We all know that barbel are very much the dish of the day over here in Britain and we also realise that there are probably more barbel anglers than there are fish at present! This means that most British barbel fishing tends to be pressured or very exclusive. Thereís precious little scope for anybody who wants to pioneer barbel fishing within these shores. The same cannot be said, in any way, shape or form of the barbel opportunities abroad.
The whole question of barbel abroad is a huge topic. There are some twenty-three species of the barbus family acknowledged within Europe but Iím to some degree sceptical of that. Whenever you really focus on the barbel of a particular area Ė like I have done in Spain Ė you find huge anomalies and species not even recorded by science.
Of course this sort of thing is not new: if there is money for research into fish populations it generally goes to the salmonids or fish otherwise important commercially. Barbel may be regarded as a prime sport fish (although not in many European countries) but they donít merit many finance grants. To reinforce what I mean, on a recent trip to Morocco, I even found some small barbel thereÖa place theyíre not even thought to exist in. so you see, this isnít a cut and dried question at all but, bear with me and Iíll try to make a little sense of things and perhaps inspire you to give a little pioneering a go.
Letís start in France because there is a great deal of opportunity here. I havenít personally fished in France for quite a while (about three years) so things may have changed to some degree. Iíve always loved the Loire valley and the main river and its tributaries have given me some enchantingly happy times. The countryside, the villages, the accommodation, the wildlife, the peopleÖall fantastic and the rivers, too, are brilliant. Iíll be quite honest Ė as I always try to be! Ė and say that I personally have never had any big barbel from the Loire or its tributaries: Iíve caught them and seen them to six or seven pounds but theyíre very beautiful fish and definitely our very own barbus barbus. However, Iíve heard of fish much bigger and I have no reason to doubt the tales whatsoever. Iím quite sure that if somebody put in a real campaign some bigger fish would emerge. After all, a river that can hold huge carp and catfish should, in theory, have enough food to support some big barbel. If I were to pick out an area that I myself would concentrate on it would probably be between the towns of Tours and Orleans. The N152 is a much busier road than I remember it when I used to fish in these areas as a child but you can still get out of the main rush of people if you try. There are also some enchanting tributaries where the pace of life is slower.
The other area that I know very well in France is the Lot valley, much further south. The area that I know particularly well is around Espalion, just north of Rodez. This is a charming waterway and the Lot is an absolute delight to fish as it twinkles through some lovely countryside. You can have problems with rising and falling water levels as dams are opened and closed so never take water conditions for granted. The area can get busy during August especially when all the French seem to be out on holiday. So, if possible, go earlier or later in the year. The same applies for the Loire, of course.
Iíve never had a monster from the Lot myself Ė some five or six pounds seems to be about the limit Ė but I have seen with my own eyes a few very big fish indeed. There was one that could not have been less than eleven or twelve pounds and Iíve heard many reports of similar sized fish. Iím not absolutely sure about this and perhaps somebody will correct me but Iíve got a feeling that many of the smaller fish Ė and there really are swarms of these Ė are possibly Mediterranean barbel rather than common barbel. These fish appear to average between one and two pounds and have a distinctly more sandy colour to them. Mind you, theyíre still very plucky fighters and great fun on light gear.
Moving eastwards, we come to Germany which, in all honesty, I know very little about. What fishing Iíve done in Germany has generally been for grayling or even roach. The Germans themselves donít seem wildly interested in barbel yet but I do have friends who assure me that the Rhine offers great possibilities. We hear so many contradictory things about the Rhine: how polluted it is, how itís now just a turgid waterway and so on. All of this may or may not be true but certainly my German pals tell me that for barbel there are still some very big fish out thereÖitís just that a limited number of people really attempt it.
My barbel experiences in Poland are absolutely nil. Iíve fished a couple of the national parks over there Ė once again for grayling and trout Ė and found them magnificent. Iíve also investigated some of the very large lakes for roach and feel there could be some very big fish indeedÖmind you, my guess is that it would be slow fishing with a lot of pioneering work necessary. But to barbel! What I have heard is reports of some very, very, very big fish in the Vistula and its tributaries. My informants over the years have told me that eighteen to twenty pound fish are not uncommon in this vast waterway. Once again, however, I think local knowledge would be absolutely essential. Weíre talking a river that makes the Severn look like a dribble so itís not an undertaking to be considered lightly. There are, of course, other major river systems in Poland and this could well be one of the big barbel countries of the future. Opportunities should increase as the shadow of communism continues to disappear and the waters, towns and whole environment are put back, more and more, to their original, unpolluted states.
I do know a lot about the Czech Republic and Iíve spent many weeks travelling from one side of the country to the other in search of barbel waters. I would say that most of the rivers I looked at had barbel present although many of them were on the small side. I did find some very good barbel indeed to the west of the country out in Bohemia. There fish of a metre are not unknownÖthe Czechs ten to measure rather than weigh their fish but believe me a thirty-nine inch barbel is something pretty special. Are they barbus barbus? Well, pretty damn nearly but once again there are one or two signs around the head that do make me wonder if thereís a slightly different strain present.
No matter, Bohemia offers some tremendous barbel fishing opportunities. My tip would be to head to the northwest of the country towards a town called Zatec and explore around there. Mind you Ė and itís a very big mind you Ė youíre not going to find it easy with the language or obtaining permissions. Itís not just a case of rolling up and beginning to fish by any stretch of the imagination. The Czech Republic is, bit by bit, being put back to rights after its horrendous flirtation with communism. Whatís happening in Prague is continuing throughout the country and opportunities will soon be much more prolific, Iím sure.
