I am not one of the multitude whose boyhood initiation into the world of fishing came about with the proud capture of a small, greedy perch. But it was perch which showed me that fish do not spend all day, everyday, swimming about and eating. Nor do they live in every swim along the river. I discovered that, like people, fish have dislikes and preferences as to where they live, what they do, and when and how they feed.
HABITAT AND BEHAVIOUR
I recall a big willow tree whose bole leaned precariously low over a crystal clear, gravel bottomed, steady run at the tail end of a small mill pool. A group of perch lived there, all but one being smallish fish from 6in long to perhaps half a pound. Even allowing for a youngster’s vivid imagination, the biggest perch would have weighed about 1 lAb. I would straddle the bole and inch my way along the trunk until I could peer into the run and learn something of their behaviour. The fact that they were there whenever I looked and were always reluctant to leave the swim even when alarmed taught me that perch are territorial and that they like a gravel river bed. I noticed that a second willow farther down the mill tail concealed no perch despite its gravel bed. The current there was slightly more turbulent than the evenly paced run of my willow, so perch have a definite preference for certain types of flow, it seemed.
I learned that much of the time they remain hidden, lurking tight under the bank in the tree’s shadow. They ventured out now and again in twos and threes to make short explorations of the swim, then vanished into the shadows again. I spent hours watching them react to items which they discovered in the swim and to disturbances such as a pebble or twig dropped into the water. The perch normally drifted with their spiny dorsal fins folded except when they made a tight turn, at which the fin rose, presumably to help with the manoeuvre. Upon coming across something interesting or edible, and in response to disturbances, they ‘presented arms’, fins abristle, and looking for all the world like a squad of soldiers – medium sized corporals, little privates and that big sergeant major, all ready to do battle.
The most fascinating aspect of the peep-show was watching their reactions to baits. A free worm dropped beside the shadow resulted in several perch, and sometimes all of them (though rarely the sergeant major), hurrying out, all guns blazing. Mostly, a lively worm would be swallowed by the perch quickest off the mark; but sometimes they were more hesitant, nipping at the end of the worm, shaking it and letting go. A dead worm invariably was tweaked and worried before either a perch swallowed it or rejected it altogether. Sometimes the worm lay on the river bed for ages, having been inspected and rejected by a dozen fish. Any worm tethered by hook, line and float greatly increased the likelihood of this tweaking routine and caused the bobs and dips of the float known to any angler.
The sergeant major was different. He remained in the shadows most of the time, seemingly content to allow his troops to snaffle the bait. Once he emerged, grabbed the head of a worm dangling from the mouth of a smaller perch and looked as though he would have swallowed both of them had the private not let go. In the end I caught most of the privates, and the corporals as well, yet the big fish always eluded me. Now, thirty-five years later the willow still leans over that mill pool but coloured water prevents me from peering into the swim.
The Perch Disease
I like to think that the perch also are there. Sadly that is a pipedream. The early 1960s saw the beginnings of the infamous perch disease which eventually spread through much of the country to decimate the species. It was not a sudden affair with hundreds of perch floating belly up. Had it been, there would have been an immediate outcry. As it was, perch simply disappeared gradually and only a few were discovered dead or in distress. The full impact went almost unnoticed until it dawned on dismayed fishermen that they no longer caught any perch except the rare survivor.
Even now, twenty years on, the cause of the disease has yet to be fully explained. I find that incredibly hard to believe: it is not unreasonable to suppose that the threat of a disease virulent enough to wipe out a valued species would spur those paid to look after anglers’ interests to mount an immediate investigation. Yet it is only recently that scientists have suggested that the cause may be bacterial: an aero-monas group bacteria, common in our waters and normally harmless to fish, somehow become pathogenic. Nobody really knows what triggers an outbreak like this, or what factors predispose perch to its ravages.
The last few years have shown a heartening increase in perch numbers, and we hope this indicates a come-back. If bacteria are the cause, it is a sobering thought that the perch’s return may not be permanent. Indeed, perhaps the disease still is rampant, and the apparent revival is due to a progressive immunity inbred into the new population. Let us hope so. It is too soon to say whether perch are re-established in all or even most waters. They are prolific breeders and already are showing fairly widespread in good numbers. Not all are tiddlers: the come-back is mature enough to produce good sized fish as well. A few fish escaped the disease, and with little competition from their own kind (or from anglers who thought all the perch were gone) have managed to grow into sergeants and even majors. Big perch offer a challenge to anyone willing to look.
