On page 66, at the start of the Autumn section of 'Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing', Peter is taken Barbel fishing by his father. Their chosen tactic is to trot a seven foot glide with 4 gentles (maggots to you and me !) on a No.9 hook to 3X gut. This is presented below a 'big float to carry plenty of shot to get down to the fish in the strong water'. As usual in Bernard Venables' idyllic world it's not too long before Mr Crabtree's target quarry has sucked in the bait and our heroes are into a fish which is off with a 'heavy rush, boring deep'. Peter has explained to him the virtue of ensuring the split cane top joint acts as a shock absorber to stop the gut smashing and the fish is duly landed. With the fish on the bank its distinguishing features (i.e. 4 barbels as opposed to the gudgeon's 2) are then pointed out. This was useful advice, as it happened, as my first barbel was a gudgeon sized specimen caught when I was 10.
As a youngster I was never very convinced with this chapter as it didn't match my own experiences. For a start, I never considered float fishing maggots a particularly discriminating method for catching barbel over any other species that might be in the river. I certainly never caught any that way and I never saw No. 9 hooks in the shops either! ( B.V. also has Mr Crabtree using No.7 hooks for Bream and No.17 for Roach - when did these 'half' sizes cease to be sold?)
I caught my first 'proper' barbel when I was 15. I banked a 2lb 12oz fish from the Little Penlocks and I went back the next day and followed it up with a fish of 4lb 4oz. By the end of the long hot summer of 1976 (hands up who remembers that!) I had caught half a dozen and my personal best had edged up to 4lb 12oz. In the early years all my Barbel were caught on ledgered lob worm, a method suggested in the text of the Mr Crabtree chapter (as opposed to the story board). I never, however, followed his other suggestion which was to mould an orange sized ball of ground bait, mixed really stiff with clay if necessary, around the lead to be swung into the head of your chosen swim. Umm - now what does that method remind you of?!!
Over the years the baits may have got more varied but the tactics didn't, nearly all my barbel fell to ledgered bait and any rare ones I caught float fishing I wrote off as flukes. Then in 1993 I found a swim that would produce barbel to trotted baits regularly. This swim was a fast, shallow stretch of the river below Newbury. In the summer no part of the river here is very deep and you can often cross from bank to bank in thigh waders. The swim in question is best tackled by wading to mid-river and trotting 30 or so yards through a fast 'clean' glide boarded on each side by thick beds of Ranunculus .
By the early '90's I had switched back to using a centre pin for my river float fishing. A C/P on the river has the great advantage over a fixed spool in that it 'forces' you to present the bait 'properly' in the moving current. I'm sure I'm catching more fishing on the float since returning to this traditional technique.
The swim in question was not one I'd fished very often but on the day in question, a warm, muggy day in late August I was positioned in mid-river enjoying afternoon's trotting for dace. Sport was pretty brisk and I was constantly feeding a trickle of maggots into the head of the swim from my bait smock. The current here is very fast and even a dace of 6oz or so gives great sport on light tackle (I was using a size 18 hook below a 2.5 swan-shot loaferfloat).
After a couple of hours the sport was going quiet when I connected into something much heavier. My immediate reaction was that it was a trout or one of the bigger grayling which both have a habit of showing up here. However, after a couple of minutes battling against the current I was slipping the net under a lovely teak coloured barbel in miniature. No more than a couple of pounds, it had put up a fine scrap against my 14 foot match rod to make his bigger cousin's proud.
A couple of years later I had 2 more from the same spot and since then I have usually caught 1 or 2 whenever I have fished this swim in late summer or early autumn. The swim almost appears to be a barbel nursery as the fish are never very big, ranging between 12oz and 2 pound but they are very game in the strong current and I'm not sure I could cope with anything too much bigger on my 'dace' tackle! This year, alas, these barbelets haven't been in evidence. The river has been a bit coloured and pushing through on both trips I've made to this stretch. I have had a few nice dace, though a feature this season has been the number of nuisance brownies that have been in residence.
