Lesley had won the match the day before in the deeper, slower water down towards town, but to be more sure of dropping on barbel again we head upstream to the shallower, faster water where gravel runs and streamer weed spell barbel in nearly every swim. The sun is fierce even for a July heatwave and it’s still only early morning; it’s a hot walk.
We are lucky. No-one is fishing peg 40, The Hawthorn, one of the best pegs on the stretch. A faint downstream breeze from left to right cools our brows as we study the swim from the top of the high bank.
The Severn here is some 30m wide, and today is low and clear. Lesley can’t remember when it last rained. The near side of the swim is only about 45cm deep. The gravel bottom is clearly visible out to the middle where thick streamer weed grows in lm or so of water. Beyond, in the main flow, is a channel some 1.5m deep, then more weed and shallow water.
The plan is simple: fish the channel with a block-end ‘feeder for barbel.
Lesley scrambles down the steep bank with his tackle. For ease and efficiency, he is going to fish standing in the water.
First job is to set up the landing net. Lesley then stakes out his 12ft micromesh keepnet so that it won’t collapse and as much of it as possible is submerged.
Next he positions the rod rests so that the rod points up and out over the water and slightly downstream. The idea is to use a ‘feeder just heavy enough to hold bottom, cast straight out in front of you, and pay the line out into a bow to stop the water pressure on it shifting the ‘feeder when the rod is in the rests. Then, when a barbel takes, it dis- lodges the ‘feeder, the bow goes slack and the rod top drops back.
Next Lesley sees to the bait. He has brought three pints of casters and three pints of hemp. To start, he mixes half of each in a washing-up bowl with just enough water to cover them. Without water, the casters would turn, the hemp dry and both end up as floaters. The bowl sits on top of a bait waiter, handily placed for quick and easy filling of the ‘feeder. Lesley has also brought two pints of white maggots, but for now they stay in his tackle box.
Lesley’s rod is a 12ft job of his own design. Anything shorter and you can’t keep enough line clear of the water when the rod weed is in the rests. You don’t have as much control over hooked fish either. It comes with two top sections, one with a built-in quiver-tip and one without, and is the business for ‘feeder fishing large, fast rivers for barbel and chub, having just the right combination of power and sensitivity. Lesley chooses the heavy top because most of the ‘bites’ will be drop-backs, the barbel hooking themselves as they dislodge the ‘feeder in the flow. The more sensitive quiv-ertip therefore isn’t necessary.
On the rod goes a trusty old Abu 507 closed-face reel – a reel no longer made but renowned for reliability. Lesley carries spools loaded with 1.8kg , 2.3kg and 2.7kg line. For clear swims, 1.8kg line is adequate, but heavily weeded swims demand something stronger so he plumps for the 2.3kg line.
Lesley reckons a loz ‘feeder will just hold bottom, though he might have to change later, as the flow can slow or speed up during the course of a day: sometimes water is drawn off for public supply, and sometimes it’s pumped in from boreholes to maintain a navigable level lower down.
He starts with a size 16 hook and 4lb hooklength, but will scale down if the barbel won’t have it. Lesley’s ‘feeder hooks are forged and barbed. A barb is essential, he says, because if a hooked barbel gets in a snag you have to give it slack line and wait for it to swim free of its own accord: try this with a barbless hook and it’s usually ‘bye-bye barbel.
Lesley begins with a 60cm tail, but will adjust it during the day as necessary according to how the barbel are feeding. Sometimes, when they are feeding with abandon, the barbel have a go at the ‘feeder itself, trying to get at the contents before it has had time to empty. When this happens it can pay to dispense with a hooklength, thread the ‘feeder on lengthways, tie a large hook on direct and stop the ‘feeder inches above the hook.
At other times, when the barbel are feeding reluctantly and shying away from the ‘feeder, it pays to lengthen the tail to 1m • but never any longer, says Lesley; the longer the tail, the harder it is to stop a barbel rolling on the surface and shedding the hook.
The smaller the hook, the greater the chance of this happening.
Tackled up, Lesley puts a single caster on the hook, fills the ‘feeder and makes his first cast • a smooth, overhead lob into the head of the channel.
Lesley has been fishing for 20 minutes with no joy, but hasn’t been idle. He recasts every minute or two, and to exactly the same spot each time, keeping a constant and concentrated supply of feed going in to draw barbel up the channel.
Lesley wonders if cold borehole water was pumped into the river during the night, dulling the barbels’ appetites. He scales down his hooklength to 3lb .
Then suddenly the bow slackens slightly, the rod top drops back and a barbel is on. No need to strike: you might crack off if you do.
The barbel powers downriver. Wading carefully to keep his footing, Lesley follows it downstream and out almost to the middle. By getting the rod tip above the barbel’s head, he can control the fight.
The barbel ploughs into a weedbed but Lesley eases it out with steady sidestrain. Soon he is steering the played-out fish back to the bank, where it’s safely netted. Lesley puts it at about .
In the next hour Lesley picks up five more similar barbel, but has to scale down to a size 18 hook and 214lb hooklength to keep them coming. A couple are hooked on the outside of the mouth, a sure sign that they are not feeding freely.
Nothing at all for an hour, and Lesley is recasting only every five minutes now: there is no point feeding too much bait when the fish obviously aren’t biting well.
A canoeist arrives from upriver. It’s Lesley’s pal Jason Ford, who lives on the riverbank, the lucky so-and-so. No mean angler himself, Jason was fourth in the match the previous day. He offers some unasked-for advice and paddles off back upstream.
Lesley adds some of the maggots to the caster and hemp, and tries a single maggot on the hook – a dodge he often uses here to revive a swim, and one that got him his last four, match-winning fish the day before. Within minutes he gets a 2lb barbel.
The barbel are still wary, though, so he changes to a size 20 hook and a lm tail. The 22lb hooklength stays – to go lighter is to court disaster.
In the next two hours Lesley hooks several barbel, but all slip the small hook except one of about 3Hlb . He tries a short tail again, but they don’t want to know.
Lesley calls it a day about mid-afternoon. The sun is getting unbearable and he doesn’t want to keep the fish in his keepnet too long. Shortly before packing up he hooks the biggest barbel of the day at 4:ilb – and lifts it out by hand!