Thailand Catfish: Kings of The Mekong River
April 22, 2014
You haven't lived on a whisker's edge until you've matched wits with many species of freshwater Thailand catfish. They're both bizarre and appealing, which is why you should add them to your life list. Strange to the eye are the mouse-faced catfish, the beautiful Asian red-tailed catfish, and larger "dog-eating" catfish, commonly caught by locals on dead bait such as whole chickens or dogs. "Good luck" catfish such as the striped or yellow catfish are off limits in the lakes and ponds typically found near Buddhist temples around the country, but are plentiful elsewhere to catch.
Mekong River giants
The big attraction for cat anglers is the Mekong giant catfish, locally called "Pla Buk," a Thai phrase meaning "huge fish." According to The Guinness Book of World Records, the Mekong giant catfish is the world's largest fish that spends its entire life in fresh or brackish water. Along with the Chao Phraya giant catfish, both are found in southeast Asia's Mekong River and some tributaries, are reputed to reach lengths of 9 to 10 feet, and weigh up to 660 pounds. Today it's rare for anglers to catch fish over 200 pounds.
The Mekong giant cat has a rich history. Thai folklore says anyone who eats this catfish will have a long and prosperous life. When available in open-market fish stands, the fish brings about $12 a pound. The Bangkok Post once reported that one giant catfish could bring in up to $2,500.
As the largest scale-less freshwater fish in the world, the Mekong is considered critically endangered. Stocks have decreased about 90 percent in the last two decades because of environmental degradation, damming, and commercial overharvest.
Thailand's Queen Sirikit has made great efforts to help conserve endangered fish species like the Pla Buk, also known as the "Royal Fish." Since 1983, the Thai Department of Fisheries has been successful in breeding Mekong catfish and has funded aquaculture programs to produce fingerlings released into select reservoirs and rivers around the country. While the Mekong giant cat may be disappearing from the upper sections of the Mekong River, anglers can enjoy catching the rare Pla Buk in public and private waters.
Jean FranÃ§ois Helias is perhaps the best known catfish guide in Thailand. He fishes lakes that are home to some of the country's largest. Helias helps his international clientele catch an average of 7 to 10 Mekong cats each per day and on some days as many as 30, running from 40 to 130 pounds each. An occasional fish tops 180 pounds. Helias guarantees that if you don't catch a Mekong catfish while fishing with him, he'll pay for your trip and give you one million baht or about $25,000. To this date, and hundreds of anglers later, he has yet to pay a claim.
Presentation Fit for A King
Daytime temperatures in Thailand rarely drop out of the 90°F range, making the lake's surface temperature uncomfortable for big fish. Although it's possible to catch 60- to 90-pounders during the day, the larger cats often become lethargic during the heat and in bright mid-afternoon sunlight. On hot and windless days, try one or two nights of fishing, when bigger cats go on the prowl. Mekong cats also seem to move less on windless days, when oxygen levels drop in the lake. A slight chop is best.
Catching these cats is straightforward. Helias takes a coiled baitholder and squeezes on a special cannonball-sized doughball of cut or cubed bread mixed with coconut milk and other scents. This creates a sweet, sticky bait preferred by Mekong cats. On other lakes and species, sticky rice is a carrier bait, flavored with algae, fish, or other scent. A hook with doughball, bread, fresh shrimp, or fish is inserted into the bait ball. Much of dissolving carrier bait acts as chum to attract fish, which prompts them to feed.
About 14 inches of 30-pound leader runs from the baitholder, to which a circle or J-hook is tied. A bread cube is impaled onto the hook and tucked under the surface of the bait ball. The bait is heavy enough to be cast long distances without the use of lead.
Wave action and feeding fish gradually dissolve the bait cannonball. A cat eventually ingests the hooked bread cube floating above bottom. Mekongs are extremely wary of any improperly presented bait or leader drag, and hooking one is an accomplishment.
