How's that for starting with a sweeping statement? Many of us have tried different 'specials' over the years, and carp baits now seem to revolve more around marketing and packaging than what catches the most fish. Even so, carp anglers have been theorising on the use of 'specials' for as long as people have angled for cypry, and the carp bait industry is huge. It can't all be hype can it? During the eighties I was obsessed with carp. All my fishing time was spent in their pursuit, and I spent a good deal of my non-fishing time studying their behaviour in tanks and ponds, and reading the scientific and popular literature concerning carp and other fish. Today, my affection for carp has been tempered a little by other species, particularly my re-acquaintance with barbel over the last few years. Still, it amazes me how little has been written on the behaviour of barbel, in comparison with carp. I guess that most of this is because of the need to fuel the carp market with the latest gadgets, but let us not forget, that there may be some sound theory lurking behind the hype. This was really brought home to me during the autumn of 1997, when I was concentrating on a number of swims spanning a particularly popular bend on the River Ribble: hence the title. I am not exaggerating when I say that the catches made by my friends and myself increased four fold, simply by changing to a bait that the fish were unfamiliar with. On this heavily fished stretch of river, the barbel were well aware of the standard barbel anglers repertoire, but we able to circumvent some of their caution by using unconventional baits.
Let the barbel do the work
For the most part, I (and I guess the vast majority of barbel anglers) try to encourage the fish to feed by introducing free offerings to the swim. At the 1998 NASA conference, Ray Walton gave a brilliant talk on his approach to mobile barbel fishing, using primarily, large single hook baits. On the face of it, this seems like such a simple technique, but to fish this method effectively requires great skill, in being able to read the river, read what the end tackle is doing and adapting to the moods of the barbel. I feel that the main difference between Ray's mobile approach and my static approach is that the fish are much more aware that Ray's lump of meat represents danger. Ray talks of the fish tugging at the bait, before rejecting it, and finally taking it, some times minutes or even hours later. This requires an awful lot of effort, and I must admit, I think there are easier ways of catching barbel. If you get the chance, go see Ray's talk, he is a master of this form of fishing; you will find no one better to learn from. Ray's technique, at least in part, relies upon the fish feeding strongly enough to pick up his bait. By keeping mobile and covering large numbers of fish in the course of a day, the chances are some of them will be willing to feed strongly enough to make a mistake, even during periods of relatively poor river conditions. Still, it is my contention that barbel that are not necessarily in a feeding mood can be stimulated by correct feeding of the swim and tricked into picking up a hook bait that they recognise as food, but which doesn't alarm them
New and improved?
So what is wrong with a lump of luncheon meat, or a bunch of maggots? Well, nothing really, but at the end of the day, I want an edge when I'm fishing, and one of the biggest edges you can have is a bait that the fish pick up with confidence. To my mind, bait choice comes second only to location. For all intents and purposes, for you to catch a barbel fairly in the mouth it must have the intention of eating your hook bait. Does it not follow that your bait must not only be appetising, but also not alarm? Barbel fishing seems to be becoming more and more popular these days. On hard-fished reaches of river this can mean that the fish are wising up to standard rigs and approaches. In general, the more anglers that are using a bait, the less fish each angler is going to catch. This is especially applicable to barbel fishing, because a lot of our thinking revolves around the use of large single baits. More often than not, if a barbel eats a lump of luncheon meat (for example), it is going to have a big hook stuck in it. Fish learn by association, and the lump of luncheon meat is an excellent example of what behaviourist term negative reinforcement. The more times they get hooked on a bait the less likely they are to pick it up. On some reaches of the River Kennet, where I can watch the reactions of the fish to a bait, a lump of luncheon meat rolled down a gravel run is treated with such fear that the barbel will immediately vacate the swim, whether attached to a hook or not. This is an extreme case, but I have seen evidence of this happening on rivers up and down the country. On the Great Ouse, the fish do not bolt, but often refuse to pick up free-offerings of meat. When touch ledgering on the Ribble, constant line bites signal the presence of fish, but only rarely do they make a mistake. Touch ledgering is certainly worth the extra effort, as often you can learn a lot about the swim, and the fish in it from the feel of the lead on the bottom and from the number and type of line bites. If I am only getting line bites then I know that something is up, as the fish are moving through the swim but refusing the hook bait - I KNOW its time for a change.
Sometimes this may be a change of rig, but for the most part, it will be a change of bait. Again, we can draw a parallel between the carp angler, who changes rigs as often as his under wear and the barbel angler who may only use a single rig throughout the whole season. These differences in approach reflect the way we approach different species, rather than the actual behaviour of the fish, for after all, all fish must obey a fairly simple set of rules. A fish only has three basic commandments: gain as much net energy as possible, avoid being eaten, so that it can produce as many offspring as possible. Darwinian evolution has lead each species along its own path towards meeting these demands. Yet, the simple underlying evolutionary pressures are the same, whatever the species. In angling terms we can interpret these commandments as eat as much bait as possible without getting caught too often. Now, if we look at the real developments in end tackle which have been made over the last twenty years, we find that most of them are designed to fool wary fish (i.e., hair rigs, braided lines, double strength lines). If we can use a bait that does not alert the barbel to a
significant danger, then the need for complicated rigs disappears.
