Steve Pope Barbel Fishing

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A Risk Too Far?


The recent capture of a couple of very big barbel on float tackle took me back to my early days on the Royalty where in the 1960’s I had a crack at trotting and float-legering in slacker water.  The amazing difference in the barbels’ behaviour between the two methods really determines the choice of tackle strength.   I have watched extremely skilful float anglers land big barbel on line of less than 2lbs breaking strain and yet less accomplished ones can come to grief playing a fish hooked on 8lbs leger tackle.  

I first tried laying-on with a float just to determine how the fish would react to the relatively minute resistance of a small piece of quill.   I have to say I was taken by surprise as without indication the float shot out of sight followed by the rod top which triggered the ratchet of my centre pin.   That response was not a one-off, it happened every time which soon made me realise that while static bait fishing there was very little point using a float that served no useful purpose.

How different things were when trotting.   The float still disappeared just as quickly but a sharp strike brought about a completely different reaction from the fish.   From the barbels’ behaviour it seemed initially that they didn’t realise they were hooked but because of the lightweight tackle the ensuing fight was much more an exercise in patience with due respect to the fishes’ strength and stamina.    

I have to confess the first barbel I caught trotting was not even on my rod.   My fishing buddy on the day was Mick and he loved fishing for the big roach that inhabited the top weir on the Royalty back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.   He invited me to have a trot through with his tackle which, purely for the fun of it I accepted.

Within three or four casts I hooked into a fish quickly realising it was no roach.   I knew the tackle was much more flimsy than I was used to so I asked Mick the score.   I soon learned I was playing a decent barbel on a size fourteen wire hook and 1.8lbs line.   I shoved the butt of the rod back into his hands and told him to get on with it.   After a hugely prolonged period – I drank a cup of tea and ate a cheese roll before the battle was over – and I really couldn’t say which of them was more knackered.                           

The point of recounting that little episode is just to emphasise the stark difference between playing barbel hooked on moving and stationary baits.   A proficient angler would land a high percentage of barbel hooked on very light trotting tackle but the same angler would struggle to land a single one if he attempted to try static bait fishing with tackle of the same strength.   In the first instance the angler is using high levels of skill and perseverance allowing the fish to tire in its own time but with stationary baits the angler uses much more in the way of power, facilitated by heavier tackle, to pressurise the barbel into using its available energy up at a much quicker rate.                   

I recall one occasion while Steve and I were watching a club/match angler on the river Teme.   He played a barbel for what seemed like ages before it broke free just as he attempted to pull it over the landing net.   As the fish disappeared from view the chap looked our way and informed us that he had lost numerous barbel already and all in the same way.   His fragile tackle handled the battling fish but he didn’t seem able to judge the limit of his line as he attempted to pull them over the net.

Although my dedication to float fishing for barbel was almost non-existent I thoroughly enjoyed watching the fish responding to maggots as they came along with the flow.   Normally, from the angler’s point of view the only indication that a fish has helped itself to the hook bait is when the float slides away.   For the observer things are much more interesting.   Providing the water is clear and the surface is reasonably flat an hour spent watching the fish respond is highly rewarding.  

The barbel has excellent vision and although keeping close to the bottom they quickly spot particles coming towards them many of which are much higher in the flow.   The fish will ascend to intercept these offerings and if one happens to have a hook inside they seem not to be aware as they move back towards the bed taking float with them as they go but don’t power away as they do when picking up a single static bait but start moving across the bottom as if trying to work out what’s gone wrong.

Anyone that has trotted for barbel will be fully aware of the situation but those anglers who read of big fish being caught on ultra fine gear must bear in mind the difference in barbel reaction to being hooked on float-fished moving bait and picking up stationary hook- baits from the river bed.   I would be first to accept the greater skill of the good float angler and have no problem with the more delicate tackle they are obliged to use if they are to present baits effectively but would strongly advise against the use of such lightweight gear for static bait fishing.

It is well nigh impossible to slow a down a barbel of any reasonable weight during the initial stages with really light tackle and a break when a fish has got yards away is in my opinion a risk too far.        


 FRED CROUCH               Copyright February 2011

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