Lack of weed cover plus an increase in flow pushing the fish into quieter and often more accessible swims are two obvious reasons for this, as is the fact that most barbel naturally attain their maximum body weight in the winter. But especially on the Hampshire Avon, where I do most of my barbel fishing, it is now getting so rare to even spot a big barbel in summer that I am beginning to suspect a more unusual cause for their abrupt winter reappearance.
I have this wonderful theory that the fish have started to follow the ancient migration habits of the now almost defunct salmon. To escape the traditionally busier angling months of June to September the barbel are heading downstream and spending their summer holidays by the sea!
How else can I explain the fact that for the last ten years I have only once caught a double figure barbel before November.
There was a swim on the Royalty Fishery, for instance, where summer after summer I could guarantee myself at least a brace of fish and sometimes catch many more; but none would weigh much over eight pounds and most were around the five or six pound mark; Then November would arrive- dark, stormy and bleak. The rain would get more serious, the river would rise and thicken with colour, and suddenly the big barbel would be back. They were catchable, too, and I’d sometimes get my best chance with my first cast. After the middleweights of summer a ten pounder would appear absolutely massive, and they were always in such dazzling condition.
‘Fresh run fish!’ I would say. ‘Just in from the sea.’
On the Royalty, though, which is tidal in its lower section, there is no doubt that the barbel really do occasionally drop right down into Christchurch harbour. Huge carp inhabit that brackish water, along with the mullet, bass and sea-trout, so there is no reason why the barbel shouldn’t swim there too. Perhaps they sometimes prefer lugworms to luncheon meat!
Whatever the reasons for the monsters sudden reappearance, their presence certainly gives an extra dimension of drama to the fishing. While even a small barbel won’t be feeling very frisky on a day of authentic winter weather- when the water temperature drops to below 42 f.- if its mild, moist, overcast and settled then the chances for a genuine net busting specimen will be better then ever.
With large fish on the scrounge and the river up and surging, it’s no good float fishing with light line or delicately quiver tipping. A ten or eleven pound barbel in prime winter condition can be completely unstoppable once it spears itself downstream, so I use a powerful but lissom rod and eight pound line. I normally leger with an Arlesley Bomb of between quarter to one and a half ounces, depending on the strength of current. The hook will be a four or six as the bait for a winter fish is invariably substantial- a matchbox size chunk of luncheon meat, a bunch of lobworms, a hefty portion of black pudding or a rolled up rasher of bacon. Maggots will certainly work- a bunch of about twenty- but if you use a feeder it will probably have to be heavy and cumbersome.
Of course fine tackle and sensitive technique can still be occasionally used, especially when fishing large slacks or snag free side streams. In flood conditions, the barbel will often move into sheltered, quieter water where float fishing is not only possible but sometimes highly productive.
As the higher water levels persist with the continuation of a proper wet British winter so the fish become more established in those more sheltered harbours - as long as they are not put under too much angling pressure. Over-fishing will eventually cause them to search for some new more secret sanctuary, yet they nearly always return to their original wintering place after a week or two - once all the anglers have given up and gone home.
On the Royalty, however, the big fish seem to have abandoned their normal wintering holes altogether. There is never any continual angling pressure in winter, but those few fishermen who always used to know when and where the lunkers would be feeding have finally persuaded the fish to move to new and less predictable places.
I have caught big barbel all through the winter months. November, as I said, is a good time, when the aristocracy first appear, but my favourite time is March - the end of winter, the end of the season, but the beginning of spring, when there is a wonderful sense of renewal along the riverside and the fish themselves reach their absolute peak of condition. I caught my biggest ever specimen in March, a thirteen and a quarter pounder on the last cast of the 96/97 season. I also landed my best of last season on March the 3rd, on an evening of simply perfect barbel weather. Allow me to describe the encounter:
The stretch was a once favourite bit of river above Breamore and I got to the place at late afternoon. The air was cloudy with drizzle and it was very mild indeed with a water temperature of just over fifty. Even better, there was no-one else on the bank. I had all the river to myself.
The light was poor and the water was quite coloured after a deluge the previous day. But the air was still and full of spring sounds - thrush, blackbird and squabbling moorhen.
I fished a side stream, casting into a surprisingly deep pool on a bend about a hundred yards from the main river. During the winter the fish tended to congregate in that backwater and the higher the river the higher up the stream they’d go.
I fished with a Barder Merlin eleven footer - nowadays my favourite barbel rod- and a Dragonfly centre-pin loaded with eight pound line. Tackle was the a simple running leger - a half ounce bomb - stopped a foot from a size four Drennan Raptor. Bait was luncheon meat.
Casting the ten yards to the far bank, I allowed the bait to trundle downstream until I felt it settling in the hole. I kept hold of the rod as the bites can often be quite quick and snatchy and very often the biggest fish can give the sneakiest pull.
An hour passed uneventfully. I must have reeled in and rebaited half a dozen times. Then, as the light was beginning to sink towards evening - always the most magical time - there was a firm decisive pull and I hooked a fish that swept off downstream and went under a distant footbridge. Because of a bend in the stream and various bankside hawthorns I could not follow it down and I obviously did not want it going beyond the bridge. So I held firm and applied all the pressure of the rod. Gradually the fish slowed and turned and, without pumping or altering my position, I slowly eased it back upstream.
There was a splendidly explosive splash when the fish surfaced and a lovely golden flash as it rolled and powered away again. I had to bring it up to the net three times before I could finally-and rather desperately- get it over the rim and safely into the mesh.
A terrific looking barbel, seeming all the more brilliant in the gloomy evening light. End of winter, perfect condition, ten and three quarter pounds.
I gently released it and it glided away into the dark water, no doubt soon to be heading downstream and back to the sea!