This is the opening chapter of my book -Target set and Achieved - lots of barbel but plenty of other specimen fish of all species to read about. Get your copy for Xmas at philsmithangler.co.uk
*The Barbel Challenge.*
*The Barbel Challenge.*
It all began with a simple thought: ‘How many different rivers could I catch a double figure barbel from in one season?’ After some consideration I decided on seven. It seemed reasonable bearing in mind my results in the preceding seasons. With that target in mind I began the challenge. Little did I realise how much time or how many seasons would pass before the challenge would be met. That said, I did quickly upgrade the seven total to eight and then finally upped that to 10 to make the challenge one I thought was both worthy of the name yet attainable with effort.
It was the start of the 2004/5 season that saw the beginning of my barbel odyssey with sessions on a number of rivers capable of producing that elusive double. My main effort would be placed on the Great Ouse, and since I was a member of the Adams Mill syndicate it was there that I started. A lot of rubbish has been written and spoken about the Mill, along the theme of: ‘Easy fishing for tame fish held between two weirs just a few hundred yards apart.’ Nothing could be further from the truth, the fish can and do run between the two weirs but they are the best part of two miles apart. When I first tried to catch these barbel the water was a normal club ticket at about £25 per season. In my first year I took a total of one barbel for a lot of effort, so easy they are not. Then the owner realised what a gold mine he was sitting on and in the way of life he maximised his profits by offering it to the highest bidder at the first opportunity. That led to the controlling club setting up a 40-man syndicate. There was an eight-man limit for anglers fishing on any given day but this were rarely, if ever achieved, and the fishing settled down to a very relaxed style of obtaining a blank. Over the following season I developed my skills in catching difficult fish and also my knowledge of the water, giving more chance of locating the fish. By the 2004 season I was well able to find and entice these giants and hence it made a good choice to begin the campaign.
I arrived at Adams at about 11am on July 1st, and although the start time was quite late there was only one other angler on the venue. Fortunately he was fishing for chub and did not interfere with the choice of barbel swims I would need to make. From the car park there is only a short section up to the top weir, I had decided to fish in this length and only needed to choose between the three or so known holding spots it contained. Probably the two best places were The Top Hole and the weir pool itself. A quick check showed that there were barbel in the weir. The other swim appeared empty, although that could change very quickly. With no one waiting to move into either swim I decided I would take the chance and bait both areas, fishing one and leaving the other to see if fish would move in. Should an angler come that wished to try it then he would have the advantage of going into a ready baited swim.
Baiting Adam’s Top Hole
A favoured method for barbel is the aptly named ‘bait and wait’ tactic where one will bait up a swim without fishing for several hours in order to allow the fish to feed in confidence. So, having mixed three pints of casters with two pint of hemp I introduced about half of it via a bait dropper into the Top Hole. I had done well in the past in this swim with the method, now it just needed time to mature. Over several hours I returned at regular intervals to add more caster/hemp mix via the bait dropper. Still no sign of fish, but not to worry, back to the Weir, where the same bait and wait tactics had encouraged the barbel and chub to feed with a vengeance.
The time had come to try and catch one of those big fish that could be seen with their tails waving as they scoffed the feed I had put in. My tackle comprised of a Drennan Power Barbel rod with a 1.75lb action. This was teamed up with 10lb Pro Gold main line and a 15lb Powerbraid hook link, a 2.5oz lead fixed onto a safety clip would then give the bolt effect I was looking for on the set-up. Barbel, more than a number of our coarse fish species, are not tolerant of feeling the fishing line across their body when over the feed. In order to alleviate this problem I used a half inch round bullet stopped three-feet up the main line. This ensures that the line will lie on the bed of the river and hopefully the fish will be less aware of its presence. A size 12 Drennan Super Specialist hook tied with a knotless knot to leave a hair completed the rig. Three casters were then superglued onto the hair in a torpedo fashion as this style also helps to make the set-up a little more resistant to the attentions of the small fish such as dace and minnows.
My baited area was at the head of a clear channel amongst the streamer weed that danced in the flow. The cast was a simple requirement of laying the baited hook at the downstream end and allowing the line to settle along the channel upstream of that position. This was accomplished in one of the spells while the fish were on their guided tour of the weir so I then settled down to await their return. As is so often the case with bait and wait, the bite came quite quickly once I had cast in. With the rod wrapped round in a great attempt to snap it, I struck into a defiant fish that was certainly annoyed at being hooked. One big advantage of barbel fishing is that once hooked the barbel, unlike chub or carp, will not consciously make for the safety of the nearest snag. Unfortunately that does not mean that they never get snagged; this fish proved the point as he charged through a cabbage bed and almost by chance found himself wrapped around one of the stems. I could see the fish and estimated him at about 13lb but although I got him free of the stem, he threw the hook as he came towards the waiting landing net. Very disappointing, but you win some and lose some; just make sure the first option beats the second by a considerable margin.
The battle had spooked the other fish, so with another baited swim waiting it was time for a move. This time when I returned and again bait dropped into the Top Hole it was in the knowledge that my last visit had shown barbel to be present. Pressured barbel can be quite spooky and I still needed to get their confidence in feeding freely. They would come and go from the swim but each time they returned their stay would be little longer. I would bait drop each time they left putting just caster in the swim, no need for hemp as it had done its job of bringing the fish into the swim. Then having decided it was time I bait dropped yet again, but this time I laid the baited hook down and across the swim back to my position. Because of the nature of the swim I needed chest waders to get to the front of the rushes in order to bait up and cast the baited rod out. Now having put the rod on the rests whilst I was still in the water, the reel was spinning in response to a take before I could get back on terra firma. Total panic just about sums up the next few minutes as I scrambled out of the water and tried to get control of the fish. He had torn off downstream into the streamer weed that flourished there, now I would have trouble bringing him up to my position through that jungle. Standard practice when dealing with this situation is to get downstream of the fish, then pull him down out of the streamer. This I did but once out into the open he just shot off back upstream into the hole where he had taken refuge. I went back upstream and he moved back downstream in parody of a dance routine. Some fish you can bully into doing what you want, but not this one, at the moment he was in charge.
