Pick Your Spot - With Care
It's very tempting to stick with what you know but this is something I have always found very hard to do. Every season I like to spend some time searching out new waters, most of them turn out to be duck eggs but now and again this approach turns up something special, so I stick with it. This years barbel hunt is no different and I decided to start the campaign off by looking at a few stretches of the upper Severn which I hadn't fished before. I am hopeful that I'll be able to find some new areas this year that will give me a chance of beating my target weight of 11lb 5oz on this river.
Often, there is little to be gained by arriving at a new stretch fully laden with gear. The roving approach, travelling light and moving frequently, is a better way to search out a new water.
So it was that I found myself driving down the roughest of tracks in our battered old Sierra and parking up by a slightly swollen river. Tackle consisted of a pound and a quarter test, eleven foot Avon style rod, Shimano 5010 loaded with ten pound line with a few bits of tackle stuffed into my bag and fishing waistcoat. Bait, in such coloured water, was to be the inevitable meat fished on a straightforward leger rig. Have you noticed how difficult it is to get hold of good luncheon meat these days? Most supermarkets seem to have stopped selling good, cheap meat in those rectangular cans which I find so convenient. Nowadays the choice seems to be between small round tins or "Spam" which is quite expensive if you're using a lot (which you should!) - I digress.
The stretch on which I had elected to start was rather remote and it soon became obvious that there hadn't been an angler there for some time. The undergrowth was so high that reaching the river was an arduous task in most swims and I could see that I had a strenuous morning ahead. Conditions for barbel fishing were excellent but for swim-spotting, not so good. I would have preferred the river to be low and clear for this "fact finding" session. I walked upstream for a mile or so, peering into the murky water now and then if a swim looked likely. I was looking for obvious features like snags, areas of slack water or places where the river was obviously a little deeper. I eventually settled into a spot that contained all three and dropped in a big chunk of meat on a size four. I was only using a very light lead of perhaps a quarter of an ounce so that the bait would swing round and settle just on the crease where the main flow met the bankside slack. I didn't have long to wait before the 'pluck pluck' on the line signalled the first bite of the day. The strike met with a solid resistance - too solid, I was snagged. No amount of persuasion would get the tackle off the snag and I had to pull for a break. A quick re-tackle and I was in again. Once again the bait was taken almost immediately and a nice chub of around four pounds was brought to the bank. A nice enough fish but not what I was after. Cast number three resulted in yet another bite but this time the strike was met with no resistance at all, the line had been sliced through by some underwater obstacle!
I moved on to various other swims, dropping in a chunk of meat here and there and making a mental note of the features I found.
A chance meeting with the bailiff was pretty helpful and he pointed me towards an area where he believed there were barbel but the result was the same, chub and yet more chub. I moved on to another stretch, caught another bag of chub and moved on yet again. By the end of the day I was both tired and a little anxious as I had not had a barbel at all. I had, by now, moved on to a stretch where the river was significantly wider and slower but with some quite sharp bends. A sharp bend in the river often holds a particular feature. In times of flood, the current forms a vortex on the downstream side of the bend which acts almost like a drill, gouging out a hole in the riverbed. Sometimes this effect can be very marked and I know of places on the Dee and Ouse where the bottom has been scoured out to a depth of over thirty feet!
Settling down to fish one of these bends I found a spot which was significantly deeper just where I expected it to be. Here at last I got a result, as, in the fading light, I had a tremendous bite which turned out to be a hard fighting barbel of 8lbs 6oz. What was just as interesting however was that I spotted several large barbel rolling in a swim some way downstream. I made a note of this and decided to return and catch them at a later date. There were one or two other spots along this particular stretch that looked likely holding areas too and I went home satisfied that the days objective had been fulfilled.
A week later saw me in the swim where I had seen those fish rolling. Travelling down after work, I had the baits in position by around seven o'clock. The river was again a little high but this time the colour had gone out of it, leaving it crystal clear and cold. This is one of the drawbacks in fishing the Severn. Water released from the cold depths of the Welsh reservoirs often puts the fish off the feed and these conditions suggested that this was just what had happened. The fishing was slow and I didn't see any barbel rolling on this particular evening but I did pick up a nice fish of 7.07 just before the light faded. As darkness fell, I was treated to the delightful sight of a pair of otters splashing and playing in my swim. All thoughts of catching barbel forgotten for a while I sat mesmerised by these beautiful creatures. They didn't seem to be aware of my presence at first and came within six feet of me, actually swimming around underneath my rods. Eventually they cottoned on to my presence and were off. Not surprisingly, I didn't catch another fish after that.