Like pike, perch generally live in easily recognised places; like weir and mill pools, deeper holes, pilings, below bridges and overhanging trees and especially below the sill of smaller pools, undercut banks, bends and corners of the river; anywhere which offers shadow is likely to hold them.
Those prominent bars on a perch’s flanks are there for good reason. They transform the perch from the brightly coloured fish we see in the net to near invisibility against a background of rushes and water lily stems; and therein lies the clue to some of the very best perch swims. Although deeper water is favoured elsewhere, rush bed and lily swims need not be more than a few feet. Perch love to lurk just inside the fringes of the stems, hidden but still able to observe all that goes on outside. I once kept a small perch in an aquarium, where it spent most of its time with its face to the glass, peering out from between plastic-weed stems. It soon came out when anything edible dropped into the tank.
Large numbers of very young perch shoal together and are easily caught one after another, all alike as peas in a pod. Other than that, they are not a true shoal fish in my opinion. As they grow, they divide into smaller groups that relocate in suitable holts along the river, perhaps already occupied by fish from previous generations. Thus, groups of perch often comprise a wide range of fish which have chosen to live in the same spot. You may catch a 4oz perch from one cast, and one four times heavier the next.
A good perch swim with nice depth, plenty of shadow and steady flow may contain a large head. My best river catch amounted to twenty-nine perch weighing between a few ounces and nearly 2 lb, all from an 8ft deep swim on an outside bend where old sunken wooden piles lined the bank. You are unlikely to catch tiddler perch in spots that hold bigger fish – mainly because tiddlers are not fond of being eaten!
The generals of the perch world have always been enigmatic. Three and four pounders are uncommon to say the least, and perch topping 5 lb are as rare as a £3 note. I believe that big fish are solitary or swim with one or two more of comparable weight. They are seldom caught because of their uncanny caution and a lack of pressure from specialist anglers. The big ones are as hard to catch as small perch are easy, and would call for a single-minded and dedicated approach. Perch have been known to live for twenty-five years, and no fish lives that long without learning something about avoiding fishermen.
Stillwater perch are often seen rounding up a shoal of prey fish, herding them into bays and margins so shallow that the little ones even ground themselves trying to escape. While I have seen this happen on upper reaches of a river I have not come across it lower down. Strangely enough I have never found perch particularly easy to catch during those frenzies, though a tiny spinner or deadbait drawn through the swim may take odd fish.
Very young perch feed on insect larvae, shrimps and such, then soon switch to small fish. Bigger perch still feed on the smaller aquatic creatures but are naturally more predatory on small fish of most species including their own. I have never caught perch on eel or stickleback though. Unlike pike which possess explosive acceleration for lunging at food, perch have no such thrust or speed. A glance at its slender tail wrist, caudal fin and generally humpbacked profile shows clearly that a perch is not built for acceleration. It is, however, a superb acrobat which utilises its ability to chase and outsvvim a selected victim amongst a shoal of food fish. It twists, turns, snaps at its victim’s tail and shadows its every movement until the little fish is sufficiently damaged or exhausted to be swallowed.
On most rivers small live fish account for most decent sized perch. Stone loach were a favourite of mine when I could find them, followed by a little perch about 3-4in long. Minnows and gudgeons are almost as good, though roach, dace and other species will all be taken. Lobworms catch perch, and sometimes outfish live baits. For some reason I have done better with worms on the small, clear-water upper reaches of rivers but I cannot explain why they should work better there than farther downriver. In general worms are not quite as selective as fish baits as regards the size of perch hooked. The smallest perch will tackle a worm twice its size.
It is important that worms are lively. Reflecting on those perch under the willow bole, I remember that a limp, bedraggled, dead worm dangling from the hook is unlikely to score. I keep my worms active by storing them in a spacious container filled with screwed up, damp newspaper together with a few tufts of moss, turning the container upside down occasionally so that the worms work their way to the bottom and back.
You may find that on cold winter days smaller breeds of worms are accepted while lobs and livebaits are refused. Red worms and marsh worms are the best in my experience because they wriggle even in freezing water. I have little faith in brandlings for perch or anything else, though I cannot deny that they have accounted for a good many perch.
Spinning is rather overrated, I think, and I have never enjoyed it. Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm explains my comparative lack of success. I am a firm believer that an angler rarely will become good at any aspect of fishing that he does not enjoy. That said, spinning is an uncluttered, easy way of catching perch, with no need to lug big tackle boxes, rod bags and livebait buckets along the river bank. All you need is rod and reel, a net, a few lures and unhooking instruments.
