IN SOUTH AFRICA catfish are regarded, somewhat unfairly, as sluggish, bottom-feeding pains in the ass. It’s the way they feed, how they move, the manner in which they lurk in the water. In other parts of the world, there are catfish species that behave more like pelagic fish. In our issue 19 Wish List Fish, Peter Coetzee weighed in on the coolest cat he’s ever met – the sawai.
“On a work trip to Thailand in 2009, a last minute move to dodge my colleagues – and save my liver – saw me placed in Tim’s house. Tim was a British expat fly fisherman, who, when I initially called him, hung up after I asked him if he’d take me fishing. I mumbled ‘fly fishing’ as the call was on the way out. He called back immediately, ‘Why didn’t you say so!? I thought you were a regular fisherman and was going to tell you to sod off.’
Oh boy, I thought, I’m in for an experience akin to Daffy in The Beach.
Tim had a few things in mind. Snakehead and Oxeye Tarpon (the former basically sharked all the latter), and then a few Sawai and Pacu. Yes…Pacu, you read that right.
I hadn’t yet encountered Sawai, Pangasius hypophthalmus, an Asian catfish native to the Mekong river system and other rivers throughout Thailand and Vietnam. Those in tune with the Aquarium trade will know of the ‘Iridescent Shark’ – it’s the same fish. They’re also sometimes called ‘Striped Cats,’ ‘Sutchi Cats,’ ‘Freshwater Shark’ or ‘Patin.’ It was early Google days, and “Sawai” didn’t bring up too many results on Google, but I expected to be in for something a bit more like our South African cats than the South American ones. I was very wrong.
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I can’t speak for their behaviour in their native river systems, but in the dams and lakes I fished for them, they hunted, shoaled and behaved far more like a pelagic fish than a freshwater catfish. This may have been due to this particular group having to outrun and outfeed the alien Pacu, who, eventually became an absolute pest due to their ability to chase down pretty much anything. The Sawai also possess ridiculous fighting ability.
‘The first Sawai I got was sighted on the surface, in a shoal of his peers, and the first run was sublime. After about half a strip, all hell broke loose and the only reason I could stop the fish was because it ran out of real estate about 150m from me.’
The first Sawai I got was sighted on the surface, in a shoal of his peers, and the first run was sublime. After about half a strip, all hell broke loose and the only reason I could stop the fish was because it ran out of real estate about 150m from me. In hand, it was nothing like a freshwater fish either. Its skin was like a Leervis (Lichia amia), its face like a Mekong catfish/alien and on the back end it had a very predatory tail. It even looked pelagic in hand. Tim and I didn’t chum for them, which apparently can be done. Once a few fish sounded, we couldn’t seem to get a bite out of the shoals from anything other than the pesky pacu, who decimated my entire Whistler and Zonker supply.
Get stuck into the rest of issue 19 here or buy the print version online (we shop worldwide).