Barbel Fishing Tips

Creeping along riverbeds as it feels for its food, or embarking seasonally on its long migrations, the barbel’s invisible habitat and shifting territory make it a challenge to specimen hunters.

Specimen sizes

Avon 9 lb

Derwent 8 lb

Kennet 8-10 lb

Severn 8 lb

Stour 9 lb

Swale 8 lb

Thames 9 lb


lift, test curve l£lb 12ft, test curve lflb




b.s. 5 lb, open water 8 lb, snaggy water


Round-bend, medium shank, small barb, turned-in-eye


Crust, maggot, sweetcorn, luncheonsausage meat, and combinations


Loose hookbait in bait-dropper, swimfeeder or blockend and mixed with bread or chopped meats


Ledgerlink ledger with variations.

Where should the southern angler go to catch specimen barbel? Pro-bably the most famous southern barbel water is the Royalty Fishery at Christchurch on the Hampshire Avon, a water which is open to all, although the cream of the barbel fishing is not until September.

The angler is best off fishing the Thames, Kennet, and to a lesser ex-tent, the Lea. All these rivers are worthwhile, but on none of them is fishing for specimen barbel easy. Locating big barbel is sometimes a soul-destroying business, particularly on weedy rivers, like the Kennet and Stour, during the summer. You can creep along the banks in soft shoes, armed with polarized sunglasses, even binoculars, and in a mile of searching and peering you will probably not see a single barbel. But have confidence—the fish are there, among all the weed. And even more open stretches, where you may be able to count the pebbles on the bottom in day-time, are not always barren of fish.

Nevertheless, you must accept that you cannot always fish swims where you have seen barbel. But you can make pretty certain that your swim is likely to hold fish. The old method of ‘walking and talking’ is the way to do this. Spend as much time as you can at the river just walking and talking with other anglers—especially the locals, even if they are not specimen hunters —and watching the river’s different moods. If you do this early in the morning, in the middle of the day and at dusk, you cannot fail to learn about the water. It is very difficult to leave your tackle at home and ‘waste’ valuable fishing time, but you will find that most successful big-fish men (not just barbel specialists) spend the majority of their ‘fishing’ time at the waterside without their rods.

If you are going to fish a club water, make yourself known to the Match Secretary. He will probably tell you at length about the history of barbel on your stretch of the river—not so much of fish landed, but of giant fish lost.

Barbel spotting

One time when you may see barbel is when they are leaping. This is why it is so essential to do some early morning and late evening ‘spotting’. Leaping or rolling fish are not necessarily feeding, but if you pin down an area where they leap regularly, it will be fairly safe to assume that they will be feeding nearby. For ledgering, a rod of about lift with a test curve of about 1Mb is usually adequate, but in some cases a longer rod of 1H-I2ft, with a 1 fib test curve, makes all the difference. Immediate control over a big hooked barbel in such circumstances is vital, and an extra 10in of rod and additional power give that all-important leverage needed for big fish.

Big barbel are probably the most powerful freshwater fish and take a lot of stopping, and many barbel holts are dangerously close to under water snags, or plentiful weed, or both. Even the most successful and experienced barbel fishers have lost several of their bigger fish on underwater snags or dense weed-beds—particularly on the upper reaches of the River Kennet, where barbel of record proportions undoubtedly exist.

Some idea of the habits of barbel and where to catch them is clearly il-lustrated by a favourite swim of mine on the middle Thames. It is a favourite because in some ways it is several swims rolled into one. I have caught barbel from it at all times of day and night, in summer, autumn and in winter.

It is just downstream of a bend, at a spot where the water pushes through a narrow ‘neck’ and the main force of the current has formed an undercut on my side of the river.

Over the years, a pattern has emerged in the habits of the barbel. In summer, they favour three different areas, depending on the time of day. By day, they prefer the part of the swim towards the centre of the river where it begins to shelve up and there is about 6ft-8ft of water.

At dusk, they move in to the undercut bank, possibly to search for food and groundbait left by daytime anglers. The chance of a big fish is greatest at this time.

Later at night, especially during hot weather, the barbel often move on to the shelf. Although rolling and leaping is more frequent here, the fish do not appear to feed quite so often (on the angler’s bait at any rate) over the shelf—perhaps it is more of a play area.

During colder and quieter conditions in autumn and winter, the barbel favour the deep water close in throughout the day.

Link ledgering

The link ledger recommended needs to be modified if you intend to fish for specimens. First, the swivel stop on the line should not be a stop shot, as pinching on one of these weakens the line. Instead, thread the line through about 1 cm of 1 mm-bore rubber tubing and stop this on the line with a small wedge made from either a cocktail stick or a tooth-pick.

Second, the length of the link itself, between hook and swivel, must be varied to suit individual swims and the bites you are getting. On fast, weedy swims, it should be increased—possibly to as much as 3£ft—so that it behaves more naturally; on slow swims, particularly when fish are biting shyly, it should be shortened—to as little as 8in—so that bites are registered more immediately.

In the summer, offer the fish small particle baits by day, then switch to luncheon meat or sausage meat baits in the evening and night.

