December 06, 2017
Catfish are among the toughest of all families of freshwater fish. The big three in North America — blue cats, channels, and flatheads — are no slouches when it comes to putting a hurt on equipment and anglers alike. With IGFA records of 143 pounds, 123 pounds, and 58 pounds, respectively, they're formidable opponents. Elsewhere in the world, many catfish species grow to two, three, even four times the size of our largest catfish. In these faraway places, little attention is given to IGFA records or social-media posts. Gear is often rudimentary. Giant catfish are kept for food without fanfare and photos are nearly impossible to come by.
What lurks out there would bewilder most U.S. anglers. Some of these fish have been sensationalized on television shows in recent years, but make no mistake — there are real monsters in rivers of this third rock from the sun. Most lurk in remote jungle rivers of South America, while others have been fished to near extinction in Asia, and still others are on the rise throughout Europe.
Choosing the toughest among the hundreds of varieties of catfish has its challenges. In measuring toughness, how much merit is given to top-end size versus endurance or speed? What accounts of catches do you look at for determining top-end size? There are stories from the 1800s of blue catfish weighing 350 pounds and medieval fables of 800-pound wels catfish, and yet, no blues or wels of even half those respective sizes have been caught in the last hundred-plus years. As such, I won't stray far from certified records, giving more credence to recent reports supported by photographic proof. In doing so, I've chosen five top contenders for Toughest Catfish on Earth and added five honorable mentions of unique catfish from far away.
Piraiba — This whale of a catfish is the strongest and largest of all the Amazon catfish species. Piraiba regularly grow to 7 feet in length and are pure muscle from nose to tail. The IGFA record stands at 341 pounds, but credible evidence places its top-end size well into the 400-pound range.
Strength and size are not their only forte. They have remarkable speed. With the drag tightened to the max, these fish spool typical flathead or blue catfish gear before you can get the rod out of the holder. Even with saltwater gear and drags set to do battle with marlin, these fish can be unstoppable. Fighting piraiba in open water would be tough enough, but add swift current, submerged trees, boulders, and flooded river banks to get a true measure of how difficult it is to land one of these giants. There's no quit in piraiba. They fight until exhaustion, which typically comes well after the angler has reached that point.
They eat both live- and deadbait, although they don't generally favor soured bait. They have a mouth big enough to swallow a feeder pig whole, so don't hesitate to use baits as large as you can while keeping them down in current. Their crazy long whiskers that can stretch more than 6 feet from tip to tip on a large fish, and they have a propensity to free-jump in low-light conditions. Watching a 250-pound catfish breach the water's surface on a still morning in the Amazon is like one of those Jane Goodall gorillas-in-the-mist moments.
Mekong Giant Catfish — Arguably the hardest-fighting and most powerful of all catfish, the Mekong also has the distinction of being the largest verified catfish. In 2006, a specimen weighing 646 pounds was caught in nets by Thai fishermen. This catch adds credibility to claims that they can grow to 9 feet and exceed 800 pounds, making it the true King Kong of catfish.
The Mekong is a gentle giant — a toothless herbivore with a tall muscular body on a long frame that tapers to a massive tail. Its relatively small eyes are positioned downward on the lower half of its head and face toward its large rounded mouth. This anatomy allows it to effectively eat algae attached to rocks on the river bottom. Overfishing and loss of spawning habitat due to the construction of dams along the Mekong River basin have made the Mekong giant catfish highly endangered in the wild. In addition, its herbivorous nature works against it being targeted in rivers with hook and line.
For those wanting to do battle with this beast, many private fishing venues in Thailand have stocked them in such densities that catching specimens in the 50- to 100-pound range is nearly guaranteed. Other fisheries, such as Palm Tree Lagoon, have lower densities, but Mekongs in the 150- to 325-pound range are routinely caught. This isn't anything like stalking monster cats in the wild, but for inquisitive anglers, it's your only opportunity to experience the raw power of these fish. Having seen anglers battle large Mekong catfish for over an hour under heavy drag pressure, only to get spooled when the fish gets tired of "playing," one can only imagine their fighting ability in the swift waters of the Mekong River system.
Wels — Wels are among the world's largest catfish species. Multiple catches have been verified to just under 300 pounds in recent years. Due to their potential size and pulling power, they gain points on the toughness scale. Due to their slender eel-like tail, however, they lack the overall power and endurance of other giant catfish. Wels topping 100 pounds are easily targeted in various rivers and impoundments throughout Europe.
Wels are an adaptable species and have gained "nuisance" status in many western European fisheries where they aren't native. They feed on the most abundant food in the system, which often includes native fish species, along with crayfish, birds, rats, and more.
What wels lack in appeal where they're non-native, they make up for in the variety of methods that can be used to catch them: casting spoons and crankbaits; vertical jigging large softbaits; livebaiting on sinker rigs, under floats, or freelined; and setrigs with deadbaits or pellets (halibut pellets used in areas previously baited heavily). One of the more interactive techniques is clonking. With this method, anglers suspend baits under a drifting boat and use a wood tool called a clonk to make loud popping sounds in the water, with the goal being to "wake up" nearby wels and stimulate them to feed.