Slovakia offers huge opportunities, especially in the forested area to the southeast of Budapest. These are quite high-level streams and are generally fished for trout but barbel are present. Iíve only skirted the area in a couple of mad weeks with great Slovakian friends who couldnít understand why I wasnít simply interested in the trout fishingÖwhich was excellent. Iím afraid, to be honest, we drank too much and fished too little but I still saw some mouth-watering opportunities. I didnít see big fish but plenty in the four to seven pound category and my friends felt sure thereíd be bigger. I have no reason to doubt them. This is a wondrous part of Europe and one I certainly have on my mental map to explore further. Perhaps somebody out there could help me out with more informationÖ
Austria has some great barbel fishing. I wrote only a couple of months back about the possibilities on the Drau but thatís only one river amongst many. My contacts over there suggest that all the southern border of the country is intersected with rivers that are all a delight to fish and many of which hold barbel. Iím led to believe there are numbers of good fish in the twelve pound plus category and, again, I see no reason to disbelieve very valued informants. And what a delight Austria is to fish inÖa more beautiful country can scarcely be imagined.
Although, just before the wars I spent some seven or eight weeks driving the length and breadth of the old Yugoslavia, I canít in all honesty say that I made great headway with the barbel fishing. I did come across some streams holding them in the north of the country, present day Slovenia and Croatia, but I would have to hesitate before recommending them to you lot out there. Iíve got a feeling that somewhere in the dim and distant past I read about plenty of big fish from Slovenia but I canít say that at all in my couple of weeks there I found anything spectacular. One or two rivers holding three or four pounders were about the limit of my own discoveries. Iím certainly not writing off this charming area of the world that definitely could do with our support and attentionÖbut again I must tell the truth.
About Italy I know nothing so I speed on to that sleeping giant, Russia.
Wow! Wow! Where on earth do we start here? I am (again!) reliably informed that some of the central Russian river systems hold huge barbel. I am being constantly enticed out to sample rivers that apparently hold fish in excess of twenty-five pounds. And why havenít I gone? Well, simply, back in the early nineties I made many journeys to Russia and found them all difficultÖMafia, cancelled flights, drunken guides, mosquitoes, grim accommodation, stomach-churning foodÖif one did find a hotel that was of modern Western standards, you had to be a Mafia boss to afford a broom cupboard for the night!
Now, I know Iím being mightily unfair here to one of the worldís most important countries but I have to report as I find. If some Russian can come to me and guarantee that Iím not going to be knifed then Iíll give it another go, promise.
My own personal experiences with Russian barbel have been down on the Volga. Iím fairly sure that the fish I caught down there were not barbus barbus but, probably, Aral or possibly Bulatmai barbel. These are both very similar to our own common barbel but do grow large Ė certainly exceeding a metre in length. I had just two or three very good barbel indeed during my trips to the Volga but I was broken by a number of very big fish indeed which could have been larger specimens.
The trouble is that in a river like this, which holds huge amounts of huge specimens of virtually every species, itís very difficult to know exactly whatís made off with all your line! Certainly, the Volga has got it all and undoubtedly some massive barbel. Once again, itís a matter of logistics and Iíve got to say, if youíre fishing a river with catfish and carp and goodness knows what to unheard of sizes, do you want to fish for barbel anyway!!?
And so to Spain which Iíve talked about frequently over the last year or so. Although Iíve made innumerable journeys out there and seen countless rivers, I still know nothing. My next journeys are going to concentrate on a river where big comizos can be caught. Yes. From a river. No more bivvying up for your monsters! Iíve also heard of another river system only really accessible by canoe where Andalucians grow to an unheard of size. I promise that Iíll be reporting back on both.
So thatís it Ė my thumbnail sketch to barbel around Europe from what Iíve seen or from what Iíve been told. I know itís sketchyÖeven where I know a lot, like Spain, I still donít know that much. After all, a human life is just so long and the barbel species is so unbelievably, excitingly complexÖand I havenít even begun to talk about the more exotic branches of the family, like the mahseer. Oh well, Iím only middle-aged so thereís time for everything!
DOS AND DONíTS
DO your research very carefully. I know one group that took their car over to the Czech Republic, drove around for ten days and never even found a river where they could cast a line. Itís much better to go with somebody like me, initially at least, who offers guided trips. At least you know youíll be fishing just a few hours after getting off the plane.
DONíT expect English to be spoken wherever you go in search of barbel. Okay, if youíre in Prague or Bled or Berlin youíll probably be all right but once you get out into the sticks everything is different. Make sure you have good phrase books and, above all, know the local name for barbel! Photographs also help.
DO take all the gear you think youíre likely to need. In most parts of Europe, rural Europe especially, tackle shops are very few and far between. When you do find one itís often unlikely to sell the sort of things that youíve set your heart on acquiring.
DO take good quality, close-up photographs of all the barbel you catch. Iím beginning to think that this is more and more important as weíre beginning to learn in an ever-increasing amount about the different barbel species of Europe. As I said in the introduction, scientists donít know all of it by any means and if we anglers can make our own contribution then so much the better.
DO always photograph your barbel on a very wet, soft sack or, preferably, lying on their side in shallow water on weed, mud or sand.
DONíT expose barbel to the air for longer than is strictly necessary Ė especially in parts of Europe that have a far hotter sun than we do here in the UK.