For example, the catfishing can be excellent, there are some huge pike, very decent chub and some excellent roach fishing, especially in the north of the country. However, for the past ten years or so whenever I've gone to France it has been with barbel tackle in the boot of the car.
Of course, fishing in France is just a fascinating and wondrous pastime. The weather, especially deeper down south, is generally much more kind that we're used to in the British Isles. This naturally means warmer, very fertile water and barbel as a result do so well that many French rivers boast the species both in vast quantities and very respectable sizes.
It's also quite possible to get way off the beaten track in rural France and fish some beautiful stretches of river with perhaps just a picturesque village somewhere lost as a backdrop. France is a much bigger country than the UK, more sparsely populated, less densely developed - all of which makes for some very peaceful, unstressed barbel fishing indeed.
The French themselves rarely fish for barbel: there is a growing carp market across the channel and fly-fishing has always been buoyant. Chances are, however, most bait men will still be using a pole and very light lines and if a barbel is hooked it is generally lost almost at once. This, naturally enough, means the pressure upon French barbel is considerably less than we find over here. All of which makes for a much more pleasing fishing experience. And now that we've got the tunnel, it's even closer to hand.
WHERE AND WHEN
It would be almost impossible to give a list of the scores and scores of French rivers that hold barbel. I first came across them in Normandy getting on for thirty years ago in the rivers Odon and Orne, just outside Caen. My sources tell me there's still barbel present but perhaps not with the sort of size that would make me want to go back. More interesting are the rivers Garonne and Dordogne: both these are very big waters with large stocks of barbel pretty well throughout their length. Many of the fish are in the two to five pound bracket but there are still some very large ones here and there.
However, my own favourite rivers have to be the River Loire and the Lot. The Loire is a huge river, frequently anything up to half a mile wide. However, don't let this put you off at all: it often breaks down into much narrower streams running between islands, especially in the summer when the levels are quite low and it's much more easy to contact fish. My own personal favourite area is between Tour downstream and Vierzon up river. It's around here, also, that a major tributary, the River Cher, joins the Lot and this lesser river is also worth close investigation.
The Lot really is a jewel of a river, well down in the south just north of the town of Rodez. Again, my own favourite stretch is between Cahors and Espalion. Here the Lot valley is probably at its most beautiful and the river frequently runs between towering cliffs, through deep forests and past enchanting villages and towns. The Lot offers a huge variety of water. There are rapid shallows and deep pools, bridges, tree-shaded glides and virtually everything the barbel fisherman is looking for. You've got to be careful though: the Lot does have dams along its length and sometimes, if these are opened suddenly, the waters can rise and it's difficult to find the fish until the river drops, clears out and you can see more clearly the bottom contours. On the Lot it is very frequently possible to see numbers of fish flashing and feeding. These are frequently in the two to four pound bracket but they do grow well over double figures in places.
If it's really large barbel that you're looking for then the Loire is probably the place for you. The big fish don't come easily but they are there: some twenty-five years ago I saw a stuffed barbel in a café that was reputed to weigh over nine kilos - around twenty pounds - and from its size I could believe it.
Personally, I prefer the summer and early autumn for the barbel fishing if only because the waters tend to be low and the fish more easily located. I haven't seen the Loire in true flood but it would be a quite awesome sight, I guess - certainly too intimidating for a quick week's introductory fishing trip.
Bait can be something of a problem. Maggots and worms are both excellent but you've got to keep in mind the heat if you're thinking of bringing either over from the UK. In fact, it's not a task I'd want to undertake. You can buy maggots in French tackle shops but they tend to be much more expensive than over here. In fact, you're probably better off digging your own worms once you get into France. Sweetcorn, of course, is easily purchased in France but it's not always recognised by the barbel as bait. Carp will pick anything up very quickly but barbel tend to be more cautious and take their time and if you're fishing a very isolated stretch of river chances are they've never seen a bait like sweetcorn before in their lives. Luncheon meat in all its various shapes and forms is a good bet as, perhaps surprisingly, is cheese. This is a much more instant bait than most people recognise.
However, of all the baits for French barbel, I would probably rate caddis grub amongst the highest. In fact, the French themselves will very frequently indeed spend half an hour collecting caddis grubs before fishing for anything in their rivers. Caddis are very easily found under the larger stones in the shallow water. Simply turn over a big stone, pick off the caddis cases and pop them in a bucket of shallow water. Once you've collected a hundred or so caddises then you've got enough to go fishing with - and you can often get ten caddis grubs off a single stone. Simply peel back the case, nip the grub gently and ease it out. Two or three grubs on a size twelve or fourteen hook are the most perfect of barbel baits and I'm always mystified why more barbel anglers don't use them over here in the UK.
As I've already said, France does see some hot weather and for this reason it's often better to concentrate on fishing both dawn and dusk. This is not necessarily always the case, however, and I've sometimes seen barbel feeding very voraciously in the heat of the mid-day sun. However, as a general rule, give me dawn alwaysDuring the middle of the day, however, look for deeper runs under shade. The Lot especially has some big rocks and you'll often find barbel feeding under and around these.
In all the French rivers you'll find huge numbers of smaller barbel averaging two to three pounds in weight. These are excellent sport in themselves especially if you pursue them with light tackle. I'd advise something like the Drennan Light Bomb rod, teamed up with something like four or at the most five pound line. You'll get sensational bites and fights on this type of tackle and size becomes of very secondary importance.
DO'S AND DON'TS
1. It's always vital to remember to drive on the left! This can be easily forgotten especially in the morning when you've just woken up. A sign sellotaped to your dashboard is a good idea.
2. Always obtain a fishing licence. These can be bought from tackle shops, hotels, post offices and so on.
3. Night fishing is frequently a point of issue. It's generally not allowed and don't break the rules. This only gets you into trouble and gives the English a bad name.
4. Check that bait fishing is allowed on the stretch of river that you fancy. A lot of good water is fly-fishing only for trout.
5. Take care of yourself in the heat. Always wear a hat and remember, however, dull, it's better to drink water rather then alcohol. There's time for the wine once the sun's down.
6. Wade very carefully in French rivers, especially those like the Lot which are dammed. You can find the water rising very quickly around you.
7. Don't ever keep barbel in keep-nets - certainly not in the heat of France. This just isn't fair on the fish in any way.