Perch are easily spooked by continually pulling a lure through their patch especially when one or two of them have been caught, pricked or lost. Therefore I recommend keeping on the move. Mostly you are unlikely to hook more than one or two perch from each swim, however many it holds. Perch are aggressive and great chasers of lures, but often refuse to take, especially in a swim that has already produced a couple of fish. They still snatch and nip at the lure as it is retrieved -you can feel them through the rod tip. The lure may be pursued right into the bank, and you will see the flash of the perch’s flanks as it turns away. Changing the lure, its size, colour, action and speed of retrieve may tempt a few more takes but if the perch persist in merely following you are better off moving to the next swim. You can always return later.
Having said that spinning is overrated, nevertheless I rate it highly as a perch Finder and use it whenever I fish a strange river where I have not been able to pre-locate likely swims. I work a lure through any likely looking area until either a fish follows the lure to the bank and I spot it, or I feel one tapping away as I retrieve. Either way I then settle down to fish the swim with conventional tackle and baits, the approach I prefer.
Tiny revolving bar spoons seem more attractive than wobbling lures. I have never found anything better than the well-known Mepps bar spoon for a deep retrieve, and even the smallest are heavy enough to cast well with no added lead, which I think spoils a lure’s action. Other models worth trying are Ondex, Voblex, Veltic and Vibros. Striped patterns seem particularly effective, and small Devon minnows also will score. Although worms can be deadly when fished sink-and-draw, paradoxically lures work better with a slow, steady, straight recovery.
The lure’s colouration is also important as a perch attractor. For hundreds of years perch anglers have realised the effectiveness of incorporating something within the red end of the spectrum. If the lure itself lacks the necessary colour, add a tuft of bright red or orange wool or feather just above the rear treble hook. Scientists say that a perch sees little or no blue but does recognise green almost as well as red, so this highlights a useful area for lure experimentation. We are told that perch also have a degree of infra-red vision, though I am not sure how we could capitalise on that.
TACTICS AND TECHNIQUES
So, perch have excellent vision, feed by sight, and probably very little by smell. (Even so, I always nip the tips off worms anyway to release their scent, and I think I get better results by so doing.) The knowledge that they feed predominantly by sight explains why a lively bait fished sink-and-draw or tweaked along the bottom is nearly always more rewarding than a static offering. The exceptions are those off days, usually in mid-winter, when a tethered but still lively bait is more attractive to the odd fish. In those conditions they are in no mood for a chase, so it is necessary to place the bait accurately into their holt.
I do not want to give the impression that perch do not feed well in winter. As a matter of fact November through to the end of the season sees the cream of river perch fishing. Mild spells are the times to concentrate upon, when water temperatures are somewhere between the mid-40s and low-50s Fahrenheit. A mild March is a wonderful time to be out after perch, for those final precious days of the season usually mean perfect temperatures and hot feedingspells. Dirty, coloured wateror flood conditions put a damper on sport however favourable the temperatures may be. Even though they live in murky shadows, perch are less sensitive to light levels than are other species. Given the choice, choose an overcast day to fish, but never let brightness deter you from making a trip to the river. Provided you know where perch are and can place a bait into their dim parlours, there is every chance of good sport.
Perch do not grow to enormous sizes and, although a hooked fish fights quite hard, by no stretch of the imagination can it be described as powerful. I cannot recall having to give line to a perch even on very light tackle. That being so, they are one of the few species that have never inspired a special rod design. For legering, a 10-1 lft compound tapered rod of light Avon action will be just about perfect; it doubles for spinning as well if, like me, you dislike those short rods sold for the purpose. Look no further than a 12-13ft medium-power match rod for general float fishing. Choose rods with a softish action because perch have a thin membrane at the sides of the mouth just behind the lips. When the hook takes hold there you need a soft, respon- sive action to avoid pulling it out. Soft rods are more fun to catch perch on anyway.
Line strengths and hook sizes should be matched to the method, bait, swim and size of perch expected. I do most of my fishing with 3 lb line, and carry spare spools of 4, 5 and 6 lb for varying situations and snaggy swims. Size 8 or 6 hooks are suited to big lobworms hooked once about a third down from the head. Sizes 6 and 4 are for livebaits hooked through the lips. You do not need tandem hooks or trebles for perch fishing.