This game continued for some minutes with my worry that he would come off as with the last fish. Obviously with their extra strength and power it is the bigger fish that are likely to gain their freedom. As the minutes passed it became obvious that my efforts were having an effect, his runs became shorter as he spent more time in front of my position instead of forcing me to follow his. At last he slipped over the net and the Adams monster was mine. Stef Horak came along the bank in response to my phone call and soon had it on the scales giving me a weight of 16lb 14oz. It is the second time I had caught this fish, the previous capture still stands as my personal best at 17lb 1oz, but that is well short of the best recorded weight when it took the record at 21lb 2oz. That was it then, one down with nine to go, but as with all plans it did not work out that way and I finished the season with seven different river targets acheived.
The following season 2005/06, I set out to do exactly the same target of ten rivers, but again I failed with just six successes. Probably the barbel that stood out from this season’s catch was that taken from the Kennet, a beautiful river in picturesque surroundings. It was the middle of February 2006 and my intention had been to go down south to fish for chub on the Dorset Stour. One of the problems of travelling good distances for your fishing is that of changeable weather. It had been quite mild but the south-westerlies had brought rain over the country. A call to Terry Lampard confirmed the upper river was coming up fast and the extra water would be down to the Bournemouth area by the following morning. With the plans to travel already made it just meant a change of venue. A discussion with Stef soon came up with the option of the River Kennet and the choice of Burghfield. That put the final stamp on the plan.
The Kennet is a slightly different river in that for much of its length it runs in conjunction with the Kennet & Avon Canal. The section to be fished was one where the river came through a weir as it left one of the canalised lengths. Stef had said he would be going downstream to a swim where he had previously enjoyed some success, while I decided to fish the weir. The first ever barbel I caught was taken from Rushey Weir on the River Thames, and I think these features have held a special interest since that date. Although they all have the same basic function, that of allowing a water level change, they are all different, and even the same weir changes from day-to-day as the flow rate changes or the different weir gates are adjusted. This time, with flood water coming downstream, the gates were open and the weir resembled a whirlpool. The diffent currents charged through the open gates to swirl around and finally join together into one flow leaving the weir to continue its way downstream. Having come along the towpath I arrived at the weir and stood obsevving the flows and currents in order to pick the most advantageous place to fish from. At this time the open gate set- up had given a heavy flow under the nearside bank but the far side appeared to have far less current passing it. Moving to that side I could see the flow coming through the nearest gate going down the middle and then turning back in an eddy. My interest fell on the dead water left in the middle where the flows separated to go their different ways, and I decided that would be my pitch for the day.
First order of the day was to lay the table, so out came the bait dropper and I began to introduce the hemp and maggots that I had brought along. With the water quite coloured I would not normally use maggots. These had been left from a previous trip and would change to caster quite quickly so I might as well use them up and hope the barbel would come across the meal they would provide. One rod would be fished with maggots and a swimfeeder; the other would be on my usual Dynamite Monster Crab shelf-life boilie fished in conjunction with a PVA bag of mixed pellets. Tackle was fairly standard, comprising of Drennan 1.75lb Power Barbel rods combined with my preferred Mitchell 300 reels loaded with 12lb Pro Gold line. The hook link is a combi-rig of 10-inches of 15lb Pro Gold tied to 3-inches of 15lb braid and a size 8 Drennan Continental Carp hook. With the rods cast out I could sit behind the brolly and soak in the winter sunshine waiting for the typical slam round of the rod top that signals the barbel bite. That said, I could foresee that with the different flows it might not happen like that. Having cast into the slack water the flow was actually coming straight towards me and in all probability this would resulting a slack line bite as the fish picked up the bait and moved off in the direction of the flow.
Throughout the morning I kept up the feed by the simple method of recasting at regular intervals. The feeder rod would be filled with fresh maggots and the other rod would have a new PVA bag attached. At last! I watched as the line went completely slack on the boilie rod. The fish was moving across the flow quite quickly, and I had to reel in quickly before I caught up with him and the rod bent over as I at last made proper contact. The power of big barbel never fails to amaze me and this was no exception. I hoped it was a barbel since at this stage there was always a chance it was a carp, the power was certainly enough for that to be the case. After a good five minutes of the fight I called for Stef, by the time he arrived the fish was cruising back and forth just in front of me, then his back broke the surface and I could at last confirm it was a barbel. The fight was almost over by that time and shortly after I was bringing a large barbel over the net. I had thought it would be a double but when I saw the depth of it I knew I had a new Kennet best. Once he had been unhooked, I put the net back in the water while I got the camera and scales ready for the exciting bit. Stef and I often play the guessing game at this stage and this time Stef won with his try of 14lb, maybe 15lb. At 15lb 5oz it was, and still remains, my equal second best river fish behind the Traveller off the Great Ouse. Yet again fate had stepped in and instead of fishing for chub on the Stour I had taken a magnificent fish off the Kennet. I’ll take those presents any time she wants to pass them out. That fish gave me a total of six river doubles completed for the year, but it was a figure I did not improve on. Not a failure, but disappointing not to have improved on last season’s result.