The barbel is often regarded with something approaching awe – as a tremendous fighter caught by the lucky few. But catching one may be easier than you think. Martin Hooper tells you how.
To catch barbel you have to be familiar with their nature and feeding habits. They are a specialized fish — streamlined and with an underslung mouth. The torpedo-shaped body enables them to swim with ease in the fastest currents. The four mouth barbels on the upper jaw – two at the leading edge and two at the trailing edge -are used to detect food lodged among stones and gravel on the river bed. It makes sense, then, to fish for them on the bottom of the river.
Feeding the swim
It may sound obvious but you can only catch barbel if they are in the swim. It is no use fishing blindly in the hope that one may eventually turn up — you might have to wait forever! By feeding a swim you greatly increase the chances of an encounter.
Shallow clear rivers make it easier to spot your quarry but you can still use the same tactics on deep, coloured waters.
To get the the fish interested, feed free offerings within a tight area on to the bed of the river.
The simplest way – if the flow and depth are not too great — is to throw in a few samples. If the flow is such that the bait is washed out of the swim before it reaches the bottom, it’s best to try a baitdropper or swimfeeder.
Load the dropper with samples of the hookbait and swing it out into the feed area. When it reaches the bottom a plunger releases the bait. Droppers have a limitation, though. If you try to cast too far they have a nasty habit of opening in mid-air – dispersing both the loosefeed and the fish. This is the time you should start using a swimfeeder.
By baiting regularly on each visit to a water, you can ‘brainwash’ barbel so their appetites are tuned into your attractor. Hempseed is one of the cheapest and most effective. Liberally laced with a few choice hookbaits – such as sweetcorn or luncheon meat – it forms an enticing patch on the river bed. If there are any barbel around in feeding mood then it won’t be long before they move into your swim.
If the stretch you have chosen sees a lot of a certain bait, then the barbel become accustomed to eating it. If not, then pre-baiting is essential. It can take a considerable time to introduce the fish to a new bait.
Barbel are one of the most fickle of biters and the most powerful of fighters. So you need to get your tackle right. A rod of around l/4b (0.56kg) TC with a through-action is fine. There’s no need to break the bank – any mass-produced rod will do, provided it meets the basic requirements.
The reel A barbel specialist would probably choose a centrepin reel. This type enables you to respond immediately to the demands of an accelerating fish. Giving line with a fixed-spool reel is done through the gears and is therefore less direct – you have to anticipate what a barbel is going to do next, and that isn’t easy! Line of around 6lb (2.7kg) b.s. is about right. Use forged heavy wire hooks.
To complete the set-up you need a big landing net. One of about lm (3ft) across with big mesh – so that it doesn’t get caught by the current – is ideal.
End rigs and tactics
There are all kinds of leger rigs but one of the most versatile is a three-in-one rig which incorporates sliding stops.
With the stops pushed well up the line it’s a free running rig; hard against the boom it becomes a bolt rig; just pushed away from the boom it is a variable-length confidence rig. Within a matter of seconds you can change the rig to suit the mood the barbel are in on the day – giving you a much greater chance of hitting bites. A free running rig is the commonest choice when the barbel are their usual shy selves and you are fishing with one rod.
It’s essential to hold the rod, feeling for bites with the line held between your finger and thumb. Bites are rarely savage, rod-wrenching affairs. This is particularly so with larger fish and on heavily fished waters. The bites are often tiny plucks -more akin to dace bites than anything else. The bolt rig comes into play when fishing with two rods. Obviously, quick biting barbel are likely to be missed if you are trying to watch the ends of two rods at the same time. What’s needed is a method where the fish can take care of hooking itself. This is what a bolt rig does.
The bait is fished on a hair rig. When a fish picks it up it does one of two things. It either moves on to take the next piece of food, pricks itself then panics and bolts (hence the name of the rig) and, by doing so, hooks itself. Or it realizes its mistake and attempts to eject the bait – with the same result. This usually produces a fairly posi- tive indication and gives you a chance to pull the hook home.
The confidence rig works on much the same principle as the bolt rig. The difference is that you should leave slack line to allow the fish to move away with the bait until it suddenly hits the stop. As its name suggests, this rig works best when the fish are feeding without a sense of caution. In clear water this is indicated by fish moving all over the swim trying to get as much food as possible before the others get it all. In coloured water if a lot of line bites are occurring without any fish being hooked, the chances are that they are feeding confidently too.
The advantage of this rig is that by the time a fish feels the hook it probably has it well inside its mouth. There is little chance of it ejecting the bait. With this method you should make no attempt to strike – if you do the likelihood of foul hooking is very high.
The more time you spend on the bank looking for fish, learning their habits, feeding patterns and preferred swims in times of low waters through to flood conditions, the greater are your chances of hooking up with a really big barbel. This is a much better general approach than feeding what merely looks like a good swim. Ifit looks good it was probably fished yesterday and may well be fished again tomorrow. The fish will be hard to catch – if they are there at all.
The farther you get from the car park, and all the other anglers, the better are your prospects of a good day’s fishing – and possibly of connecting with that elusive double-figure specimen.