As a rule of thumb, tackle up as lightly as you dare, bearing in mind the swim’s restrictions. I know that little perch readily commit suicide on the coarsest of tackle, but better fish are tackle shy and will leave the bait upon feeling the slightest hint of resistance. It pays to put a lot of care into your terminal tackle arrangement so that a biting fish is able to take line freely. A leger rig should be free-running with the hook tail long enough to eliminate friction. My perch rigs always incorporate buoyancy which keeps the swivel holding the reel line well clear of the bottom and thus ensures it does not clog with debris. The buoyant rig further permits a legered livebait extra swimming range so that it is more likely to be spotted by a hungry stripy.
Quiver and swing tips are out of place for legering because perch play with the bait for some time before taking it. You need a method that allows the fish plenty of resistance-free line. Most perch swims are in slow or steady flows where it is possible to use an indicator hung below the butt ring or between butt and second. With its weight nicely counterbalanced to the strength of the flow, the indicator imposes no resistance. The time-honoured dough bobbin suffices, as does a tube of tin foil. However, I prefer my own ring or clip indicator which is used without modification on most of my river legering rods. If the ring is too light to counteract the current, add some lead wire ballast. A characteristic perch bite sets the indicator rising towards the rod in fits and starts. Let the ring hang well below the rod so that the bite has time to develop more positively. If necessary open the bale arm and feed extra line to the fish. Bites on small baits can safely be struck quickly. Exactly when to strike takes on large baits like lobworms and livebaits is often a matter of hit and miss.
I worry about deep-hooking perch: they may seem to swim off happily when released but I have seen a number turn belly up soon afterwards. Logic tells me to strike sooner to avoid deep-hooking, yet doing so guarantees missing a high proportion of bites and in any case an immediate strike often results in a throat-hooked perch anyway. Delayed striking loses few fish but risks damaging the fish; even so, a good number are lip hooked by this technique. Working out the right tactics on the day and striking according to the bites produced does not solve the problem either. The first fish may take a yard of line and be hooked in the lip; the next is throat-hooked even if you give just a couple of inches of line. Stalemate! Hedge your bets by striking when the indicator climbs more deliberately. More important, get into the rigid habit of using hooks with the barbs nipped in. At least they are easily extracted and give a perch the benefit of having the odds of survival more in its favour.
Worms and livebaits are effectively legered on the bottom, particularly when given a periodic tweak by jerking the line near the reel. Both baits can be deadly fished off the bottom, either by trotting them through the swim with the float set to present them about a foot above the river bed or anchored with a running paternoster float rig, using as small a float and as little lead as necessary. Bites on the latter rig are usually positive and may be struck after a short pause.
Freelined, slow sinking lobworm is the most productive method I know, and although not selective in the size of perch caught it has accounted for my best ever fish of just over 3 lb. A variation equally deadly is to add a self-cocking float, with no lead on the line, set so that the sinking worm finally is suspended just above the bottom. Let it trot through the swim.
Perch hiding in the fringes of a rush-bed swim call for pinpoint casting to the very edge of the rush stems. In these surroundings perch are reluctant to leave hiding to intercept your bait. You could leger, but I am not happy with that because a taking fish may swim back into the rushes and the bite indicator is unable to register which way it is running. A float is the answer. A sliding float fixed bottom end only allows an attractive fall to the bait and aids accurate casting. Nip a single shot big enough to cock the float to the line about 9in above the hook. Next tie a stop knot far enough above the float to suspend the bait or to allow the laying-on technique. On normal fixed float tackle, even cast accurately, the bait sinks in an arc away from the rushes and finishes up well away from the hotspot. A slider provides a compact rig that not only casts well but also allows the bait to sink tight up to the rushes as line is drawn through the float eye. Bottom end only floats are also a lot less likely to snag if a hooked fish runs into cover.
As in zander fishing, a choice must be made between using a wire trace and catching fewer perch, or using monofil or Dacron at risk of leaving hooks in some of the pike almost certain to attack the live-baits. There is no doubt that a heavy wire trace results in dropped baits, so until the tackle makers come up with a light, extra supple wire of about 4 lb test, I compromise by opting for a short length of 15-20 lb Dacron.
