As August turned to September and the nights began to draw in, my son, Joe and I went in search of new swims where we might catch that PB barbel. Last month I described a number of swims we had fished where I expected there to be barbel and we were not disappointed. All of these swims had some form of feature which made them an attractive place for the barbel to live and indeed, all of these spots will hold barbel all of the time, day or night.
Contrary to popular opinion however, barbel do tend to move about quite a bit and this is especially true at night time. Cautious fish which spend their days in the safety of a snag or a deep hole will move out under cover of darkness and feed on the rich shallows and it was here that we intended to ambush our next victims.
I learned many years ago whilst fishing the Severn at Atcham that there are areas of shallow water which are devoid of fish during the day but which come alive at night and I bagged up there many times. The only problem is choosing the right area of shallow water. It's a bit of a hit and miss affair, for while most gravely shallows will be visited by the odd barbel during the hours of darkness, some stretches are definitely favoured and these give the best chance of a good catch.
One way to improve your chances of finding a good swim is to choose an area close to a holding spot. The place we chose for this first assault was well situated between a snaggy weir pool, which was likely to hold fish, and a rocky gully which I knew held a number of big barbel, so while we had never fished this spot before I was very hopeful. A few minutes plumbing gave me some vital information. The water was generally only around two feet deep but there was one area which was a little deeper at around three feet, and it was here that we set up.
Trout pellet was to be the hook bait. This is a bait I was introduced to by Paul Garner a couple of seasons ago and is one I have developed a lot of faith in. When I first started using this bait I would fish a string of three or four smallish pellets on a hair. Nowadays however, I prefer to use the large "jumbo" pellets and fish either one or two, again on a hair. The jumbo pellets have the advantage that they stay solid for much longer than the smaller ones do. This means that they don't come off the hair so easily so there is less risk of sitting there with no bait on for a while. I don't really see an alternative to the hair rig when fishing pellets. I have found so-called "pellet bands" to be fairly useless with the bait coming adrift from the hook quite easily and its clearly not possible to fish such a hard bait direct on the hook. I use a nut drill to drill a hole in the pellet and fit an ordinary hair stop behind the bait. I do find that it is better to fish a very short hair, the top pellet almost touching the bend of the hook.
Pellets are a great summer bait on the Ribble as they very rarely attract the attention of eels. Why this should be is something of a mystery since they are, of course, composed mainly of fish, but the fact remains that I have yet to catch an eel on pellet. The Ribble eel problem is so severe that some baits are a waste of time until the water turns cold. Maggots and meat especially are a nightmare to use while some boilies and even sweetcorn will attract the odd one.
Joe and I started fishing about an hour before dark. As usual, nothing much happened until the light started to fade when Joe had a typical rod-wrenching bite and was into what was obviously a good fish. Barbel fights in shallow water are usually quite spectacular and this was no exception. The fish crashed and splashed about on the surface for much of the time making long surging runs both upstream and down before Joe was able to bring it to the bankside to be netted. At nine pounds exactly it was his second biggest barbel and bigger than any I have had from the Ribble.
The evening turned to night and more bites came. It turned out to be quite a good session with plenty of barbel to both of us with five of the fish going over seven pounds. I had a rather strange event when, as I slipped the net under a nice fish, I noticed that my other rod was away and so brought in a second fish. With both fish on the bank it was clear that they were of a similar size but by coincidence they both weighed exactly the same at seven pounds twelve ounces each. We finished the session at around 2am and went home very satisfied.
Several more trips to the shallows followed and each time, good barbel were caught but none of them matched that first session for quantity or quality.
Feeding is really important in situations like this. It's quite possible, of course, to just lob out a hookbait with no feed around it and still get barbel but you are going to put together a better catch of fish if you can get the feeding right. The situation described above, where we were fishing a new swim can be a difficult one. If the swim is only visited by a few fish during the night, it is possible to overfeed the swim. Putting in too little feed on the other hand might result in the bulk of the fish passing you by. Like many barbel anglers, I rely on hemp as my main feed. This can be introduced either by catapult, bait dropper or feeder, or a combination of the three. In swims which I know hold a lot of fish, and if the weather is warm, I would choose the bait dropper and put in a large quantity of bait at the start of a session. Its possible to introduce half a gallon of feed into a tight spot in around fifteen minutes with a large bait dropper. Obviously this will cause a lot of disturbance and may well put the fish off for a time but it only has to be done once and the fish will come back fairly quickly.