Chao Phraya Giant Catfish — Another giant catfish species from Asia, Chao Phraya pack speed, agility, and power into a stylish package. They're reported to grow to more than 500 pounds in the wild. Fish topping 200 pounds are possible at several Thai fishing venues. This species is native to both the Mekong and Chao Phraya river basins. Unlike the Mekong Giant Catfish, Chao Phrayas are predatory. Traditional methods used to target them include using the carcasses of various fish, birds, and mammals, including dogs. This may explain the origin of its name as the "dog-eating catfish." Their fighting ability is on par with any of the toughest freshwater fish on the planet.
Chao Phraya possess deep muscular bodies similar to the Mekong, but the Chao Phraya's eyes are larger and more centered on its head. It possesses small barbels and teeth similar to those of flathead catfish. Its most distinctive features are its elongated dorsal, pectoral, and pelvic fins graced with black tips that complement a large, deeply forked tail. The top third of its body is dark brown and transitions to silver with underlying hues of blue and purple throughout.
Due to their predatory nature and willingness to scavenge, Chao Phraya can be caught on various live- and deadbaits, including live tilapia, walking catfish, cut mackerel, and chicken parts. Baits are presented high in the water column, with low-light periods being most productive. They often feed in packs, allowing for multiple hookups.
The initial run is remarkably fast and more akin to a Chinook salmon than a flathead. In addition to its speed, it has great endurance and makes quick turns. Once landed, be wary of the spines on its pectoral fins, which can deliver a debilitating sting.
Goonch — The "giant devil catfish" as it's sometimes known inhabits a number of river systems throughout Asia. Although there are a number of species in the Bagarius genus, the largest of them (Bagarius yarelli) can reach weights of over 250 pounds and is found primarily in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Their most distinctive features include a cavernous mouth lined with large pronounced teeth and tiny eyes set high on its broad skull. Goonch also feature thick large whiskers and a deeply forked tail for navigating some of the most treacherous rivers on the planet.
Adding to the challenge, goonch are primarily targeted in swift rivers that are difficult to access due to mountainous terrain. Furthermore, they take on an eel-like behavior of resting in cracks and crevices in the granite where they reside. Upon taking a bait they look to quickly return to these lairs and use their pectoral fins to wedge themselves, making them nearly impossible to extract.
Any specimen caught over 100 pounds these days is superb, as their numbers continue to dwindle. Targeting goonch is unlike any other catfish species, requiring dedication and time in the field due to their erratic feeding behavior and low densities of adult fish. They're nocturnal and take the most rotten of stinkbaits. Multiple reports have these fish feeding on human corpses disposed of in the river.
Wallago Leeri — Found throughout portions of India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia, this sporting catfish can attain a size of 250 pounds and crush a crankbait just as readily as a livebait or cutbait. Their activity increases during low-light conditions, with overcast and rainy days producing better results than sunny days.
Their heads resemble those of North American bullheads but with countless rows of sharp and narrow needle-point teeth that can measure a half-inch or more. Their body narrows to a slender tail and long anal fin running more than half the length of their body. They generate sufficient power with this physique to test even the heaviest tackle when hooked in dark-water rivers lined with sunken woodcover.
Redtail — These strikingly colored catfish have a top-end size nearing 200 pounds. Widely distributed throughout the Amazon, Orinoco, and Essequibo river systems in South America, they prefer moving water, but tend to hold at moderate depths and seek structure to break current.
Redtails have stocky frames, with massive heads that are as hard as concrete. They have big bellies that rival those of blue catfish and a sizable non-forked tail. As such they're not built for speed, but have excellent pulling power, endurance, and a quick turning radius. A trait unique to redtails is their "barking" ability. Upon being landed, redtails frequently make a distinctive barking sound with their mouths.
Jau — Found throughout many larger river systems in northern regions of South America, jau prefer deep rocky pools below waterfalls and rapids. When hooked, they use turbulent water to their advantage by holding in position with their big pectoral fins and paddle-like tail. Alternately, they move up the most turbulent water and attempt to swim up the rapids. If these tactics fail, they play dirty and dive into any hole in the rocks or wedge themselves in crevices. Fight times can last over an hour on fish in the 100- to 150-pound range. They have a resemblance to flatheads with long frames and brown coloration.
Surubi (Spotted Sorubim/Shovelnose) — Spotted sorubim are the largest catfish species found throughout central South America. Their unique shovelnose design, spotted sides, exaggerated whiskers, and large frame distinguish them from all other catfish species. A top-end size of 150 pounds and living in swift rivers makes them formidable fighters.
While they lack the endurance of piraiba, surubi deliver a sizzling first run and good endurance. They also gain points due to their propensity to strike lures. A favored fishing tactic is to slow-troll deep-diving crankbaits tight to the bottom around main channel boulders where they lurk. They're also partial to livebait presentations such as drifting or bottom-fishing with knifefish.
Vundu — Vundu catfish are among the most commonly targeted and largest of the African catfish, with a maximum size approaching 150 pounds. Found in rivers, reservoirs, and lakes throughout Africa, they have a diverse diet but are generally targeted with strongly scented baits like beef hearts, chicken livers, and cutbait. Be careful, as targeting vundu often means fishing in croc- and hippo-infested waters.
Vundu have a powerful and fast first run. If lines are left unattended, they quickly tangle in underwater obstacles. They also use their sizable flat head to their advantage, doggedly fighting in current.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan travels the world in search of the toughest freshwater fish. He contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.