Hot or cold, day or night, summer or winter, barbel are there for the catching if you just know how and where to look, how and what to bait up, how and when to strike.
Barbel can be caught by a variety of methods, on many baits, and at all hours. In section 9 the habitat and biology of the barbel were discussed, as well as the generally accepted baits, such as meats, and methods —notably ledgering. This article will concentrate on how and when to tempt the formidable barbel.
First, when are the chances greatest? The barbel once had the reputation of being solely a summerand autumn-only species. Of course summer and autumn are regularly productive, but late autumn and early winter can be equally rewarding for the keen angler. In fact, several of the most successful Thames and Kennet barbel experts consider October right through to early December as the time for the really exceptional specimens. Whatever the time of year, the key factors that control the barbel’s feeding pattern are air and water temperature, coupled with flow and water level.
To some degree, the hotter it is the more a barbel feeds. In the sizzling summer of 1976, when the Thames and Kennet were as low as ever and water temperatures soared well into the eighties, the barbel fed with predictable and clockwork regularity. There is very little evidence to suggest that there is an upper watertemperature limit. As with most other species, settled conditions are important—any wild fluctuation in temperature, wind, flow or level is not conducive to good fishing. Here, the barbel is particularly sensitive.
In winter, the water temperature does become more critical. There has now been sufficient evidence gathered by observant anglers to establish the minimum feeding temperature. This critical level is thought to be about 5-6° (42°F) or under, but at 7-l°C (45°F) and above the chances are excellent. So the reason why November, and even December, can be so productive is that there are far more days and nights when the water temperature is within feeding range. .
When to fish for barbel
From January to mid-February, when winter usually begins to bite, there will be few, if any, oppor-tunities when conditions are right. Then, from mid-February until the end of the season, the chances are on the increase, particularly for the angler who lives close to the river (or knows someone who does) and can therefore take advantage of oppor-tunities at short notice.
Having established that the barbel is a fish of all seasons, what time of day is best? Again, it is difficult to generalize for barbel have been caught in the darkest of nights and during the brightest summer day. The general concensus of opinion among successful anglers is that barbel fishing is most consistently productive during the hour or so before, and subsequent two hours after dark.
In summer, barbel will sometimes feed on and off throughout the night, but often there will be a dead spot of, perhaps, two hours from 2300 hours to about 0100, while in the winter an evening session will invariably end before midnight. But do not fall into the trap of thinking that the feeding habits of the barbel are strictly nocturnal. The middle part of the day in summer and autumn often produces a short spell of frenzied feeding activity, but catching them then is difficult. The nighttime approach is relatively simple, for the barbel at this time tends to be less cautious than in daytime. Tactics, baits and methods tend therefore to be finer and more sophisticated during the day.
Locating barbel swims comes slowly with hard-won experience. Reading a stretch of river is an art that cannot be acquired overnight. In summer and autumn, when rivers are low and sluggish, barbel tend to prefer the faster and well-oxygenated places such as weir pools. These places have often been favoured by traditionalist barbel anglers, but the fish are difficult to locate in them. The tactics required are briefly described in section 9 of New Fisherman’s Handbook.
But barbel are not always found in the fastest, most turbulent water. In summer they do prefer water with a mmk bit of ‘push’, but there must be a steady flow without turbulence and backeddies. During summer, the barbel tend to steer clear of the more open stretches in daytime. In the Kennet, for instance, they are found holed up among the dense beds of streamer weed, while in the Thames they will be down among the underwater ‘cabbages’. As darkness falls, the barbel will venture out into the open stretches in search of food.
Baits for daytime barbel
To catch these holed-up, daytime fish is not easy; stealth and delicate bait-presentation are needed. Small baits, such as maggots, are often best, and to present them effectively fine tackle and small hooks are needed—but a 3lb b.s. Line and No 16 hook are of little use to heaving a 9lb barbel from dense weed. So the angler new to barbel fishing should make a start in the late evening and night, in the more open swims.
Having established the importance of a nice, steady flow, what other basic factors should the would-be barbel catcher look for? Un-doubtedly these fish prefer swims with a hard bottom, not necessarily gravel, and undercut clay banks are a regular haunt.
Relatively deep swims with a steady flow are usually a good bet, particularly under the near bank. Further experience will reveal that each swim has a particular hotspot.
Like carp, barbel have the fascinating habit of rolling (and occasionally leaping), but a rolling barbel may not be a feeding barbel. However, when consistent rolling is seen it is often indication of a hotspot and sooner or later it will produce fish.
To recap: in summer, be on the look-out for swims with above-average current and, after heavy rains, the barbel will often feed well when the level is on the way up. In winter almost the reverse situation applies: the slowerthan-average stretches need to be noted. A fast-rising, coloured river is not good, but when it is fining down, and during a mild spell, conditions will be more or less ideal.
Wind, or rather the lack of it, is another factor to watch. Blustery conditions are to be avoided, while still, muggy days or nights are often mostly productive.
Ledgering by day or night is by far the most effective method, and the beginner will be well advised to start this way. Essential tackle is an lift hollow-glass rod with a test-curve of l’lb, combined with a reliable fixed-spool reel holding line between 6 and 9lb b.s., depending on conditions. A lead attached to a 6in link and a small swivel is preferable to a lead running direct on the reel line. The distance the link ledger is stopped from the hook depends on the current, the type of bait, and the amount of weed in the swim. Usually this distance will vary between 12 and 18in, but when fishing the gaps in streamer weed you may find that it needs to be doubled.
The beginner should concentrate on well-proven meaty baits such as sausage or luncheon meat. Use hook sizes between 10 and 4, depending on the size of bait. Avoid meat baits with a high fat or gristle content; the lumps can prevent the hook penetrating. The most effective method of detecting barbel bites is to hold the rod and feel for them with line held between thumb and forefinger. At the same time, watch the rod top for movements. At night a beam from a torch on to the rod tip is a major asset and it does not ap- pear to scare fish. But it must not be flashed on and off into the water.
For the novice perhaps the most important matter is the identification of barbel bites on the ledger, for they can vary enormously. Most barbel bites are quite characteristic and fall into four predominant types: 1. The ‘rod-wrencher’. Without war-ning, this pulls the rod top right round almost wrenching the rod from your hands. The fish invariably hooks itself, yet occasionally it is missed, leaving the angler dazed. 2. The slow ‘steady pull’ that moves the tip round a few inches, some-times preceded by a characteristic gentle ‘tap-tap’. These are bites from confidently feeding barbel. The sudden ‘lunge’. This is a very strong, but all-too-short pull that needs lightning reflexes from the angler. A frustrating bite, nearly always missed and probably the result of the barbel feeling something suspicious. The sudden ‘lunge’ bite often arises from the barbel being scared by the terminal tackle. It can be caused by the use of too light a lead. Many times, the angler has been told to use ‘just enough lead to hold bottom’. But in a strong flow the lead and terminal tackle will bounce along the bottom as soon as a barbel mouths the bait. So use a lead that really holds, it is less likely to scare the fish. 4. The ‘vibrator’—a series of tiny tweaks and trembles on the line or rod tip when small baits are being used. Occasionally a fish will be hooked when a ‘vibrator’ is struck at, but the experienced angler will sometimes wait for a more positive pull to develop, for vibrating can be the prelude to a positive take and can last several minutes.