Eeling on the Severn with Barry Lesley

7 fishing on Upper Loade Lock on the river severn

The River Severn is one of the most famous fishing rivers in Britain – but eels might not be your first choice target. For Barry Lesley however, there was no other target. Even his recently fulfilled ambition of a 30lb pike from the Severn was just a pleasant diversion from the main event… the slimiest, wriggliest fish there is, bar none.

Barry was waiting at the Upper Loade Lock. After unpacking his gear, he disappeared into the undergrowth, heading for the ‘island’. The weir at Tewkesbury is a Mecca for anglers but Barry chose a spot well away from the crowds. He prefers it that way, and apparently so do the eels.

Trying to follow him was not easy – the path was hardly even a dent in the brambles and nettles. But ploughing through the tangled shrubbery eventually brings you to the water. Sure enough, by the time the brambles had released their hold and a little haven of clear earth had appeared up ahead, Barry was already there. Indeed, he had spread out rods, reels, rod rests, monkey climbers, boxes and bags of bait.

He was fishing two rods, and after he had cast the baits about 60m downstream to either side of the river, he set himself up to fish in comfort. He left the bail arm off, with a line clip to prevent the line peeling off the spool. Barry uses this set-up because big ‘snakes’ are very sensitive and drop a bait which doesn’t feel right.

The baits were lobworms by the bunch on one rod and half a sandeel on the other. With worms, nipping the ends off just before casting is the easiest way to make them smell more attractive to eels. This is also the reason Barry uses fish sections rather than whole fish – the juices act like groundbait. He doesn’t check his bait except after a run. Eels hunt by smell, so the longer you leave the bait in the water, the more likely they are to find it.

Finally, one did just that. A series of pips on the optonic – electronic bite indicator – at the worm rod and Barry struck and began to retrieve. He was disappointed — it was only a ^^u >> canal small eel – but at least it was an eel and not just an ‘ordinary’ fish.

Barry settled back to wait for the next run and there was a long pause in the action, or rather a long pause waiting for the action to start, but that’s the nature of this peculiar branch of angling. Sometimes things do happen, though, as when the peace was suddenly shattered by the optonic. The fish bait had been taken and from the sound of the line hissing off the reel, the eel had decided to start its migration to the Sargasso Sea there and then. Barry had other ideas. ‘This one feels a bit better,’ he grunted as he struck into the fleeing eel.

It wasn’t really a fair fight. After all, Barry’s landed hundreds of eels of this size, but this was probably the first time the eel had had to deal with Barry Lesley. Still, it did its best. Once it had stopped running, Barry made sure it was off the bottom and applied gentle pressure. That way, it seems, they don’t struggle nearly as much as they would if you tried to bully them in to you.

Then, quite suddenly, it was on the surface, back-wriggling through the water in its attempts to avoid the net. No chance matey! And it was in the sack for weighing – a fine 2lb 4oz river eel.

Barry seemed genuinely quite surprised. ‘If this keeps up, none of your readers’ll believe that eeling’s difficult. They’ll all be at it.’ Not likely, Barry.

After that burst of excitement, things calmed down again – until Barry spotted a friend piking downriver in a boat which looked remarkably like an old tin bathtub. ‘Oi, Barry!’ . ‘Get over here!’ he shouted to the bemused piker. ‘What for?’ was the obvious comeback. After all, Barry was a good three hundred yards downstream in a boat definitely not built for speed . ‘Just get over here. You’ll see.’

Barry Lesley is a man of some repute. Some people may not understand his love of eels but he is very well respected. His friend Barry therefore reasoned that whatever he wanted, it probably involved a big fish, or a chance at one.

The piker’s name was Barry Harbrom, and he began paddling his way upstream towards his friend at just under 1 mph . Finally about 45 minutes later, the two Barrys were united. ‘What’s going on?’ asked Barry-in-the-boat, not unreasonably. ‘Have you got a fag, mate?’ asked the other Barry, completely unreasonably.

Well, you had to laugh. Barry S. then asked him what he’d caught. The answer it seemed was only a couple of jack pike. ‘Well then, Barry,’ said Barry, ‘why not give the old sunken tree a go?’ The sunken tree, which had toppled into the river during a gale in the early 70s, was one of the best pike spots on this stretch.

Ten minutes later, Barry H. was into something, and was looking much happier. It turned out to be his first ever zander. Barry S. went over to help with the unhooking and weighing – at just over 4lb it wasn’t huge, but nice enough.

After he’d settled down again, Barry’s optonic went noisily mad again. ‘I’m not sure about this one, you know,’ he said, as he huffed and puffed the fish on the worm setup towards him. The reason became clear — it was a barbel. Imagine his horror! Barry could hardly speak – a 2lb barbel thieving his perfectly good eel bait! Still, even ordinary fish should be treated with respect, and Barry does just that.

He was putting on some fresh worms when Barry H. called from his boat. While the barbel provided a distraction, he had caught a pike from around the sunken tree. It turned out to be a nice fat nine-pounder . Obviously it was not a bad spot.

Then it was time to sit around again and talk about Ashless nights and crafty eels. Barry was just explaining why it was worth 22 consecutive blank nights to land a two snakes over 5lb at the end of it, when Barry Harbrom held up another fish – a double figure pike with its sides still showing spawning wounds. Barry Lesley was beginning to get fed up; after all, this was supposed to be Star Spot.

Coincidence is all very well, but it doesn’t really explain why, just as Barry’s complaints had reached their peak, the sound of an angry optonic cut through his words. It was a run on his deadbait – a tail section of a sandeel. He waited, maybe too long. The run stopped, and still he waited. Suddenly, the line began snaking from the spool as the fish ran again. This time it was right and Barry struck home. ‘This is more like it,’ he said. ‘This is what the boys came for.’

It was putting up a fair old struggle. ‘Another snake. We’ve been a bit lucky today.’ And there it was, using all of its not inconsiderable strength to swim backwards towards that old tree stump. Barry wasn’t having any of that , and pulled it round the corner sharpish. Then it was all over bar the unhooking.

He seems to have a way with eels. It’s almost as if they know that he won’t hurt them – that he’s always working to get rid of the stigma attached to this very special fish. They calm down to his very touch. Weighing it was also easy with Barry to keep it tranquil • a fine 2lb lloz snake and the per fect way to end the day.

As it was, two big eels, a small one and a barbel is better than the weather or time of day suggested and better than Barry predicted. It was the best possible introduction to big eel fishing, but then that was always Barry’s speciality. We will miss him, not only for his fishing skills but especially for his down-to-earth wit.