Cat Woman: How Alexa Turness Landed A 215-Pound World Record Wels Catfish

Eight years after she took up fishing to spend more time with her boyfriend, British angler Alexa Turness caught a Wels catfish in Spain that topped anything he ever caught--and set what is believed to be a new women's world record for the massive European species. Field & Stream got the U.S. exclusive on Turness' 215-pound, record-setting catch.
Turness, an event director in London, got hooked on fishing after meeting Kim Hamilton. "He's a really keen angler, and I'd never even considered angling before I met him. I went fishing because I wanted to spend time with him and enjoy what he enjoyed, but now I've grown a pure passion for it. It's ridiculous."
She likes to fish the River Thames and travel with Hamilton (here with a 141-pound Wels) to fishing destinations beyond England's shores. The two have twice fished for Nile perch in Egypt's Lake Nasser, and this was their third trip to Spain, where they went after Wels catfish in the Ebro and Segre rivers in September.
The Wels inspires a cult-like following in Europe, where hardcore anglers (a high percentage of them bikini-clad, it seems) make pilgrimages to Italy's River Po and Spain's Ebro and Segre rivers in pursuit of one of the world's largest freshwater fish. The obsession makes for some unusual trophy shots, but, hey, so does noodling.
The couple was on the second night of a weeklong holiday in early September when the fish hit. "I had fallen asleep and was woken up by everyone screaming around me, 'Fish, fish, fish!'" Turness says. "The guide couldn't quite get the rod out of the holder and we were both grabbing at it and the fish was just going. When I finally managed the rod, the fish wouldn't be stopped."
"All the guides and my boyfriend were standing around me because the fish was pulling so hard they were afraid I might go in the water. There was a point where I thought my hands and fingers were not going to take the strain of holding the rod. I could put all my weight on the fish and it kept pulling and pulling. The power of that fish was just immense. It was the most incredible feeling."
After a 30-minute fight, the anglers and guides got their first look at the Wels. "One of the guides instantly said, 'It's a 200!' I said, 'How do you know?' He said, 'It's got the strawberry. It came out a couple of weeks ago at 211.'" The strawberry--a reddish deformity specific to this particular Wels--is visible just below the fish's gills.
"These guides spend every day on the river for six to nine months a year, and it's incredible how much they recognize individual fish," explains Turness, who was fishing with Catfish Tours. "They will look at a fish and see particular markings and remember how long ago it came out and how much it weighed. It shows that these catfish very much stay in their homes; very often the same fish get caught in the same area."
"When this thing was pulled up on the bank, its mouth was as wide as my shoulders," Turness says of the 215-pound Wels, which measured 8-feet, 4-inches long. "The fish was enormous."
When a big fish is caught, it's placed in a net sack and hung from a scale to record the weight. Turness weighed her 215-pounder on three different scales the guides carry with them. "We called in loads of people who were in the area to watch us weigh it," she says, "and someone eventually said, 'You know, that may be the new women's world record by a pound.' We checked the Internet and found that a British woman had caught a record 214-pounder last year."
"I was speechless for a good five minutes, looking at the fish, stroking it, pouring water over it. I could not believe I'd finally caught a 200-pluser. I was thinking, 'My God, this is such a magnificent creature, I can't believe it exists in a river.'"
"We went on holiday hoping that one of us was going to break the 200-pound mark. Kim said he knew one of us was going to, but I had my doubts. I thought we might get close, but never in a million years did I expect to break a world record."
During the weeklong trip Lex and Kim caught more than 30 fish, 15 of them 100 pounds or better. Kim's best Wels was this 174-pounder.
He also had several fish in the 140, 150 and 160-pound range, such as this 160 lured into feeding during daylight. "He had most of the 100-pound fish," Turness says. "He beat me on total weight, but I got the world record."
Turness approached the 200-pound mark again with this 191-pounder.
The near-200 catch was even more rare in that it came during daylight, when the Wels usually hold tight to their bottom lairs, preferring to wait for darkness to feed aggressively, often in the shallows.
Her third-best fish was this 164-pound Wels. Although Lex and Kim fished both the Ebro and the Segre, which collide near the town of Mequinenza, all of their big fish were caught on the Segre.
"The place is so wild and beautiful, just stunning," Turness says of the mountainous area in northeast Spain. "We slept on the riverbank for most of our time there, and I've never seen so many shooting stars in my life."
"Lots of little villages and towns used to line the banks of the Ebro before the dam system came along and they disappeared under the water." This church bell tower probably makes a cozy home for a monster Wels.
"Every time I go to Spain, the main objective is to break my personal best, and so far every holiday I've managed to do that," Lex says. This trip she got two new PBs: The Wels and this 27-pound carp.
But clearly the main attraction are the giant Wels, which are said to exceed 16 feet and approach 700 pounds in some lakes and rivers across the fish's range in Europe, Asia Minor and central Asia. The all-tackle record, according to the International Game and Fish Association, is a 297-pound, 9-ounce fish caught in 2010 in Italy's River Po. "I feel quite an affection toward the catfish, to be honest. Have you ever felt a Wels? It's so soft and silky; it's the most incredible fish. People think they're ugly, but I think they are a really incredible, prehistoric, dinosaur-looking creature, and it just doesn't seem right that they exist on our planet, especially in a river in Spain. It just baffles me."
Both Lex and Kim have been chasing a 200-pounder for a long time. When it finally happened, Turness embraced the moment--literally. "How do I put it? It was honestly slightly erotic," she says. "It just feels so smooth and soft and silky. I really properly cuddled it, and I'm glad I did. It just felt so nice. Lovely!"
After she released the 215, Lex went into Mequinenza for a celebratory drink. "News of my fish had traveled all the way back to town before I got there," she says. "When we walked into the bars people were shouting, 'You're the woman with the big fish!' It was a crazy scene. I felt like a local celebrity."
Kim takes some pride in being the man who introduced Lex to fishing. "I'm very pleased for her, of course," he says of the record. "But at the same time I've been going to that river for eight or nine years trying to catch a 200-pounder, and I haven't had one yet. But I'll get another chance--I've been working six days a week to get the money to go back next year. Twice."
"When I took up fishing, I wouldn't stay in the tent overnight or go in bad weather, but then I got genuinely interested," Turness says. So interested that Kim's mates, who see fishing as a getaway, give him a bit of guff for bringing Lex into their sanctum. "But I'm not any hassle," she laughs. "I'm not a girly girl. I don't care about getting dirty, don't care if it's cold or rainy. It's just something we do together, just a hobby we share." The record, though, is all hers.