It is a balmy July morning. A thick early morning mist hangs low over the lush green undergrowth and a man wearing a floppy jungle hat, khaki fatigues and stout climbing boots beats his way along an overgrown path. Who is he and where is he going? You’d be excused for thinking him an intrepid explorer somewhere in the Amazon Basin. In fact it is Jim Hooper making his way along the banks of the Dorset Stour to try some of his favourite barbel swims.
As coarse fisheries go, Throop is exceptional. It is unspoilt and its waters are clear . Perhaps it is because it is such an agreeable environment that it produces so many specimens. In the 1990-91 season anglers took pike to 30lb 3oz , common carp to 18lb 4oz , bream to 10lb 2oz , tench to 7lb 6oz , roach to 3lb 2oz and chub to 7lb 3oz – not bad for a day ticket water!
Jim thrives on roving the river banks spotting individual big fish, and Throop lends itself perfectly to this approach. But you need to dress for the occasion – it is no use announcing your arrival by wearing cricketing whites – and although Army surplus clothing may look like over-kill, when it comes to effective camouflage it can’t be beaten.
Jim spends the first 20 minutes or so creeping along the banks, dropping free offerings of sweetcorn and chopped-ham-with-pork into likely looking holes, then returns for his tackle.
Armed with two identical lift barbel rods – one for meat and the other for sweetcorn – a light, glass-fibre landing net with a lm frame and a bucket of bait, Jim arrives at The Gallery swim. so that he’s ready for action.
Now, if, early one mild summer morning, you came to an idyllic swim that looked as though it might be heaving with fish and it was vacant, then you’d probably be itching to get a bait in the water straight away. Jim, on the other hand, is more interested in trees than fishing rods, it seems. Just here there stands a willow that slants over the river, and within a matter of seconds he is looking down from the top of it -from The Gallery, in fact.
There’s a good reason for all this monkey business and it has to do with Jim’s big fish philosophy. According to Jim, if you want to catch a specimen you need to be sure there is one in your swim before you start. Chucking-and-chancing-it may be a pleasant way to spend a day but is not an efficient way of catching red-letter fish. So how big is a specimen barbel? Well, for
Jim it is a double-figure fish. In 1989-1990 he caught two above 13lb and two above 10lb . Although he has never caught one from Throop they are certainly there. In the early 70s, a fish weighing approximately 13Hlb was reputed to have been taken by a salmon angler on a yellow-bellied Devon Minnow. Later, when Glenn Sutcliffe joined Throop he did some research and authenticated the catch. Jim carefully surveys the swim through his polarizing glasses and gives a commentary on what he sees: ‘There’s a shoal of about seven or eight chub all over 3lb , abigbarbel and a bream has just moved in. Now there are two decent barbel— we won’t pull one out while they’ve got their heads down, though.’ He takes a handful of chopped luncheon meat from the bucket and throws it into the shoal of chub. This causes them to dart frantically all over the river before disappearing under the streamer weed in alarm – not an encouraging start!
In order to rest The Gallery, Jim strolls upstream to one of the holes he fed earlier. He peers cautiously over the edge of the riverbank in the hope that a barbel or two may have moved over the corn. But the yellow patch is still lying there completely untouched. This is strange since chub or roach, at least, are usually eager to take a few grains.
Then, just to one side, lurking in the shadow of some over-hanging nettles, Jim spots a long dark shape. It provides an answer to the mystery: a pike of about 6lb has taken up residence and waits for an easy meal to swim unsuspectingly into its lair.
Back on The Gallery, close to the bank, a fair sized barbel has moved into a gravel run between two patches of emerald streamer weed. It is about 1.2m deep here and Jim can just about see the fish as it warily sucks in a few grains of corn before melting into the weed again.
This is typical big barbel behaviour. They often hang just downstream of the baited area watching smaller, less wary fish to see what happens to them before deciding whether to feed. By carefully feeding a second swim, you can sometimes annex a big fish so that it feeds confidently.
Jim baits the corn rig with three grains and deftly drops it between the weeds. ‘It is important to land the bait in the right place first time so you don’t spook them,’ he says. Holding the line between the tips of his thumb and index finger, he feels for the gentle plucks, taps or knocks of a taking fish. According to Jim, the angler who waits for an unmistakable wrench on the rod-end may have to wait for ever — contrary to popular opinion big barbel are shy, fast biters. This fish is no exception. A second cast drops the bait into an empty swim – the fish has gone.
Downstream of The Gallery there is a slim willow that overlooks a deep hole. Driven into its trunk are cleats of the kind used by telecommunications engineers for climbing telegraph poles, and part of the way up there is a wooden plate bearing the tree’s name: In fact it is a ground-level inspection of the hole immediately to the left of the tree that reveals an orange, spoon-shaped fin undulating back and forth in the current – the pectoral of a barbel of around 9lb . Jim tosses some meat to it and the fish boldly mops it up.
Stripping some line from his centrepin, he gently lowers a cube of meat with the hook in it, into the hole. At first the barbel appears to have dissolved, then suddenly there it is – mouthing the bait with pale, thick rubbery lips. Jim strikes but too late. You need to be very quick!
He rebaits, casts again and within minutes he’s into a fish. A fierce but brief tussle ensues and a cheeky 3 4lb barbel comes to the net. ‘It must be the smallest in the river,’ says Jim as he slips it back gently into the water.
The sky is cloudless and the riverbank scorching hot. Jim stops fishing and wanders slowly upstream of White Bridge. He’s vaguely heading for a bend in the river known to anglers as ‘Barbel Corner’ but – as so often happens when roving – gets waylaid by a likely looking swim en route. A couple of fish – one of at least 10lb – are mooching about mid-stream. A handful of meat thrown to the fish meets with an indifferent reaction but Jim nevertheless decides to give it ago.
Somehow a Stour chub manages to sneak in and grab the bait before anything else can get there, and although it tries, is unable to put up much resistance to the heavy tackle. It weighs in at just over 3lb . Jim rebaits and casts in again. Ten minutes later he gets a slight tap on the rod end and strikes. The rod bends and the tip nods above the water as the barbel dives for weed. Then it rushes towards the reeds and roots at Jim’s feet – he has to push it away. Fortunately, it has met a formidable opponent in Jim Hooper — who soon has it on the bank and, without any fuss or unnecessary discomfort to the fish, weighs it and returns it to fight another day. At 8lb 4oz it is the best and the last fish of the day.