Retaining the Catch
It is known that a scared or injured fish can release ‘fear substances’ into the water, and that when a fish raises the alarm that smell or sense is transmitted to the rest of the shoal which react with fright or increased caution. Perhaps perch have this ability particularly well developed, for I am sure that returning one immediately to the swim nearly always spells the end of sport for some time. For that reason I make an exception to my general rule of quickly returning my fish, preferring to keep perch until the end of the session. However, do not put them into a loose carp sack. I learned the hard way that the loose folds of nylon cling around the gills and prevent breathing. Carp sacks held open by supporting rings are ideal though, and thus modified are far superior to keepnets which enmesh the perch’s sharp spines and gill covers.
River Fishing Techniques: Barbel
It is unfortunate that barbel are found in only a few British rivers, best known being the Hampshire Avon, Dorset Stour, Ken-net, Thames, Severn, Swale and Ure. The Hertfordshire Lee still holds respectable numbers, and Norfolk’s Wensum is increasingly viable since its recent stocking with a hundred fish. The once prolific Trent shows heartening signs of a come back, and I suspect it will again become a premier barbel water in years to come.
Barbel are something of an enigma among river fish, at times so easy to catch, at others nigh impossible. The latter is more common by far. Early season fishing in June and July are the most productive times, then the fish become progressively slower throughout summer. They are quick to learn, and soon you must work very hard for every fish you catch. Late September and October see a revival of more consistent fishing especially for big fish, and October is arguably the best month of all for real heavyweights.
With the first period of pronounced frosts comes the end of consistent sport. From then on, throughout winter, barbel can still be caught when weather and water conditions are right; for example during mild westerly and southerly winds that bring enough rain to raise the river level and increase its colour and flow.
My barbel career was late to start, mainly because there is no river containing them within easy reach. I still live far away, but since taking that first trip to the Hampshire Avon some ten years ago I am well and truly hooked on those powerful, whiskered torpedoes. I make the pilgrim- age to barbel country as often as I can.
The first visit was an eye-opener. Peering into the crystal water of the Avon from high on a suspension bridge, I was convinced that the river must be devoid of any fish, let alone barbel. Billowing masses of ranunculus fronds waved in the fast flow and revealed glimpses of clean gravel that appeared and disappeared in tune with the swaying weed and currents. As I watched and my eyes adjusted, life began to materialise beneath the surface. Three dark shapes nosed from the shadow of the bridge. Dark backs and black tails identified them as chub. Two brilliantly coloured perch hung in a small patch of quiet water behind a bridge support and occasionally drifted across to a slack by the near bank to send a shoal of minnows darting for cover.
Of barbel there was no sign until Len softly called me across to the other side of the bridge. ‘Barbel,’ he said. ‘Good ones too, on the gravel bar there.’ He pointed into the river. I scanned the water and squinted; but I could see no barbel. ‘Right against the edge of the weed,’ said Len who is an old hand at spotting them. ‘Can’t you see their big pectoral fins?’ Squinting still harder, sure enough I picked out the pink triangles of fin, then the indistinct shape of the fish themselves with their slightly asymmetrical tails. Barbel spotting is an art most anglers need time to cultivate before they become proficient. Unless the light is particularly good it is easily possible to stare at a bare patch of gravel for ages before a movement catches your eye and you realise that a barbel was lying there all the time.
With experience you learn to pick out the fins or spot the dark tail poking out from behind fronds of weed. The top lobe is longer and pointed, the bottom shorter and rounded. Consistent sport with barbel depends on locating them beforehand, so it is well worth spending some time cultivating the art. Obviously one cannot always spot fish. Sometimes they are hidden in deep or distant runs, or the water is too coloured. With practice though a swim pattern begins to build up in your mind, and although you cannot see the fish you can relate the speed and set of current in a strange swim to the patterns of a known barbel swim. An educated guess may drop a bait in the right area.
HABITAT AND BEHAVIOUR
Much of the time you will be wrong, but then I do not know any barbel angler who is right all the time. Barbel lying motionless under weeds are probably not feeding, but may well be tempted out by judicious groundbaiting. Feeding fish are much easier to spot because they periodically drift from weeds to gravel to intercept food coming down with the current. Sometimes you see a flash of bronze as the barbel turns sideways on. I am not sure why they flash. Some fishermen claim that the underslung mouth makes it difficult to grab passing suspended food, and the turn of the body makes feeding an easier business. I doubt that this is the reason because I have seen flashing fish that I am sure were not feeding. The flash sometimes follows the fish scraping its flanks along the gravel as though freeing itself from parasites.