Both particle and meat baits can be fished on a light rig, groundbait offered in the form of loose hookbait added with the aid of a bait dropper or by hand; or on a heavier rig with a blockend swimfeeder.

I prefer a light rig, without the swimfeeder. This is because I have a great deal of confidence in small baits like sweetcorn and tiny pieces of luncheon or sausage meat. The main drawback with the blockend feeder is that it is designed for mag-gots. While these can be very effec-tive, they do tend to attract a lot of small fish, especially gudgeon and bleak, and striking my way through hordes of these all day is not a pastime I enjoy. However, I normally fish the little-weeded Thames. On heavily weeded rivers like the Ken-net, bait robbers are not such a pro-blem and blockending with maggots is a useful way of getting fish out from the weeds. My favourite Thames swim is fair- ly slow for most of the summer, so there is no need to use a dropper to introduce loose offerings, as their descent can be gauged quite ac-curately, particularly with a dense bait like corn. With buoyant, fatty meats or on faster swims, however, you may have to use a dropper.

Of all small baits, I prefer an oblong of luncheon meat or two grains of sweetcorn on a No 12 hook. When these fail, I try combination baits of maggots and sweetcorn or maggots and luncheon meat. For most summer conditions, between one and three swanshot will normal- ly hold bottom, but the correct weight can always be found by trial and error.

By day, I like to keep a barbel swim ‘alive’ with a regular trickle of offerings and by re-baiting and casting every 20 minutes or so. Before lifting the hook from the water, I strike off the bait, so giving a natural build-up of feed.

Inching the bait round the swim and covering every part of the preferred feeding areas is important. There is no merit at all in leaving a bait in one spot for hours. However, it is important not to drop your tackle on to the barbel’s nose, par-ticularly when using larger baits or heavy leads in shallow water. I always cast several feet upstream of and across the spot where I suspect the fish are, then carefully steer the tackle into the hotspot.

This is not as easy as it sounds, but can be mastered after a while. Do not let the tackle sink where it is cast, but swing the rod and tighten the line while the terminal tackle is still in mid-water. By carefully balancing the tightness of the line, letting out more if necessary, the terminal tackle can be moved round jrtAJvinN nuivniNo in mid-water without it either sinking or being pulled to the surface.

When it is in position, let the terminal tackle sink and then tighten the line. On slow to medium-fast swims during the day, do not tighten hard, but leave a gentle bow in the line. It makes an excellent early warning bite indicator.

After dark, no great change in ap-proach is necessary, even though the barbel become bolder, accepting large meat baits with greater con-fidence. At night, a large piece of luncheon meat on a No 2, 4 or 6 hook is my preference, sausage meat being a close second. Whatever bait you use, it is essential that you always ensure that the barb and point of the hook protrude slightly.

Wait for a steady bite

Barbel bites were discussed in detail, but the golden rule is to strike at any positive movement on you rod tip, line, or indicator. Leave tiny tweaks, jerks and nibbles alone, but strike at any steady movement. Recognizing bites in daytime on small baits can be difficult, but there is rarely a problem when barbel take big meaty baits after dark—they pull! But do not be tempted to strike furiously even then. Instead tighten firmly, otherwise the line may break.

Strangely, your position on the bank affects your recognition of bites. Being right-handed, I prefer to fish a swim which flows away to my left. Any pull on the rod tip is then more directly in my line of vision. It may seem a minor point, but when I analyze my results ‘left-handed’ swims always seem to be more productive. Perhaps the converse applies to left-handers.

Give the fish a rest

Having caught a good barbel, I find that the safest thing to do is to keep it for 1-3 hours before releasing it. This gives the fish a chance to rest. Use a long, small-necked, fine-mesh keepnet, ‘pegged out’ horizontally if at all possible.

Just as a large ‘gudgeon’ mesh will damage a fish, so will an unthinking attitude when you return it. Nurse the fish back to freedom by supporting it in the water with its head held upstream, and wait until it is ready to move off. Never return a fish to a fast swim—I have seen more casualties from this than I care to remember.

At the end of a session, having returned your fish, one small task re-mains before packing up for home. Cut off the bottom of your line about a foot above the ledger stop. This will avoid you starting your next trip with a frayed, kinked or pinched line. It is consistent attention to details like this that is the hallmark of the big-fish man.

Northern Barbel

Northern and Midland anglers are famous for their fine line approach to the canals which slice through the industrial areas. But rivers are now the favourite barbel venues. Here, the species is caught in such large numbers—with not a few reaching double figures—that this hard-fighting fish is fast becoming the favourite of northern anglers.

The River Severn held only a few hundred barbel in the 1950s, but to-day is one of the finest barbel rivers in the country. Farther north, good barbel rivers include the Swale, Ure, Ouse and Derwent. More recently, the Trent, too, has produced more barbel each year. And so it should, for a century ago it was the barbel fisher’s Mecca.

Locating barbel haunts

To catch barbel, even in rivers like the Severn and the Swale, where they are prolific, you need to know how to find them. Like any other fish, they have favoured swims and are not spread all over a river.

