle record is 233 lbs, 11 oz, caught in Italy's River Mincio in 2006.
But if there's an epicenter of Wels catfishing, it is surely northern Spain's River Ebro. Wels catfish were introduced here in 1974 and promptly went wild, growing at a phenomenal rate.
Colin Bunn, a British native who runs Catmaster Tours says while there are a few places in Europe where you might catch a larger fish, the Ebro reigns supreme for the combination of both size and numbers.
"Here, we're catching fish over a hundred pounds every day" says Bunn. "Just on Monday and Tuesday we had nine fish over 150 pounds."
And Bunn says the river's catfish aren't all grown up yet. "They haven't even begun to approach their maximum size," he says. "The biggest fish out of the river so far this year is 246 pounds, and they're still growing."
Here's a picture of the 246 lb 14 oz. giant, caught on September, 15, by French angler Christopher Dubreuil. It is the largest coarse fish ever caught in Europe on rod-and-reel.
It's that sheer size which draws anglers from all over the world. "We've got anglers from 38 countries fishing with us this year," says Bunn. "Last night we had a lady catch one that went 214 pounds."
Not surprisingly, catching a fish larger than an average-size man takes stout tackle. "We use both spinning and casting rods spooled with braided line and 8/0 hooks," Bunn says. This is a typical Wels rig baited with commercial fish pellets.
Wels catfish are aggressive predators, however, and they'll eat pretty much anything they can fit in their cavernous maws. Other popular baits include live and dead carp.
Anglers target these giant fish from both boats...
...And from shore with equal success.
Virtually all Wels catfishing in Europe is catch-and-release, and a fish this size will almost never be kept.
Anglers in Spain are allowed to fish two rods. Here's a typical bank set-up.
Particularly lucky anglers will also on occasion land an albino Wels catfish.
With fish this size, it's no wonder that tales of man-eating catfish abound.
They may be brutishly ugly, but that hasn't stopped the Wels catfish from becoming one of the most sought-after gamefish in Europe, and North American anglers are starting to take notice as well. "Oh yeah, we're seeing more Americans and Canadians coming over for a chance to catch these fish," says Bunn.
And for a legitimate shot at a 200-pound catfish, it's no wonder.