Both of my chosen target rivers, the Severn and the Ribble have been high enough to cause flooding lately. The Ribble has found its way into Ribchester town's car park while the Severn has carried up to twenty feet of extra water at times, so for some of the time, both rivers have actually been unfishable.
Ok, I admit it, I'm preparing you for the worst, it's been a really poor month for me - but I know for sure that it's been a poor month for most people fishing my rivers so I don't feel too cut up about it. Best fish again fell to my son Joe who took a lively 7lb 14oz barbel from the shallows below the weir on the Ribble while I had to content myself with fish to just under seven pounds. These fish came from the Ribble on a night when the river started to rise quite quickly. It's a good thing we noticed in time as Joe and I were fishing from a small island which we'd been able to reach by wading out to it. Had we delayed packing up by another half hour we would have filled our boots in the most unpleasant way on the way back to the bank.
In fact it was the cessation in the bites that we spotted first. As I've said before, the Ribble does not fish well when it's rising and the fish seem to turn off very quickly when it starts. It seems likely that it's the influx of cold rainwater that causes the problem but maybe it's something else. Perhaps the increase in current makes the fish feel uncomfortable and they move off to quieter water or maybe it's like a signal to them to move off to new feeding grounds where the pickings are richer as the river floods. Whatever it is, it leaves the angler scratching his head as the bites dry up. On the night in question, Joe and I did what we often do on the Ribble when the barbel turn off - we went slugging for the chub.
The chub in the Ribble never seem to stop feeding - no matter what the weather conditions or water levels and they are remarkably easy to catch on slugs. The technique is simplicity itself, just find a slug, the bigger the better, hook it onto a big hook like a size six or four and cast out with no lead on the line. Hook your finger over the line for bite indication and allow the bait to swing round in the current. Occasionally the bait will be taken while it is sinking out in mid-river but more often than not it will settle into the margins twenty yards or so downstream and there the chub find it in no time. The chub patrol the margins as the river is coming up, no doubt hoping to come across slugs and other small creatures caught off guard by the rising waters. Bites are usually a couple of tentative plucks. At this, I normally push the rod forward so as to give a little line and the chub responds by sucking in the bait and drawing the line tight in one smooth action - that's the time to strike! We had a nice catch of chub that evening with several 'fours' but just missed out on the hoped-for five pounder, with the biggest, a fish of 4lb 15oz falling to me (nice to get the upper hand for a change).
Reach for the Sky
At least there's one advantage to having little to report this month, it gives me time and space to talk about some of the "mechanics" of barbel fishing. The photograph you see here, of our set-up on the shallows, was taken for illustration purposes but it led me to think about other things. The four rods pointing skywards are typical of the way Joe and I fish for barbel. The two rods on the left are supported by a fairly standard extending bankstick with a buzzer bar on top to allow the use of two rods. This works fine if the banks are soft but there are many swims on the Ribble where it's nigh on impossible to get a bank stick in due to the rocks. This is such a swim, in fact and it took some time to get these set up. Indeed, if you look carefully, you can see that the bank stick is, in fact, held up by a pile of rocks. The two rods on the right are supported by a sea anglers rest as might be found on the local beach. I actually bought this for catfishing in Spain using the infamous "bottle rig" but decided to give it a try on the river and it's been a great success. Made of aluminium, it's actually lighter than the steel alternative so there's no problem transporting it and, of course, it doesn't have to be driven into the ground so rocky banks are not a problem. The butt rests can be raised if necessary so as to give the rods extra height if needed and the back leg can be shortened to account for sloping banks. It's also very stable and while the bankstick/buzzer bar combination occasionally gets twisted round by a savage bite, this rod rest always stays rock steady. I got a few funny looks from my friends when I started to use it - and still do but it's an item of tackle I wouldn't be without on the Ribble.
Resistance is Useless?
