The Royalty Fishery on the lower Hampshire Avon is the most famous stretch of barbel river in Britain. For over sixty years it has produced not only great numbers of barbel, but many outstanding specimens. The current record of 14lb 6oz was taken there in 1934 and, ten years before, in the close season, a monster of 16lb 4oz was landed by a salmon angler after it grabbed his spinner. Nowadays, though barbel of 10-lllb are sometimes caught, the age of the giants is almost certainly over. You no longer expect outsize specimens, but you can enjoy splendid sport with shoal barbel averaging 5-6lb , and there is still a very healthy stock of specimens in the 7-9lb class.
Nor do you fish the Royalty if you are looking for peace and quiet. There are many stretches of the middle Avon where you may also find excellent barbel fishing and have perhaps half a mile between you and the next angler. On the Royalty you are lucky to have ten yards, especially at weekends.
But nowhere on the Avon will you find such a concentration of barbel in such a short length of river. This is why, when the fishing has been a bit slow on my favourite, more pastoral stretches of the river, I occasionally fish the Royalty. It can restore a barbel angler’s faith in himself. Such was the case one sunny day in late September.
The summer drought had caused the level of the Avon to drop alarmingly. I have never seen the Royalty so low and I guessed the barbel might be unusually difficult to tempt. Not only had there been no rain for months, much of the river was being stolen by the water authorities’ pumping stations. For the first quarter of a mile downstream of the Great Weir, which marks the upper limit of the fishery, there was hardly any flow at all; the mighty Hampshire Avon was more like a canal.
Only after the confluence with the Parlour stretch, at Watersmeet, was there any appreciable current. It was here, then, that I chose to begin fishing.
The weedbeds looked lush and thick and, using polarizing glasses, I could see a clean bed of gravel shelving down between and beneath them. With the extra push of water from the Parlour Pool, it made a textbook barbel swim.
In all my fishing, I like to keep things simple. The art of angling is not about encumbering yourself with a mountain of flashy, unnecessary gear; it is about harmony between the angler, the fish and the fish’s habitat.
Once the angler – through knowledge and appreciation — has become closer to his quarry, then the actual catching of the fish is a relatively simple matter. If you can present a feeding fish with an acceptable bait and not arouse its suspicions you will, within reason, hook it, no matter what method you adopt or whether you’re using a high-tech graphite rod or a beanpole from the garden.
My rod was specially designed for me by Edward Barder. It is lift 9in long and crafted in split cane, which I regard as superior to any of the synthetic materials now available. It is called the and is quite simply the best split cane rod I have ever used.
My reel is a beautifully sweet Allcock’s Aerial centrepin; 4in in diameter, with a wide drum, it runs as smoothly today as it did when it was made, seventy years ago. Because of the dense weed I had loaded it with 8lb line.
I like to travel light, so that I can move quickly from one swim to another as my mood or the mood of the fish dictates. All my bits and pieces are contained in an old tobacco tin: a dozen swan shot, a stubby quill float, a few legers and leger stops, and half a dozen packets of forged, eyed hooks in sizes from 6 to 12.
My bait for the day was a can of sweetcorn and a can of luncheon meat, the latter cut into irregular shapes and sizes and mixed with the corn in a bait box. This flavours the meat with the corn and the corn with the meat.
I began fishing at about noon – not the best time for barbel on such a sunny day. They prefer cloudy days or times of low light at dawn or evening. But I saw a familiar dark shape shadowing across the gravel – a barbel of about 7-8lb – and I felt hopeful as I scattered some corn and meat into the swim.
I had waded out into mid-river and it was a simple matter to cast a two-swan leger almost to the far bank then let the current bring the bait – four grains of corn on a size 6 hook to a lm , 6lb trace -round and down.
Once I felt the two swan-shot bumping across the gravel I gently let the reel unwind so that the bait travelled naturally down the middle of the swim. Occasionally I held it stationary for a few moments and then, after a pause, twitched the rod tip, nudging the bait on downstream. I find this the most effective method of searching every inch of the river bed in clear water and between dense weedbeds.
Bites are detected by touch: the line runs across the fingers of the left hand and you are immediately aware of the slightest change in pressure. Sometimes there is the merest vibration as a fish picks up the bait and hangs steady in the current. Sometimes a fish grabs the bait and turns downstream with it, abruptly tightening the line and banging the rod tip over: impossible to miss.
For the first hour I had only one feeble bite which I didn’t even attempt to strike. Then I changed the hookbait from corn to a small chunk of luncheon meat and had a good thump of a bite almost instantly. The strike connected me to a fish that did not bore and haul in the manner of a barbel, but jagged violently like a chub.
Indeed it was a chub, quite a good one by the look of it. But as I began to ease it towards the net, it threw the hook. Of course this was a perfectly acceptable loss. I was, after all, using a rod.
Being a weekday, the Royalty was not as crowded as it often is at weekends, yet there were still half a dozen other anglers within fifty yards of me. By mid-afternoon only one of them had caught a barbel. ‘It’s going to be hard going,’ said the bailiff Alan as he walked up the bank opposite. ‘The sun’s too bright and the fish haven’t got enough water over their heads.’
In such difficult circumstances there is really only one sensible option for the barbel angler. So I wound in, waded ashore, found a shady spot and took a short siesta.
I awoke refreshed at about five o’clock and walked down the bank to see how the other anglers were faring. They had nothing to report, but as I peered into the water below the Pipe Bridge I saw the tell-tale flash of a barbel. You can see this quite wonderful phenomenon in even fairly deep water and it means that a barbel is scouring its flank on the gravel. I always associate it with feeding fish and am therefore always optimistic if barbel are flashing in my swim.
The sun was curving towards the Blairtchurch rooftops and we were rapidly approaching that optimum fishing time, the witching hour, the last hour of daylight.
I hurriedly fetched my tackle and began casting well out into midstream, dropping the meat bait above the fish and letting it bump down towards them.
After about a dozen casts the bait was decisively taken even before it sank to the river bed. The sensitive tip of the rod quivered then hooped over and I struck into a powerful barbel.
The fish ploughed straight upstream into the weeds so I quickly marched down the bank and applied pressure from below, persuading it out of the clutching fronds and into the clear pool in front of me. It surfaced and lashed the water with its tail. It looked a good one and argued convincingly against coming to the net.
But eventually, after a last rocketing surge towards the far bank, I eased it over the rim, into the mesh; a beautiful specimen of 7lb 14oz and well worth the rather long wait.
A few minutes later, casting into the same narrow run between the weedbeds, I hooked another, smaller fish which turned out to be a lovely, bright golden barbel of just over 5lb .
On my last cast, not long before sunset, I had a vague, trembling bite and hooked a huge-feeling fish that just began pushing slowly and determinedly upstream under the Pipe Bridge. Pressure from below or from the side had no effect and the barbel -1 don’t believe it could have been anything else — simply continued on its way. Then, sickeningly, the carefully sharpened hook sprang free. Perhaps there are still monsters in the Royalty after all…