In a new swim however, I tend to rely on the feeder to lay a carpet of hemp. In this way I can judge the amount I need put in by the number of bites and line bites I am getting and on average, I would expect to cast each rod around once every ten minutes. I use the largest feeders I can get my hands on so that I can get plenty of bait into the water without having to cast so often that I'm putting the fish off.
I know many people use blockend feeders to feed with hemp and rely on the current to wash the bait out of the feeder but I don't like that method. I believe most of the bait is actually washed out of a blockend feeder as it is retrieved, spreading the bait about the river. I want my bait to be tight in one spot so that the fish have to be close to one another to eat it and they start to compete. This competition is very important as it will make the barbel abandon their caution and take a baited hook.
The feeder I prefer to use is a semi-blockend. The feeder is blocked at the top but the bottom has a plug of fairly dry groundbait. I can be confident that this will empty its contents either before I begin to retrieve or just as I lift the rod, so the feed will stay just where I want it.
Early September brought rain, and the Ribble became suddenly difficult to fish. There are few good swims close to the bank on the river; most require a cast of between ten and thirty yards. This means that there is always a fair amount of line in the water so if the current picks up speed, the pressure on the line starts to move the lead or feeder. What makes things much worse however is the large amount of weed which becomes deposited on the line, causing the drag on the line to increase dramatically. When conditions are like this it's best to give the Ribble a miss, but the petrol shortage meant that I couldn't get to the Severn, which is more than twice as far away as the Ribble, so it was Hobsons choice.
I did manage one trip to the Severn during the month. I decided to return to the deep hole where I caught the 8lb 6oz fish mentioned in the last article. The river was quite a different proposition this time; eight feet up and roaring through, it was impossible to hold out in the main current and I soon abandoned that idea. A little way downstream, a large bush hung in the water, deflecting most of the current and forming a deep slack. Areas like this are a good bet in flood conditions. The fish will lie up close to the bank sheltering from the main flow but don't get the idea that the barbel are lying dormant. Floods are times of plenty for the fish and they are prepared to feed avidly.
I find it best to use a minimum of lead in these circumstance and set up with a tiny bomb of just one eighth of an ounce. The idea behind this is that the tackle will naturally settle into the quietest water and, since this is where many food items will settle, that's where the barbel will be. Bait was to be meatball, straight from the can, fished direct on a size six hook.
I lowered the bait in position and fed out line until the lead settled and hooked my right index finger around the line just above the reel. Within seconds a gentle pluck on my finger signalled the first bite. I struck and brought in a spirited barbel of around two pounds. Two further casts to the same spot brought two slightly larger fish, each going four pounds or so.
I had to wait quite a while for the next bite. Evening drew on and the light started to fade when, without warning, I had the most vicious bite which snatched the line off my finger and dragged the rod over into a tight hoop. The clutch screamed out almost at once as the powerful creature tore off across the river and downstream. Shocked into action I could do little more than hang on for dear life. In no time at all, fifty yards of line had been stripped from the reel and the fish was still going! Tightening the clutch seemed to slow the fish's progress but then it got its second wind and was off again. My vision obscured by the bushes which lay downstream, I knew that it was only a matter of time before the creature found a snag and so it proved as everything went solid. The usual tricks of slackening off and tightening up again didn't work this time and I eventually had no choice but to pull for a break.
In all honesty I have decided that the unseen monster couldn't have been a barbel. The Severn, like most rivers these days holds a fair head of carp, some of them going well over twenty pounds and I suspect it was one of these which had taken my bait. I hope so anyway! For if it had been a barbel, it was one hell of a fish!