September 29th, 2003

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Catfish in Kazakhstan

Sent in by Scud Yates, Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A Brit fighter pilot friend of mine from my days in Saudi Arabia sent me the below fish story and, from reading your fish stories, I thought you might like/enjoy it...and maybe even head out for Kazakhstan on one of your next fishing expeditions. My fighter pilot mate is not the fisherman, he sent me the article because several of my ponds have a good population of big channel cat which he enjoyed feeding while visiting my place.

Cheers and all the best from the Eagles' Nest,

Note - my mate scanned the attachment from a British newspaper so the quality suffered.

If cuckoos are something of a rarity in England, they are a positive pest in that part of Kazakhstan. They are as numerous as wasps back home. Their relentless call provides a jabbering backcloth of sound all day and night, when they are joined by the croaking of a thousand giant frogs.

If the noise is fantastic, the night skies above are even more so. I have never seen such starry skies anywhere in the world. Even on a moonless night, we could read by starlight alone. And if it was busy in the skies above it was also all going on in the waters beneath our boats. The lakes and rivers of Kazakhstan are teeming with fish.

We had come to assess the potential for landing carp today's "in fish" in the area. This would be of great interest to visiting British anglers, especially as regular direct flights to Almaty take only about seven hours.

However, after a couple of days' hard fishing, it seemed that in that one particular part of that huge country, although there are plenty of carp, they are simply not very big. I suspect there will be places in Kazakhstan where they are absolutely enormous, but on the Ili River we saw carp up to no more than about 15 or 201b. The British record nudges 601b.

There used to be enormous carp in the river - the Russians once farmed them commercially - but they have clearly been decimated by catfish that are everywhere. I've never really catfished before but now it seemed clear that this was the best sport to be had. Anatoly, my amiable Kazakh guide, set Bill and me up with tackle that seemed, frankly, crude but was to prove to be only just strong enough. He then took us out on to the river and began 'clonking'. I had vaguely heard of this technique before but never really under-stood it. The clonk consists of a small, flat, wooden object with which the guide beats the surface with a strange hollow slapping noise as the boat drifts down-current.

The baits are fished as close as possible to the rear of the boat, right alongside the clonk, only about a foot below the surface, and the plan is to draw the aggressive catfish up from the depths.

It felt utterly ridiculous and looked more so. However, after about an hour of this nonsense, as we were drifting round an island in the fast current, the clonk clearly worked. My rod screamed as a big fish took right by Anatoly's hand and dived straight back down to the bottom in more than 20 ft of water. There then began a fight with one of the most powerful creatures I've ever hooked in my life. It sulked on the bottom for minutes at a time.

It screamed off downstream, banging the line with its massive tail, somewhere deep underwater. It ripped 70, 80, 90 yards of line off at a time in completely unstoppable runs.

Next it swam upstream against the current and the full power of the motor on our boat - it felt enormous. And when it began to tire and we saw it for the first time roll on the surface beside theboat, that's exactly what it was.

Enormous! Huge! Absolutely colossal! It looked like an enormous serpent. Its head was as big as an armchair. Its huge, tapering body was as long as our boat, which posed an immediate problem.

Somehow Anatoly got his strong arms around the back of the head of the giant fish and heaved. Of course, at the pivotal point, once the head was in, the enormous body had to follow. The problem then was that there was no room left for Bill or me.

Perched precariously on the very front of our suddenly all-too-inadequate-looking boat, with the massive mouth of the catfish only inches from our bare feet, we raced back up river to our camp, pouring water on our giant prize all the way back.

We weighed it in the equivalent of a kiddies' paddling pool, took lots of photographs and then returned it to the depths of the river, into which it happily sank and swam strongly away. It weighed just over 130lb and was the biggest fish I've ever caught. Over the next couple of days, Bill had two more, both over 140lb, Joe Taylor had one of 152lb and I lost a second fish that was clearly much bigger than my first one.

It had been a fantastic three days. It's probably the best cat-fishing in the world. They've been caught on rod and line in the Ili River now to well over 200lb, and there are even rumours of 300-pounders. The fishing potential is awesome.

We returned to Almaty for a long overdue bath, a change of clothes and a night out. In a club called the Tropicana we drank Kazakh and Georgian wine and ate local trout and huge steaks. Also on the menu was a dish' described as 'deep-fried sea bear' - but none of us was brave enough to ask for it. God knows what it was.

We even danced to such up-to-the-minute, cutting-edge music as a Kazakh cover version of the Searcher's Sixties hit Needles and Pins.

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