It can be a frustrating sport of ours, this fishing. There's just so much to it isn't there? No other sport can compare with angling for variety, and there lies the problem; so many fish and so little time. The way we cope with it is to specialise of course, whether sea, game or coarse, match or pleasure, stillwater or river we all tend to find a favourite niche and make it our own. My favourite niche has always been specimen fishing. I've fished for larger than average fish for around thirty years now and I've had some fair successes. Looking back however, I know that while much of the fishing has been good, some has been quite magical and so many of those magical moments have involved fishing for that most handsome of fish, the barbel.
Last season was the worst seasons barbel fishing I've had in all of those thirty years! Concentrating on bream, pike and chub, I hardly fished for old whiskers at all and in early March, it dawned on me that I had only had one barbel all season, a tiny creature weighing just four ounces! I managed to squeeze in a trip before the season ended and bagged a six pounder from the Ribble, a dark, deep-bodied muscular fish so typical of that river. The season closed the next day and that capture made me regret that I had spent a year ignoring the barbel. So it was that I decided to make amends and for several months now I've been plotting!
As I write, it is July. The rain is hammering at my windows and I have a streaming cold - another typical English summer is well under way! Typical English summers eventually have to give way to typical English autumns however, and I know that within a month or so the barbel fishing will start to come into its own. The scene is set then! This year is going to be my barbel year and, at the discretion of the editor, I hope to share it with you.
Each month, until the season ends, I intend to keep you updated on my efforts to catch this most exciting of our native coarse fish. I may not have the resolve to fish for barbel exclusively - there's always something else that comes along, but for most of the time this season, barbel will be my quarry. I will set myself two targets that I want to achieve this year, one of them fairly easy and the other one quite hard. I want to improve on my biggest barbel from each of my two chosen venues.
The Story So Far
For most of my life I have lived in a poor area of the country for barbel fishing. The north west of England has no indigenous barbel population and in the early days, as teenagers, my friends and I had to travel long distances in order to find them. The first barbel I ever saw was caught by my old friend Sid Boulter from the River Severn at Ironbridge. We had travelled to the river by coach on an organised trip with a local angling club, only to find the river in a raging flood. We fished luncheon meat under our rod tips where the current was a little slacker and we got a few fish. I can remember to this day how surprised I was when that first one popped up to the surface after a spirited fight and I saw it was only around a pound and a half. Sid and I had caught tench and carp before which had not fought so well and the fighting qualities of the barbel impressed us greatly - it still does!
More coach trips to the Severn followed and, in time, we branched out on our own, first cadging lifts to the river and later with our own transport. The Severn in those days had a tremendous head of barbel and big bags of fish were relatively easy to catch. Sorting out the bigger fish was a lot more difficult however. Fish which looked as if they might go four pounds were always weighed and we got quite excited when one of us had a five. Occasionally one of us would catch a six pounder and it was congratulations all round. Then one night, while fishing at Atcham, my feeder-fished maggots were picked up by a huge fish of seven pounds! Sid and I were agog with this enormous creature and we kept it in a net until morning so that we could admire it in the daylight and parade it before the match anglers who were arriving for their contest.
Bigger fish followed with Sid taking the first "eight" but in time, we came to realise that we would struggle to do much better than this on the Severn. We wanted a chance of bigger fish and so we started to make the odd trip to the south coast and the river Stour whenever funds permitted. In time, our little band drifted away from Severn barbel fishing and we all went on to do our own thing, the huge tench and bream of the southern gravel pits captured my imagination for years but while I was away, the barbel of the mighty Severn grew up!
The Severn Today
How things have changed on the River Severn. The great shoals of little barbel have largely gone and hundred pound bags, while they still happen, are now a rarity. There are big barbel to be caught in the river now - very big ones. Howard Maddox record fish is the best recorded of course and for a while, it looked like the Severn would become the finest specimen barbel river of them all. This was not to be however, and for the time being the Severn's barbel have been eclipsed by the monsters from the Great Ouse, but the Severn is a big river and it surely holds many surprises yet. Few would doubt that the potential is still there for the river to take back the record and one day it probably will.