The likelihood of a particular barbel being caught is dependent upon how hungry it is and how aware it is that there might be a bad experience linked to the food. If this is the case, then alternative baits are most advantageous when the barbel are not really inclined to feed. At this point it might be worth summarising my thoughts on the feeding behaviour of barbel. I would suggest a simple classification:
1. Comatose - no response whatever you do (apart from throwing half a brick at the fish). The fish is likely to remain in one position for periods exceeding thirty minutes. Often only the tail end of the fish will be
visible poking out of cover.
2. Resting - the fish move around occasionally, normally in an area of no more than a few metres square. The fish may flash on the bottom, perhaps to remove parasites.
3. Aroused - fish will occasionally be seen up ending. The fish will move over a considerable area and may leave the shoal for periods of time. Fish may be seen rolling on the bottom at regular intervals.
4. Excited - the fish are confined to a small area for considerable lengths of time, they are continually up-ended and may leap clear of the water and flash repeatedly.
This is a gross over-simplification, of what is in reality, a continuous spectrum of responses, but I hope it highlights some of the situations you may be faced with. In addition, the descriptions are rather anthropomorphic, but if you go out and watch barbel, I'm sure you will be able to relate these descriptions to your fish. I have yet to find a way of catching barbel in state 1, although chub in a similar state can be 'awakened' by casting a heavy bait, such as a slug, at the fish. Barbel will normally have their heads buried, parrot fashion, in Ranunculus, or some other submerged plant, making them near uncatchable. Stage 2 represents barbel behaviour outside of normal feeding periods, and is something that is common to many species of fish. Often, the fish may be clearly visible, leading to very frustrating fishing. Stuart Clough and I have studied this behaviour in dace and it is generally combined with intense feeding at dawn and dusk in swims several hundred metres from the daylight resting areas. That said, if a bait is presented to the fish as they prepare to move it may be taken. Stage 3 could probably be classed as 'normal' feeding behaviour on many rivers during periods of inclement water conditions, high or low temperature, being prime examples. Stage 4 probably only occurs once or twice a year. On these infrequent occasions, its possible to really bag-up. The most reliable stage 4 response occurs during the first flood of autumn and warm spells (if they occur) during March. The last two occasions on which I've met this response have resulted in eight fish in an evening from the Ouse and eleven fish in an evening from the Ribble. So, apart from the very rare occasion, we are fishing for barbel that have a very 'take it or leave it' attitude. Certainly, the way the swim is fed can influence the state of arousal (see my article 'A barbel for dinner' in Barbel Fisher 4), but even so, the fish will still be on edge and correct bait choice can make all the difference
between catching a little and a lot.
Trick for a treat
There is a big difference between catching confidently feeding fish and fooling fish using a novel bait or rig. Most summer barbel fishing involves the fish feeding (relatively) confidently, we bait with particles hoping to draw hungry fish into the swim, and wait for the inevitable. Many is the time this is simply not the case. Extreme water temperatures, fishing outside of established feeding times, and when the fish are pressured, may all result in it being near impossible to induce a confident feeding response. One particular shoal of Ouse barbel, for which I have a special affection, spend most of the daylight hours clearly visible on a gravel run, yet I have never known these fish to feed confidently, even during the hours of darkness. At most, you may catch the odd fish, but for the most part, they are very aware of what is and is not, safe to eat and when an angler is on the bank. Even with very careful baiting, using the very best baits and most effective rigs, these fish are a real devil to catch.
Subtle or radical?
So, having outlined some of the reasons why it is worthwhile using a novel bait, the next question is how different does it have to be? A change in the brand of luncheon meat has occasionally lead to a temporary increase in catches. This year, for example, I've caught quite a few barbel using pieces of hot dog sausage, while the second rod, baited with luncheon meat remained untouched. Yet, although these subtle changes do work, it is often necessary to try something a little more radical. Animals use a combination of senses to determine what is edible in their environment. They can smell and taste, touch and see what is around them, and normally they use a combination of these senses when feeding. If we change a single facet of a bait, for example its taste, then it might still be recognised as dangerous if this isn't the primary sense in use. For example, a lump of flavoured luncheon meat trundled down a gravel run, is likely to be seen before it is smelt, so for all intense and purposes, it is still a lump of luncheon meat and the fish is alerted to the danger before it smells or tastes the novel flavour. Baits that are subtly different although overcoming some of the fish's reluctance to pick it up may also be more likely to blow quickly, because of the bait resemblance to the normal alternative. Once again, switching to something more radical would be the logical route to follow.
It might be argued that it may take fish a while to recognise a new bait that is very different to either the natural food of the fish, or baits currently in use. This is true to a certain extent, if the bait is not recognised as food. Here, we come back to the fish's ability to sense the new food. Barbel are equipped with a well-honed ability to determine what is edible from what is not, using their senses. For instant results, the bait must be able to invoke one or more of the fishes senses, resulting in a feeding response. A large number of materials can stimulate a feeding response from a fish. Because coarse fish are all fairly closely related, its fair to assume that many chemicals cause the stimulation of a number of species, even if it is to differing degrees. Certainly, many different baits will catch barbel, but some are certainly much better than others. Next month I'll look at a range of alternative baits which, when used with a bit
of common sense will catch an awful lot of barbel.