The start of autumn has seen me continue my evening barbel campaign. The first of the month was my best session of the season so far with 6 fish being brought to the net, 2 over 8, the best 8.12 and all over 5lb, adding up to a thoroughly enjoyable evening and well worth the mile an a half walk to this, my favourite, swim. With the darker evenings I've dispensed with the bait dropper, which can be a bit time consuming, and now use a different method to get bait and hemp into my target areas. In my view you should never loose feed hemp on fast-ish rivers like the Kennet as you can never be sure where it will settle and I want to feel confident that I'm presenting my bait amongst my free offerings.
Bait droppers are a way round this allowing you to deposit hemp and particles accurately. However, they have there limitations; most shop bought one have very small capacities meaning it can take half an hour or so to get 3 or so pints into the river, with all the commotion that goes with it. They are also not particularly suitable for bait up far bank swims - the first time I tried this a pike took my dropper on the retrieve!! (I didn't land it!).
One way round this is to do as follows; After boiling your hemp drain off excess water (I freeze this to use when making up ground bait) but still leave a little over; to this add a generous helping of crushed hemp plus any small particles of your intended hook bait. Mix well, the crushed hemp plus the little left over water, makes the whole affair quite sticky. I then form a series of 1 - 2 dozen tangerine sized balls (about 3 tablespoons worth) and pop each ball into its own mini freezer bag. Place these in the deep freeze until you need them.
The trick now is to keep these frozen till you arrive at your swim - not a problem as I live close to the river - but if you're travelling some way a cool box may be called for. Now you've got hemp ground bait which will sink like a stone and it only takes a couple of minutes to lob in a dozen or so frozen balls into your chosen spots to de-frost on the bottom while you tackle up!!
My next 2 trips, short mid-week ones, were both highly frustrating. Both started well enough - a 6lb barbel falling in the first hour on the 1st trip and 2 good chub (half a pound either side of 4lb) in the first hour of the 2nd. On both trips though I caught nothing else despite being 'bedevilled' with twitches and knocks all evening. Despite the fact I was touch ledgering and rang the changes in terms of bait, hook length and hook size, I couldn't connect with a thing. Some of the knocks were undoubtedly bats flying into the line but many others were 'liners' and it was so frustrating knowing there were fish in the swim but suddenly, being seemingly unable to catch them.
My final trip of the month brought my first blank on the river this season. My friend Paul and I decided we'd have a stint on the club stretch at Aldermaston. This is a notoriously difficult stretch containing a few, big fish as well as specimen chub and some big carp. However, if you connect with a barbel it's quite likely to be a double, though we'd been told we'd be lucky to get a bite! American Signal Crayfish are also here in plague proportions and avoiding their
attentions has also to be considered.
We recce'd the water the week before and had our hopes raised by a visit to The Butt Inn. Mark, the landlord, is a keen angler himself and is given a free permit each year in return for letting the hardy souls who attempt this stretch park in his car park. The photos on the pin board in the saloon bar are enough to whet any anglers appetite and Mark was more than willing to share his knowledge of the water with us.
So, fortified with tales of anglers who had actually caught here, we both left work early on the Friday met up at my house and hurried to the water. Conditions were perfect - a warm muggy evening with the river up a bit and coloured from heavy rains in mid-week. We couldn't blame the conditions for our failure to catch. We were both installed in our swims by 7.30, in rapidly failing light and spent the next 5 hours waiting, more in hope than expectation for something to happen. But nothing did. I fished with pellet throughout and Paul experimented with boilies, meat and paste. I had a couple of knocks which were more likely crayfish (or bats!) and Paul actually had a crayfish or two but neither of us could say with any certainty that we'd come anywhere near to getting a fish. My enthusiasm hasn't been completely diminished, however, and I'll be back for more punishment next month.