This obsession started 4 years ago. It is the direct result of some friendly rivalry with my life long angling pal, Paul Goulbourn and its origins can be easily traced .
Late evening of the 20th September 1996 Paul rang me up in an excited state - I knew he'd caught and caught big. Paul had enjoyed a short evening session on Upper Benyons just up-stream from the Ufton bridges and in the gathering gloom had connected with the only 2 bites he had in his time on the bank. Fishing garam masala flavoured meat, ledgering with a size 14 tied to 4lb B/S (he never has explained why he was fishing this light) his first fish fell on what he'd decided would be his last cast. A splendid chub of 5lb 2oz and a new P/B for Paul (and for me at the time if I'd caught it) was netted after a dogged fight. That would have been it were it not for a queue of traffic building up on the bridge waiting for a barge to pass through the swing bridge on the adjoining canal. "Oh well, I can't leave if I wanted to - time for one more cast" thinks Paul. As soon as the re-cast bait has settled it is snaffled by something much larger which, after 20 minutes is landed at the second attempt - "I didn't realise how long it was in the dark and it fell out of the landing net on the first attempt!" explained Paul. I'm kept in suspense as this story is unfolded "Well - how big?" says I , "A Barbel" explains Paul, "I gathered that - HOW BIG" - I continue, not bearing the suspense any more.
"B***** ME! Well done mate!!"
"Why didn't you ring me from the bank I could have been there in 10 minutes?" "Err - didn't think!" replies Paul. Of course it was more important to get the fish returned asap rather than waiting for a mate to take a trophy shot but boy, was I envious. Paul by his own admission puts a lot fewer hours on the river than I do - in fact he's still to fish running water this season and yet on one of his few sessions of that season he'd caught the barbel of my dreams. As soon as the phone was put down my quest had begun!
When I was 16 the family moved to Thatcham and 18 months later to Newbury. At the time a Reading and District AA ticket gave you access to two splendid fisheries to the south of Thatcham Station; Crookham Manor and Chamberhouse Farm. How I'd love to have a crack at these fisheries today but alas both have long since been lost to other clubs/syndicates. I was soon regularly catching some nice Barbel and by the time I was 17 my personal best stood at 6lb. However, fish much bigger always seem to have eluded me and at the time of Paul's capture, some 18 years later my P/B stood at 'just' 6lb 15oz.
Paul's fish had come at nightfall and although I'd done a fair bit of evening fishing for barbel I decided to get in more full blown night sessions. However that would have to wait for the following season, my first trip after that phone call was straight back to Paul's swim (well wouldn't you?) and I was rewarded with a fish of 6lb 5oz only for Paul to fish it again a week later and rub salt in the wound by banking a fish of 9lb 12oz!
The following season my night pilgrimages began in earnest and sure enough I started catching a lot more barbel. I had one splendid night at Brimpton when I had over a dozen fish between the hours of 22.00 and 03.00. All these were mid-range fish - over half of them over 4lb but only 1 over 5. Great sport, to be sure, but the prospect of anything bigger seemed remote from this venue. However, I did get another P/B, a 7lb 3oz fish from a stretch below Newbury - ironically in broad daylight and the only barbel that year I caught on sweet-corn.
More recently I have been targeting a venue nearer to home. This is a pretty featureless stretch of river and apart from a few decent pike I have not given it much attention especially on the barbel front. The water really is proving to be a night venue - you can fish it all day and believe there's not a fish in the river. An evening session produces a few bites though it's not until it gets completely dark that the fish seem confident enough to feed. I only caught one fish last year during daylight and whilst I've had a few more 'daylight' fish this season the bigger ones all seem to come at night. My first three night trips last season were remarkable for the timing of my 1st bite which happened at 22.45 on each occasion! It was as if some kind of dinner gong had gone off at this time. On my 4th visit when 22.45 came and went without a bite I thought I was in for a blank until the first fish turned up at 23.30.
The fish here are of a much better stamp, I had 16 over 6lb last season including 5 over 8 with a new personal best of 8lb 14oz. My first trip of this season saw my hunch about this venue pay off and I eventually banked that double. However, at 10lb 4oz I've still got someway to go to better Paul's leviathan.
So as one quest is achieved, another one starts and I've spent a good part of the summer 'sussing out' swims that might hold barbel to match that of my friend. This has resulted in a good summer's barbelling with a total of 14, 6lb fish of which half have been over 8lb. Prospects look rosy for a good autumn!