Quite aside from illustrating the rod rest, the photograph gives something of an insight into the methods we use for barbelling and even something about the fish themselves. Years ago I wouldn't have dreamt of fishing for barbel in this fashion. In those days, resistance, or lack of it, was considered the key and the only form of bite indication I would ever use was to touch leger. Touch legering is very effective, don't get me wrong, it's an exciting way to fish too, having the line dragged out of your fingers by a fish as it powers off with the bait. It has its drawbacks though. It's impossible to (effectively) use two rods for instance and it becomes quite tiring having to concentrate on the tactile sense for long periods, resulting in missed bites as the attention wanders. What's more, if there is a powerful current or if the fish are well across the river, it's very necessary to hold the rod(s) high in order to keep as much line as possible out of the water, a difficult thing to do when touch legering.
There was a moment in my barbelling "career" that caused me to change my approach. I spent a day on the Dorset Stour with top barbel angler Pete Reading some years back and was soundly beaten by him. As I watched Pete fishing it became clear that he was totally unconcerned about minimising resistance and that he wasn't at all worried about missing bites. "Chub knocks" he would say as the rod tip danced about, "You'll know the barbel bite when you see it!" Sure enough, Pete's barbel gave typical rod-wrenching bites, hooking themselves every time while I was wasting my time striking at thin air whenever I got the slightest pluck on the line.
Question is, why do barbel do this when most other fish, especially the chub, will drop the bait at the least sign of resistance. It's tempting to believe that the barbel is a greedy fish and its lust for the bait causes it to bite so savagely. On the other hand, it may be fear that makes the barbel bolt every time it picks up a suspicious item of food. I believe that neither of these is the answer but that the poor old barbel just can't help itself! The barbel's mouth is completely underslung on the underside of its body. As a result, the opening is always in a horizontal plane with any items of food that are sucked in being drawn vertically upwards, putting a ninety degree angle in the line. It doesn't take a genius to work out that this is the perfect situation for a fish to hook itself against any resistance as soon as it begins to move off and I am quite sure that this is what happens. The big, fleshy, hook-friendly lips that surround the barbel's mouth just complete the set-up and make it virtually impossible for a barbel to pull tight on a baited hook without hooking itself. All the angler has to do is ensure that the hook point is showing or that the bait is a very soft one and that there is sufficient weight attached to the line for the fish to pull against.
A chub's mouth is quite different of course. It opens wide in a different plane and often, a bait that's been inhaled can easily be blown back out again in the direction of the lead. Thus the hook has much less opportunity to catch in the flesh on the way out and as a result, chub bites are harder to hit. I could be wrong about all this of course, but it can't be just coincidence that the more underslung a fish's mouth is, the easier it is to catch on bolt rig tactics.
Where's the Severn?
Only two trips to the Severn this month - both dogged by very high water levels. The first trip was a real washout with the river actually being in the farmers' field in most places. I didn't even attempt to fish and decided to put the 150 mile round trip down to experience. A call to the EA's rivercall service (see their website for telephone numbers for information about your local rivers) would have saved me the journey.
The following week was only a little better. The water had just left the fields and was back within its banks, though water was still pouring off the land in many places. I did fish, and caught a few smallish barbel but it was hard work. It was strange to be wading across the farmland as if it were paddy fields on the way to the river and I found myself getting "lost", unable to find the footpath and blundering into crops and ditches. Familiar places can look so alien in such conditions.
I used a new bait on this session, Plumrose garlic sausage, and was pleasantly surprised at the results, getting bites almost at once and without the need to prebait. This stuff is a little softer than luncheon meat so it is more suitable as a winter bait since the hook pulls out of it nicely. It also has extra flavour in terms of the garlic - a flavouring which I have used for carp to great effect in the past and which obviously works well for barbel too. An added bonus is that garlic sausage comes in neat little packs, foil wrapped, so if there is a "can ban" on the stretch there's no need to prepare it all before setting out. What's more, it lasts for years.
Well it may have been a poor month but there have been two exciting developments in recent days which I expect will make this winter's fishing a good deal more productive. Firstly, I've found a swim on the Ribble which appears to fish well in flood conditions and holds some very big fish. Secondly, I've started using a new bait which is proving to be very effective indeed, knocking spots off all the other baits I've been using.
I'll tell you more about both of these next month.