Whatever the explanation, flashing is a welcome sight for any barbel hunter. Whether they are feeding or not, at least he has located his fish. Occasionally, especially towards evening or in coloured water, barbel also roll on the surface. Actually, it is more of a slicing action or head-and-tailing rather like bream. Where you see barbel working is obviously the right place to fish. If you cannot spot them, look for other clues instead. Barbel are synonymous with weeds and are rarely far away from them, but that is hardly a clue for the barbel beginner. In my early days I recall asking the bailiff who issued my day ticket where I might find barbel, having explained that I had not fished the river before. He replied bluntly, ‘Anywhere there is weed.’ A fat lot of help that was, since the river was solid with it from bank to bank.
The most productive high summer swims are often found in the shallower, weedier, fast stretches where by carefully watching the movements of weed fronds you can see the clear gravel runs beneath. Even the smallest patch may be worth fishing, though larger areas are definitely a better bet. Barbel feed by sucking in and blowing out bottom debris including the gravel. Any gravel patch regularly visited by the species develops a cleaner, yellower appearance than its surroundings. Most of the really productive barbel spots are quite distinctive and clean. Depressions in the river bed are none too easily found but are worth searching for. It does not have to be significantly deeper-just a few extra inches of water provides a real hotspot. Depressions are formed by the scouring, sweeping action of a dense bed of trailing weed that is pushed by the current. One such spot springs to mind: only inches deeper than the main river bed and just a couple of yards long, it has yielded remarkable catches of barbel to just under 10 lb.
Find such a swim and chances are you will catch barbel there. The fish probably like depressions because food naturally is deposited there by the currents. For the same reasons, obstructions on the river bed like boulders, stumps and bridge supports are worth a look. Barbel lie immediately downstream and behind them.
Deep, powerful runs, fast water on the edge of slacks, overhangs, undercuts and bankside runs beside marginal rushes are well worth exploring provided there is gravel and weed. Weirpools are notoriously difficult to fish because continual variations of current make accurate fishing in any chosen spot somewhat hit and miss. No two casts are likely to end up in the same spot and it is impossible to know precisely where the groundbait lies on the bottom. For all that, weirpools nearly always will contain barbel especially early in the season. Big swimfeeders cast to the edges of the fast water and into the side eddies and weir tail will take fish, as will light leger tackle cast into the white water and allowed to be towed under the weir sill by the bank eddies, or trundled around searching the bottom contours.
Fast taper rods are out of place for barbel. Choose a nice bendy 11ft Avon of 1—1 l^tlb test curve and optional spliced or detachable quiver tip for legering in most swims. In overgrown or really snaggy water a light carp rod lends a better margin of safety. Trotting rods need a similar easy but not sloppy action. Stiffer blanks fail to cushion the jarring fight of a hooked barbel. Most swims and conditions can be handled by a fixed spool reel with a range of spools holding 4—8 lb line, and you will find that even 10 lb line is not too strong for the snaggy spots.
Barbel are notorious hook benders, so strong forged patterns are required especially when small sizes are used. There are plenty of strong hooks available in sizes bigger than 10; below that the choice is limited – Au Lion d’Or 1534, Mustad 7780C, Gold Strike and VMC 9284 are the best I know.
Every year sees more barbel caught on swimfeeder leger tackle than on all other methods put together. This is no surprise, for a feeder is a very positive way to get a concentrated trickle of feed into the swim. You can be sure that it lies close to the hookbait as well. Block end and open feeders are effective but you may need to enlarge the holes in block ends to improve the flow rate. The feed must go into the swim, not scatter all over the river when you retrieve the tackle. Use a block end for neat maggots and an open ender plugged with groundbait for inert bait like casters, corn and hemp.
TACTICS AND TECHNIQUES
Baits and Groundbaits
Hemp is a superb barbel attractor. You have only to feed hemp into a barbel swim to realise what a powerful attractor it is. If there are any fish in the area, it will not be long before their whiskery faces peer out of the weed to detect the source of the grains.
The bailiff of a well-known barbel beat told me that next to location the best way to be sure that fish are in the swim and feeding is to’get the dining table well laid.’ In other words, put in a lot of groundbait. He reckoned that it did not matter too much what went into the water as long as it was edible. Quantity is what counts.
My experience confirms this is often the case, especially early in the season. I have even used home-made swimfeeders the size of dustbins to deliver the goods. But beware: barbel in hard-flogged stretches can bolt from such heavy bombardment. 1 also question that any old bait will do, and I prefer to introduce good quality ground-bait and hookbait samples.
