Fishing: Fair weather lets the catfish out of the bag

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The Independent Online
SUMMER IS on its way. Trust me. I have an infallible gauge that tells when it's safe to leave my olive tree and other exotics outside overnight, without fear of frost. In keeping with my "nature knows best" philosophy, I rely on Lurch.

He (or maybe she: I haven't checked) is a catfish. He lives in my pond. Oh, it's easy to be fooled by those false harbingers of better weather, such as slugs starting to chew on the hostas, the honeysuckle coming into bloom or the starlings reclaiming their old nest site in the thatch. But Lurch never gets it wrong. When his whiskery head comes to compete for the food I throw daily into the pond, I know it's time to put away the thermal socks.

Lurch used to live in a fish tank. He was about an inch long and though he stole the goldfishes' food, he never grew much bigger. But since he switched habitat (caused by a serious leak that is still a sensitive issue in the Elliott household), he has turned from a kitten into quite a big cat. He is now at least 9in long and has a mouth like Chris Evans.

The pondwater is, to put it politely, murky. Unlike the goldfish, carp, orfe, tench, koi and rudd, Lurch never besports near the surface - except when it's feeding time. Then he rises like a submarine from the depths, that stubby black head with its dangling whiskers coming right out of the water in a bid to get the grub before it hits the water.

With tiny eyes and dressed in matt black, Lurch is certainly no beauty. He eats many of my newborn goldfish, and probably a froglet or three. Through winter and spring, he never shows. He's probably lurking on the bottom, thinking dark catfish thoughts. Then the isobars nudge up, the barometer does its thing, and wham. Lurch may be hard to love, but he's one heck of a weatherman. I've even noticed that he's alert to micro changes rather than just the big picture. If there's a storm brewing or a cold front passing through, Lurch skulks rather than gobbles.

This all ties in with a new-found status for catfish. The Catfish Conservation Society is one of the fastest-growing specialist groups in Britain. Apart from carp, more catfish are smuggled into this country than any other fish. The European catfish, or wels, was introduced to several lakes, mostly in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, in the late 1800s. Its maximum weight, given English weather, is probably 60lb. But one tiny Essex lake alone boasts two 100lb immigrants.

The wels (the name comes from the German walzen, to wallow) grows to huge sizes in its native rivers, especially the Danube, where 200-pounders are not uncommon. Hundreds of English anglers now travel to the river Ebro in Spain, lured by catfish that often top 100lb. In Russia, it's said that cats up to 600lb and more and 16ft have been recorded. The appeal is not just their size but their strength. Pull on a catfish, and he pulls right back. There are several yarns of catfishers tying line to their hands or feet, falling asleep and being drowned by big catfish.

My interest has been buoyed during the past week by reading The Catfish as Metaphor, a strange book by M H Salmon. It is the story of a guy who wanders around the United States, mostly fishing in places that proclaim themselves as the "Catfish Capital of America". He catches channel catfish, blue catfish and yellow catfish; eats some, puts some back. He's slightly embarrassed by his obsession with catfish, which are still trailer-park fish in the US, and several laps behind trout or bass.

But he predicts: "The catfish is going to get more popular. The fish is entering a new socio-economic status." Well, it's not doing so badly. One US fishery survey puts the number of bass fishermen at 16-18 million, the number pursuing catfish at 12-15 million. As Salmon says: "The catfish is the one that everybody recognises, many fish for but nobody writes about. This is a significant critter."

Best of all, he too finds a relationship between catfish and the weather, which he largely attributes to the fish being "negatively phototropic". I have now started to monitor Lurch's behaviour much more closely. I may own the catfish equivalent of the gopher in Dog Day Afternoon.