Fishing for Barbel

On fast streamy waters between June and October, you might, if you know where to look, encounter the elusive barbel, perhaps the toughest of the river species

Once the angler hooks his first barbel he will find himself equally hooked on barbel fishing. The sheer power and strength of this stubborn fighter has to be experienced to be believed. Salmon anglers who have inadvertently taken barbel all agree that, weight for weight, there is little to choose between the two species for endurance and power.

The barbel, Barbus barbus, is predominantly a bottom-feeding species, as a quick examination of its large underslung, crescent-shaped mouth will show. Four large barbules hang from the leathery lips, one from each corner of the mouth, and two from just under the snout. These barbules are equipped with taste and touch cells and are admirably suited to their task. Like external tongues they enable the fish to feel and taste food without having to open its mouth. The rounded snout is used to root about on the bottom, rather like a pig snuffling for truffles. It is hardly surprising that these features, together with the disproportionately small eyes, have earned the barbel the nickname of ‘pigfish’.

Common Barbel.
Image via Wikipedia

The body is well adapted to its way of life. The broad forehead tapers sharply in a curve to the rounded snout. This gives the head a wedge shape which is quite obvious when you look down on a fish in the water. The barbel offers this wedgelike profile towards the flow of the stream and the current holds the fish firmly on the bottom.


On its dark brown or green-brown back the pointed dorsal fin echoes the shape of the upper tail lobe. On its cream or buff underside the small scales give it a pearly appearance, and the rounded edges of the lower tail lobe and the anal fin are not, as you might expect, due to wear and tear on the bottom, but by Nature’s design, finishing the near-perfect adaptation of the barbel to its bottom-living life.

Curiously, you will not usually catch a young fish, except when fishing near the surface where the barbel has adventurously joined the dace swims, stealing the single maggot intended for dace. The year-old fish, only 5-6in long, has a lightly speckled body, and is therefore similar in marking and body shape to the gudgeon. The two, however, are not easily mistaken. Gudgeon have two large barbules, the barbel four, and in young barbel these are small and undeveloped.

By the end of the second year the young barbel will have doubled in length, and by the end of the third attained 15in or more. A five-year-old fish will be between 18in and 21in long. By the time it reaches 7 lb or 8 lb it is 24-25in long and 7-8 years old. At 10 lb it will be as many years old and the elusive 14-pounder will probably have reached the age of 13-15 years.


River Wharfe at Linton in North Yorkshire
Image via Wikipedia

Throughout the age range, size for size, barbel are lighter than most species. A typical 14in barbel weighs a pound, but a roach of this size tips the scale at about 1lb 12oz, a carp 1lb 14oz, and a chub 1lb 8oz. An 18in barbel weighs only l!/2-2 lb while at this length carp, roach, chub and perch would all be over the 3 lb mark.

Like trout, barbel prefer swift, well-oxygenated water, although they can survive in water with low temperatures and oxygen levels where trout would perish. They settle just below the trout zones, seeking out the clean water and hard bottoms with layers of silt and mud where their food requirements are met in the profuse weed growth or reed margins. They often live in the thick of the weed, especially where the current has isolated pockets of weed and islands of reed in the middle of the stream.

Barbel spawn early in summer. They move into the clear gravelly shallows, scoop out a small depression with the tail, deposit their eggs, and sometimes cover them. They then move into their weir pools and swift runs to clean themselves. They can often be seen right under the lip if the weir at this time, later working back into the pool itself. By midsummer they are back in their usual feeding haunts, where they often share the swims.with dace. Towards the onset of autumn they move back into deeper water and by winter have become semi-hibernatory, feeding only when tempted out of their sleepiness by warm, sunny spells.

Barbel have considerable appetites and, when conditions suit them, will often feed continuously throughout the day. Some days, however, they will feed for only a brief spell, and other days intermittently. They are omnivorous, indiscriminately feeding on plants and animals. Much of their food is harvested from the minute organisms in the bottom silt layers, and when feeding the barbel cleans the bottom like a vacuum cleaner. They also display a marked fancy for minnows, frogs, crayfish, and fish fry. Their pharyngeal teeth are large and strong, being hooked and pointed enough to deal with the shells of crayfish or snails, which they eject after chewing. Anglers know them to be fond of meat, and use sausages, liver, slugs and petfood as well as the natural baits to catch them. Good fish are often taken after judicious groundbaiting.

Bait and tackle

Barbel will also take such traditional baits as wheat, hemp, barley, maggots, silkweed, and all manner of ‘secret’ pastes concocted by the angler. When they are fastidious it is essential to use comparative tackle, hooks and light baits to tempt them. This spells out the paradox of barbel fishing. The angler has not only to locate his fish, but also to seek them with hooks and lines that are not so heavy as to scare them away, but strong enough to subdue and land a powerful fish. Barbel are indigenous to the swift flowing waters that run to the East Coast of England. They are common in the Thames, Yorkshire Ouse, and Derwent, as well as in the Kennet, Swale, Nidd, and Wharfe. They do not naturally occur in the slow flowing lowland rivers of East Anglia and are not found in any rivers that flow to the south or west.


Pollution has probably reduced barbel populations over the past 50 years, as well as reducing the number of rivers that once had natural barbel stocks. These trends have been reversed recently, and are compensated by restocking in many waters where barbel have become rare or non-existent. Many waters without barbel have been success- fully stocked with them, bringing barbel fishing to many areas where before it did not exist.

The most obvious and notable ex-amples are the Hampshire Avon and Dorset Stour which were stocked by Mr Gomm in 1896. A hundred Thames fish were released in the Stour near Iford Bridge, which is not very far from the confluence of the Stour with its neighbour the Hampshire Avon. Some of these in-troduced fish dropped down to Wick Ferry, where these two rivers share the same short estuary, and spread into the Avon itself. Since then not only have barbel thrived in these waters, but the Avon has eclipsed all other British rivers in the quality and quantity of these fish. More recently stocks have been trans-ferred to the Severn, Medway, Welland, Great Ouse, Nene, and other rivers. In most situations reports indicate that the barbel has successfully acclimatized itself in suitable reaches.

Record fish

For big fish the Avon reigns supreme, but the Thames is a good second. In 1888 the now-deposed British record of 14 lb 6oz was taken from the Thames at Molesey. This has since been equalled twice by Avon fish, once in 1934 and again in 1937. Other specimens of more than 14lb have come from the Kennet and Dorset Stour.

Putting aside the new British Record (rod-caught) fish of 13 lb 12oz caught in 1962 on the Royalty by J Day, there are many well-documented examples of fish well in excess of the old 14lb 6oz triple record. These deserve mention not only because of the weights, but also for the way in which they were taken.

In 1933, when spinning for salmon at Ibsley on the Avon, Roy Bed-dington foul-hooked a 16 lb loz barbel. Then, in 1943, Mr Hayter, the Royalty Bailiff at Christchurch, foul-hooked a 15 lb 12oz fish under similar circumstances. His successor, Bailiff B Parkinson, enjoyed a repeat when spinning a golden sprat, foul-hooking a 16 lb 8oz fish in 1948. Other Royalty fish include Dr Curry’s 15 lb barbel, taken on a Hed-don plug, and, finally, Mr Casey hooked and landed a fish of 16 lb loz, when spinning for salmon.

None of these fish was acceptable for record purposes because either they were taken out of season, or for other technical reasons. More reports refer to fish over 15lb being found dead on the bank, one having been partially eaten by otters, but S, still weighing more than 15lb.