Maggots catch many barbel and are convenient and effective as groundbait because they can be fed into the swim easily and accurately with block ends or bait droppers. Luncheon meat issuperb-either a large chunk on a good sized hook or a smaller cube with similar free offerings in a feeder or dropper. Introduce free offerings of larger cubes by tying a length of PVA string on to the lead link, then threading on six or seven pieces of meat with a baiting needle. Tie a knot around the last one. Bait the hook with the same sized cube, and cast in. The PVA melts and the feed trickles down beside the hookbait.
Other traditional baits like sausage meat, cheese, corn and lobworms still catch plenty of barbel, and opportunities for experimenting with many more baits are there for the taking. Regular baiting with mass particle baits like maple, gunga or chick peas, tares and black eyed beans would ensure a new lease of life for many hard-fished reaches especially if flavours and/or dyes were added, of that I’m sure. I have used flavoured, red sweetcorn with success.
Baits are flavoured by soaking in water containing about 10ml of essence to 4pts. It is a mistake to overdo it since too much flavour may repel instead of attract. Add dye to the water as well. The following day, simmer the bait for about 20min. I usually boil bait in the water and dye it has been soaked in – but only when my wife Joan is out. If it boils over, you end up with a Technicolor cooker. Similar comments apply to carp specials and protein-based baits. I am sure that an angler working with a bucket of mini-boilies and a swim full of barbel would be in for a red letter day if he had already weaned the fish on to them with a prebaiting programme.
Searching the swim with a rolling leger is a killing method at times, and is very useful when you are uncertain where the barbel lie. Obviously, when a swim is solid with weed the idea does not work; but where patches are not so dense it is possible to trundle the bait into potential holding spots until you pinpoint the barbel. Use enough lead so that the tackle holds, but will lift and bump cross-stream when the rod tip is raised. Work systematically, gradually lengthening the cast across and down river until the whole swim has been covered. If you get a bite, the spot can be fished with a static feeder, or you can continue with the rolling lead. Experiment will show which is better on the day – remember that the barbel call the tune.
A swan shot leger link suits the method because it is easy to add shot to match the current. Keep the link short though. I think that long ones allow the bait to flutter too high in the water. Occasional barbel are hooked a little above the river bed, but the majority are taken hard down on the bottom.
Upstream legering is an excellent technique in itself, and is even more useful in awkward swims that cannot be fished very well by casting downstream. Again, use just enough lead to hold bottom (and you may be surprised how little that is) with a semi-tight line and the rod propped high in its rest to minimise the length of line in the water. This way there is less chance of the current catching the line and dragging your tackle out of position. Bites register by the tip pulling straight and the line falling slack. A long, sweeping strike is necessary to pick up the slack and set the hook.
Beginners may have trouble casting accurately with cumbersome feeder tackle. Often it is necessary to drop every cast with pinpoint accuracy between the waving fronds so that the feed concentrates in one place. The secret is not to try to cast straight into a gap. Instead, overcast so that the feeder lands beyond the gap. The instant before the tackle hits the river, stop the line by dropping your finger on to the spool so that the line is tight from the rod tip. Hold the rod high so that the feeder does not sink, and draw it into the gap. Then release the feeder in exactly the right position by sharply lowering the rod tip.
Trotting is hard work but enjoyable. It is effective as well, for barbel often respond better to baits moving through the run. This method comes into its own on longer, smooth flowing runs and glides with an even bottom and medium depth. It is very good where the swim is flanked by overhangs, rushes and other vegetation. The rod described for chub trotting is right for barbel as well. Near bank swims are best tackled with a centre pin reel; a fixed spool is preferred despite its limitations for mid-river and far bank fishing. 5 lb line provides reasonable tackle control in most swims, but 4 lb is even better where the weed allows. Anything less is asking for trouble unless you have a lot of experience in handling these bionic fish.
Big Avon floats are necessary for barbel trotting, with shot set on the line as shown. Most fish are taken with a bait tripping bottom, a tactic which unfortunately can result in foul hooking when the passing hook catches on the barbel’s enormous outspread pectoral fin. As with trotting for any river species, it pays to ring the changes. If no bites come, try setting the float deeper and adjust the bottom shot so that the bait just drags bottom. Let the shot itself drag bottom if you like, which will slow down the trot. Holding back by feathering the line as it leaves the reel also slows the tackle; but remember that holding back too hard causes the bait to flutter from the bottom. Sometimes you need to compensate for that tendency by deepening the float setting and moving the shot closer to the hook.