Fishing the Bang Pakong River for gray eel catfish requires identifying holding and migration corridors at various times of the day. Cats hide in the water-choked root tangles during midday, where jungle-like banks provide cool shade. I caught catfish only after 5 p.m., when the sun disappeared off the water and the cats moved out from the overhanging vegetation to feed at the edges of river current. A simple slipsinker rig and small shrimp worked best, as shrimp is a main forage of wild river catfish.
In small lakes in rice fields, where fish concentrate during the dry season, catfish are easier to catch, although most range only from 5 to 12 pounds. Again, where you fish for these species will dictate whether you use shrimp, fresh deadbait, or scented doughbaits. Over the years, I have used Berkley PowerBait and catfish scent to catch Thailand's many species of catfish. In some lakes, scent and prepared baits made a difference, and on others, local livebait outperformed the "foreign" baits. Go local first, then experiment.
After fishing remote jungle lakes or reservoirs from a boat, spend several days fishing large private lakes that can be found throughout the country. Expect to fish from thatched huts on platforms that border a lake's fishing hotspots. While you fish, waitresses deliver multi-course Thai meals, drinks, bait, and tackle. At day's end, you may have spent $10 to feed your group a meal that would have cost $90 in the U.S. While waiting for the big catch, I use an ultralight or flyrod and catch tilapia, snakehead, and other species that concentrate around the dock pilings.
Experiment for Success
Whether in lake or river, smart anglers fish two large rods, one for catfish and the other for species like Siamese giant carp, which can weigh from 40 to 200 pounds. Other unique species include jungle perch, giant freshwater stringray, pacu, sheatfish, Chao Phraya giant catfish, and arapaima.
It's always good to hire a guide who knows the local fishing hotspots, techniques, and rigs. Local guides can be hired starting at $40, up to $300 a day for extended treks into remote areas. For best success in pursuing Thai catfish, remember that each species requires a slightly different modification to lure, line, or technique, and each often shows distinct preferences for various baits at select times of the year.
In many areas I've visited, guides weren't available, and locals had never seen modern fishing tackle. After studying the species to be pursued and talking to local commercial fishermen, I was able to catch fish after a few rounds of experimentation. But this is the fun of pursuing strange fish in a foreign land. It tests the foundation skills that allow successful anglers to catch fish anywhere, anytime, with a minimum of input. Learn the habits of these fish and you can fish throughout the country with greater confidence and skill. As with fishing anywhere, the difference between success and failure here is often a slight adjustment in size of bait or length of leader.
The variety of species requires tackle for all seasons. For cats, I use a selection of line for various waters, from FireLine to Trilene XT, and level-wind reels filled with 30- to 80-pound-test. You can pick up scents in Thailand, but take your own rods, reels, and tackle, as quality tackle, even if available, can be expensive. Cheap tackle is abundant.
I brought my own selection of three-and four-piece Loomis heavy-action travel rods. Rods and reels must be capable of handling 100-pound fish, as well as smaller fish. Traveling with a half-dozen rods is easy when all rod cases fit into a small travel duffel. Inexpensive fiberglass rods can be purchased on-site, if you intend to pursue larger fish.
Be prepared and self-sufficient, is the best advice when fishing a foreign country. I assemble a selection of circle and J-hooks, fluorocarbon leader, ball-bearing swivels, baitrigs, lures, and baits. What I don't have, I'll pick up at the local tackle stores in Bangkok.
Some of my fondest memories of fishing in Thailand are not about the fish but of my fellow catfishermen — the common bond that all cat anglers share, especially in an uncommon land.
I had permission to fish several small lakes scattered throughout the rice fields of northern Thailand. The catfish were biting, and the impoverished local youngsters trickled out to the fields to see what this foreigner was doing. I showed them how to catch cats on fishing tackle they'd never seen before and allowed each one to cast my ultralight rod, before walking back to the village, fish and kids in tow. My hosts steamed the fish and we sipped rice whiskey as we talked about catfishing, frogs, and tackle, by a bamboo campfire.
"This," I said to myself, "is definitely not catfishing in the U.S. — but not so very different, either."
*Christopher Batin, editor and publisher of The Alaska Angler, regularly sportfishes throughout Asia. Contact him at AlaskaAngler.com.