August usually sees me spend fewer hours on the river bank. The family holiday has to be squeezed in (this is always strictly 'angling free'!) and Saturday's have to compete with the start of the football season - the whole family are season ticket holders with Reading FC. As a consequence I've been restricted to 3 short mid-week, after work, barbelling sessions. These have all been in different swims - I've been working progressively downstream trying to find a hotspot within a short walk from home! My only weekend trip was a few hours on a Saturday morning trotting and stalking a stretch below Newbury.
The first of these short sessions was really short. I didn't decide to go until 8 o'clock (nothing worth watching on the telly and it was a warm overcast evening) and yet by 8.30 I was slipping the net under an 8lb 5oz barbel which had snaffled the bait on the drop on my first cast! How's that for instant results!? It certainly does pays to live close to the river.
Two other items of interest from this session - the next three bites and fish (all barbel) came as a direct result of twitching the bait. This technique is a proven winner with finicky tench on a still water I fish a lot - but I've not really deliberately used it on the river before. The first was by accident. A bit of weed was dragging on the line and I was trying to flick it off when I dislodged the ledger an inch or two; seconds later a vicious tug results in a 5lb fish. Half an hour later and a repeat, this time without the excuse of any weed to dislodge, results in a 6lb fish. This is followed half an hour later by another 8lber hooked the same way. A 4 and quarter pound chub finished off the session and by 11.00pm I was packing up - extremely content with my return from 2 and a half hours on the bank.
The other item of note was the sight of one (well, a pair actually) of Britain's rarer birds of prey feeding along the length of the river. The birds, a pair of Hobby's, were pointed out to me by a couple of twitchers armed with some serious looking optical equipment. I had spotted the birds earlier but mistaken them for large Swifts. Hobby's are summer visitors to southern England and like to feed their young on large winged insects such as dragon-flies. Major rivers in the south, therefore, afford you your best chance of spotting one.
My next trip was nearly my first blank of the season. In what I considered near perfect conditions - warm, overcast and very muggy - (I was still in shirt sleeves at 11.00pm) I really struggled for a bite and was presented with just 2 chances. The first came as I covered myself in Jungle Formula to ward off an invasion of mosquitos and I was hopelessly slow in hitting it. The second came at that 'dinner gong' time of 22.45 and resulted in my smallest barbel of the summer - a blank saving fish of under 4lb. 'Shan't be returning to this spot in a hurry!
Sandwiched between the first of these 2 midweek sessions was my weekend trip - a morning spent primarily float fishing a favourite spot below Newbury. This largely overlooked club venue has about half a dozen trotting swims and a similar number which are best tackled by stalking tactics so it was time to get the centre pin out for the first time this year.
The fishery offers a fine variety of specimens - over the last 11years I've had Chub to 5lb, Barbel over 7lb, Perch to 2 and a quarter, Grayling to nearly 2lb, plus the odd 1lb and a half roach and even a Bream or two. But my quarry with the trotting gear was dace. This stretch of the river produced my first 1lb dace in 1989 - and, I hasten to add, until last winter my only 1lb dace! Although I wasn't expecting anything approaching the proportions of these winter plump females, it's still a stretch where it's possible to trot a long gravel run for a couple of hours and get a bite a chuck - though not necessarily a fish a chuck, given the lightening speed a dace can eject a bait!
The first couple of hours were spent stalking the upper reaches of this short venue. The water is crystal clear and stealth is of the essence. Nothing particularly big was on view but it didn't take long to bank a couple of 2lb chub and a 3lb bream. All spotted over clean gravel and fooled with a bunch of maggots on a 16 weighted with a single BB. I love stalking fish and seeing the way they react when presented with a bait - it's always 'heart pounding' stuff. So far, so good.
The trotting proved less so. The dace weren't to be found in their usual haunts, and certainly not in the numbers I had last season. Also I was plagued by a pair of energetic brown trout each of which weighed a bit over a pound and each of which TWICE snaffled my single maggot presented on a size 18! Needless to say, after this level of commotion the swim never really 'got going' though I did eventually get a couple of dozen dace between all the splashing spotties.
The 3rd evening trip of the month was up to the standard of most previous ones. Three barbel, the best an ounce under 7lb and a Bream a couple of ounces under 5lb was a satisfactory return for 4 hours fishing. However, it occurs to me as I type this that I've now covered most of the swims within 'easy' walking distance of home and haven't trekked back to the spot where I had my double during the opening week.
That's something I'll have to rectify next month!