I returned to the Severn after some years in the wilderness and immediately discovered how much things had changed. The average size of Severn barbel is now around seven pounds in the areas I fish and there are double figure fish to be caught in many stretches. The fishing is much slower than it used to be though and many stretches are deserted for most of the year. Nowadays it isn't unusual to spend an entire weekend wandering the river without meeting another angler. What a beautiful place though, the Severn valley is perhaps the most peaceful setting you would find in the whole of England. The valley is characterised by wide meadows dotted with the most magnificent oak trees and it is a pure joy to fish there.
So the Severn is to be one of my target venues for my barbel year but I won't be chasing known fish in the lower reaches. The relatively unexplored reaches of the upper and middle river between Welshpool and Shrewsbury hold many good fish and this is where I have had most of my better barbel including my current personal best of 11lb 5oz. This is to be my first target. Beating this fish from the upper river will not be easy but I know the potential is there and by setting myself a difficult goal, and doing so publicly, I know this will make me try that much harder. I do need a softer target to keep my spirits up however and this is where my other venue will come into it.
The Beautiful River Ribble
The other venue I intend to concentrate on is the River Ribble. When I started my barbel fishing all those years ago, there were none in the Ribble. They were introduced illegally into the river during the seventies and have prospered. It's been interesting to watch the developments in the Ribble and in many ways the river has followed in the footsteps of the Severn. Ten years ago it was possible to catch big bags of fish on the Ribble, just as it was twenty years ago on the Severn. It does seem, however that the barbel fishing on the Ribble has developed more rapidly than it did on the Severn and there are certainly big fish to be caught there now. I have some theories as to why this should be so. One of the contributing factors, I'm sure, has been pollution. The river has suffered several mystery pollutions over the years though thankfully, none recently. I recall speaking to an old guy on the river some years ago who told me that he'd seen many hundreds of chub and barbel floating dead after one such incident when a slug of pollution entered the river from the Calder. He told me that the largest barbel he pulled out would have been over nine pounds - I hadn't even had a seven pounder from the river at that time and was gutted at the news but in retrospect these pollutions may have actually done some good, thinning out the population and allowing the remaining fish to put on weight. Another contributing factor, I'm sure, is the high level of predation by cormorants on the river. The great shoals of roach and small chub which used to characterise the Ribble have now gone and all the food they used to eat now goes to fatten the barbel.
The rivers barbel population seems to have stabilised now and they have spread right through from the tidal stretches in Preston to the turbulent rapids at Ribchester - and maybe beyond! They are certainly of a good size and I am hopeful that the coming season will see me improve on my Ribble best which currently stands at 8lb 14oz. Ribble barbel are superb fish, deep in the shoulder and incredibly muscular, they can take a bit of getting out - particularly since the river is strewn with boulders and snags.
The two venues I have available to me then are quite different in character and I hope to use these differences to my advantage. The Severn is generally slower but deeper, the Ribble having many rapids interspersed with deeper runs and pools. The Severn fishes better when there is extra water in it and indeed I have always found it to fish best when it is coloured and rising. The Ribble is difficult to fish when it is on the rise due to the large amount of weed which gets brought down on the flood. Ribble floods are usually short-lived however, the river often falling to normal level just as quickly as it can rise.
Severn barbel can be caught easily during the day, with late afternoon or early evening being the best time while the Ribble barbel are, without question, night feeders. The Ribble is quite a lot closer to me than is the Severn, the former being just thirty five miles away while the latter is more than double that.
My plan then is to fish the Severn at weekends when the banks of the Ribble see more anglers and to fish short, after-work sessions on the Ribble during the week. As the season progresses and the nights start drawing in, I expect the Ribble to feature more in my fishing than the Severn. The onset of colder weather will mean my sessions will become shorter and my approach will change as the months go by. I will be sharing my experiences, explaining my approach and, hopefully learning a bit as we go along.
Well it looks like I've committed myself now, I hope this cold clears up and the rains stops soon. I've got to get out and catch some barbel. After all, it's now barbel year!