I have found, as have Frank Gutt-field and other barbel specimen hunters, that bigger barbel tend to prefer a deep and slow swim, especially if it holds a snag —perhaps a sunken tree or a weed-bed—and is flanked by a fast run of water.

Sometimes snags are not obvious and do not break the surface, but they can still be detected by walking slowly along the river bank, looking for a ‘boil’ where the snag below deflects the current upwards. But on bright days you can often see the snags beneath the surface with polarized sunglasses.

These are also very helpful when trying to spot barbel themselves. Slowly traversing the river bank, making full use of available cover, scrutinize all likely-looking spots. Quite often you will see the flash of a white belly, or get a quick glimpse of a red pectoral fin. But this is enough. After a while you can educate your eyes to pick out the subtle shadows that gradually, after intense concentration, develop into the forms of big barbel. Once you have found a good swim, remember it, for barbel rarely desert a favoured spot for long.

Although barbel are often taken by trotting with float tackle set to present a bait off the bottom, and can occasionally be seen to flip over to intercept food items close to the irtdvmiN nunniNu surface, they are fundamentally a bottom-feeding species.

Arlesey bomb

You should begin fishing with a ledger tackle set firmly on the bottom. This is an Arlesey bomb on the end of a link attached to the reel line by a swivel and is an excellent choice of tackle. Vary both the distances between lead and swivel and swivel and hook according to the barbels’ response on the day. The line used for the link should be weaker than the reel line, so that the link, rather than the main line, will break if a snag is fouled. The reel line should be at least 5lb b.s. In open water, but heavier in snaggy areas. There are many swims in northern rivers which hold sunken trees or jagged rocks where at least 8lb b.s. Line is necessary to give you a reasonable chance of hauling a big barbel out before it gets stuck.

A variation on the link ledger is to use a longer tail (up to 3ft long) bet-ween the hook and stopshot. This is a method of getting the bait to barbel which are feeding off the bottom, which they may do when groundbait particles are swept up in-to midwater. Often, large barbel can be seen feeding on these morsels while swimming above their smaller kind. The baited hook on the tail to the link ledger is taken up into this area, to be seen by the big barbel.

Hooks are the most important item of a specimen hunter’s tackle. All your skill will not hold a fish if the hook breaks. I always use eyed Sunbridge Specimen hooks, sizes 14 to 2, for barbel. With bread and maggot, the gilt hooks are best, while the bronzed kind merge with the colour of worm or any of the meat baits.

The correct choice of rod is essen-tial. Remember that a rod is basically a shock absorber and should be able to take all the savage knocks a big barbel hands out. A rod which is too stiff will not absorb the shocks and the line will take a beating. Con-versely, a rod which is too supple will not give enough control over a hard-fighting fish.

My own rod is a two-piece, lift long glassfibre, and has a test curve of Hlb. It is supple in the top section to make bite detection easier—but powerful enough in the bottom end to deal severely with a strong fish in fast water. The important thing about this rod is the all-through action which enables the first sudden shock of a hooked barbel to be absorbed.

At one time, and even now on rarely fished reaches, barbel could be caught quite regularly on big lumps of cheese, bread flake or crust, and large bunches of worms. On popular stretches, however, heavy fishing has made the barbel wary, and all manner of baits have been tried to gain its interest, including meats.

But meat baits are no longer the first choice for northern barbel. Nor-thern rivers are heavily match-fished and this has meant that the barbel have become shy of large hooks, and as for baits they have taken a profound liking to the matchman’s favourite, the maggot.

A recent survey of the stomach contents of barbel on the Severn showed that maggots have become a regular, even natural, part of their diet. This is undoubtedly the case on Yorkshire rivers, too, and considering the thousands of gallons of mag-gots used each week, it is hardly a surprising development.

Maggots always a standby So no northern barbel anglers should go fishing without maggots. There are days when a meat bait will take a few fish, but there are many more when maggots will take more fish, and big ones too. A No 12 hook, bearing three or four maggots, is the biggest you can confidently use. Very often, the choice has to be two or three maggots on a size 14.

But three maggots, for some ex-traordinary reason, seems to be the correct number. If the water is coloured, use yellow maggots. Only re-bait the hook if a bite has been missed and the bait is shredded.

Blockend easier to fish

A swimfeeder with maggots is the deadliest method for barbel on most, if not all, northern rivers. Either an open-ended or block-ended swimfeeder may be used, but my favourite is the blockend, which is conical and offers less resistance to the current. The swimfeeder is no more than a receptacle for accurately distributing loose feed in the swim. It is more precise than any skilled throwing arm. As an integral part of the end tackle, it accurately deposits the bulk of the groundbait around the hook.

Always refill the swimfeeder at every cast. The maggots leave it quite quickly and an empty swimfeeder is not earning its keep. Above all, the use of the swimfeeder demands accurate casting. It should be cast to the same spot each time, laying the bait along the same path. Avoid casting to differing spots, so feeding several swims. All you need is one trail for the barbel to follow.

One last tip. Barbel can be fished for at night, often with more success than in’ the daylight hours. Bite detection can be a problem, but it can be solved by lightly whipping a Betalite to the rod tip. Remember too, as with all night fishing, to have a reliable lamp or torch to hand.