Meanwhile, a steady trickle of loose feed through the swim keeps the barbel interested. A handful every cast is not too much, carefully judged to reach bottom where you expect the fish to lie. Often they will move to intercept bait hitting bottom some distance away, so extreme accuracy may not always be critical.
Hooking a fish on relatively light trotting tackle calls for extra care. The harder you bully a barbel, the harder it bullies you back – so the answer for trotting gear is to take it easy. Gentle playing provokes none of the nerve jangling jolts and rushes you get when really bending into a fish on heavier tackle. Then, a barbel feels not unlike a turbo-charged bag of nuts and bolts. Leger tackle usually triggers explosive runs because the combination of terminal lead, current on the line and rod pressure results in the fish hooking itself as it moves off with the bait. This also explains why most barbel bites wrench the rod tip over: the fish is hooked and into its first run by the time you get the rod into action.
First try to get downstream of the barbel so that you are pulling it down through the weeds rather than upstream or across. You do not get many fish into the net by trying to haul them upstream through dense weeds – a fish beds down in the weed and no amount of pulling will free it. It is a good idea to place your landing net a suitable distance down river where it will lay ready when you have played the barbel to the bank.
Even experts are broken sometimes when trotting with lighter tackle. In any case, the fight on such frail gear involves such a long duel that the poor old barbel, which habitually fights to the last, is finally netted totally exhausted and too weak to swim away when returned. Most barbel need nursing anyway. Hold the fish with its head to the current until it regains strength. Do not let it go until it is able to look after itself. Sometimes you may be fooled into believing the fish is ready to go, but it waddles into the current, turns belly up and floats away. There is grave danger that the barbel will die because it cannot breathe, so before you release your grip, be sure that beautiful fish has fully revived.
An Outing for Spooky Barbel
Such bold bites may fool the newcomer into thinking that catching barbel is easy. They can be on the right day in the right swim, but sometimes they prove more cussed than the canniest chub. 1 discovered that one trip to the Hampshire Avon and Dorset Stour. Both rivers were low, clear and stale after a long, dry summer. The barbel had been heavily fished – that was patently obvious by their suspicion of every conventional bait offered. Finding fish in the low river was a simple matter of walking the banks and looking into the water through Polaroids. Either they were out on clean gravel or revealed glimpses of pink fin and forked tail as they lay partly hidden under weeds. Now and again I found a swim that screamed barbel although none could be seen. 1 have said that extra clean gravel patches may well be feeding places, so if I came across such a swim I would watch patiently for a visiting fish. Any gravel patch with a slightly sloping bed – no matter which way it slopes – may also be worth waiting and watching, as are the depressions I mentioned (provided there is weed adjacent).
When poor light prevents fish spotting, it becomes a matter of choosing a location, then feeding it heavily and regularly until a bite confirms your choice or until lack of them proves your theory wrong. Two hours in a blind swim makes me restless to move, but there is no denying that many a fine catch has come towards the end of a long biteless spell. Sometimes it pays to sit it out.
On this particular trip I found the barbel so easily spooked that the splash of a lead, feeder or bait dropper sent them rushing for cover. Eventually I resorted to lacing the swim with a bait dropper, placing the baited tackle into position, then waiting for the wary barbel to return after the disturbance died down. They inevitably will do that, especially if hemp is the attractor. Barbel feeding on hemp is a sight to savour. They filter into the baited zone, often materialising from apparently nowhere. One moment the gravel is bare, next you are aware of pale shapes ghosting over the feed.
You can always tell when barbel are feeding. They tilt slightly, almost imperceptibly, head down and drift systemati- cally about the swim with underslung mouths grazing the gravel like animated vacuum cleaners. I soon found that the fish refused all normal baits and terminal set-ups. This happens because either they are suspicious of the hookbait which is heavier than free samples and therefore does not behave naturally, or they are afraid of the bait itself, having been caught or hooked on it before.
I solved the problem and finished the trip with a respectable tally by flavouring my sweetcorn bait with butterscotch, us- ing 48in hook tails, and mounting the bait on a hair rig. The latter dodge was devised by carp anglers and is now used more and more effectively for other species as well. The diagrams are self-explanatory. On the right hair rig, bait behaves perfectly naturally and is taken without suspicion; the hook follows the bait into the barbel’s mouth. Rig B turned out to be most effective, judging by the ratio of bites to hooked fish, because the bait lies almost on top of the bare hook ensuring all is sucked in.