Reliable Ribble - The Gully Swim
First trip to the Ribble was to be to a swim I knew quite well. This is a deep gully which runs for a distance of about a hundred yards and is around twenty yards from my bank. The water immediately upstream of this gully is shallow, rocky and fast flowing for maybe half a mile, while the river downstream is all a fairly bland three to four feet deep. The gully gradually gets deeper as you move down it, reaching a maximum depth of around nine feet before the depth rises quite suddenly.
This area holds quite a lot of barbel, being a natural food trap. The difficulty is in managing to sort out the bigger fish, which I know grow to over ten pounds here.
I visited this spot twice in the first week of the season and had two good sessions, catching fish to 8.06 on the first trip and 8.14 on the second along with numerous smaller specimens. My target for the Ribble for the season was to beat my best fish for the river and this largest fish exactly equalled it so I was fairly pleased to catch it. On the first trip, another angler was fishing nearby with his son. They were having a hard time of it with the eels which can be a real nuisance on the Ribble and came over to ask if I knew a way to avoid them. They were using meat as hook bait - an eel bait second only to maggots on this river, so I gave them some eel-proof bait to help them along.
My son, Joe, came with me on the second trip and had a bonus chub of exactly five pounds, a personal best for him. The Ribble has gained quite a reputation for big chub over recent years and I expect several more five pound chub to feature in our catches this season. All of the Ribble barbel I caught fought exceptionally well, much more so than the ones from the Severn. Why this should be I don't know but it may be something to do with the shape of Ribble barbel which always seem very deep in the shoulder.
The Suicide Swim
Having got a few fish under my belt I decided that a trip to a new stretch of the Ribble was in order. The next trip then was once again to be something of a reconnaissance mission but this was not like the earlier trip to the Severn where I was looking for something completely new. This time I had some information to go on. My old mate Gary Brandwood had told me of a swim he had discovered with a large snag in it where he had had a number of good fish the previous season. Snags invariably hold barbel and this one held barbel of quite large proportions but there are obvious hazards in fishing close to snags.
This particular snag is on the far bank. There are a couple of trees which have fallen in and become embedded in the river and in turn, have trapped other items carried downstream. Add to that the many fronds of weed and several miles of lost tackle and feeders and this snag has become a formidable one. The long cast required to reach the snag makes things much worse. Cast short and you won't catch, cast too far and the inevitable happens - all in all it's a difficult swim to fish and I was not surprised when I found the swim free on my arrival.
The trick here is to lay a tight carpet of feed just off the snag in an effort to tempt the fish out of hiding. This I did by donning my chest waders, wading halfway across the river and ladling in several pints of hempseed using a large bait dropper. The river here is fairly shallow which helped but the riverbed is strewn with large, smooth boulders which are really tricky to walk on. The session didn't go as well as I had hoped. The first bite came around ten o'clock and was a real rod-wrencher. I clamped down hard on the fish and managed to keep it from going back into the snag but it turned out that the snag itself wasn't the only problem as, after a minute or so of playing the fish, the line suddenly parted. Examination of the end of the line showed it to be quite badly frayed and it was clear that the many rocks and shelves on the riverbed had cut through the line.
A little while later I did manage a nice fish of 7.14 but I went home that evening knowing that I'd made a mistake with the suicide swim. I had been undergunned, despite the use of ten pound line. I am determined to catch a big barbel from this spot and next time I return I'll step the gear up watch this space.
There we have it then. The campaign is well and truly under way and in the first month, some quite good fish have come my way. The two targets still stand, although one has already been equalled and I have managed to search out some new places to fish. These have come through observation, information and a fair bit of knowledge about the kind of places barbel inhabit. The hole, gully and snag swims described here are fairly typical places to find the fish but there are other situations where you will find them and I'll go into that in greater depth next month.
Next month too, I'll talk a little more about feeding the swim and about how choice of bait is not just about what the barbel will eat.