Steve Pope Barbel Fishing

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Backend Severn Barbel? By Lawrence Breakspear


Now there is an expression that is only synonymous with barbel, we never talk of backend perch, bream, roach or carp etc., perhaps it is because barbel are predominantly fished for in rivers and thus it could be linked to the end of the coarse fishing season, but I think it is something more than that.

So what do we mean by backend, if you ask other barbel fishers it can be as simple as the last three weeks of the season where we hope for a fat over wintered backend barbel, or does it mean the onset of the four to five month winter season say from November to the middle of March, I think that the backend period is from the beginning of February to March 15th.

We as barbel anglers have become a little conditioned in using this expression as a support thought process or as an instinct and this is well founded, you only have to see the analysis of big barbel caught, the biggest from this river or that river (my old friend Brian Dowling could offer some guidance on this) and you will soon realise that a lot of monster barbel have been and are caught during this period.

My beloved Severn is no exception, Howard Maddocks fish, Geoff Daces brace of 13 pounders and even Andrew Allards 16 pound fish of last year and Steve Williams’s middle Severn 12 pounder of a few weeks ago, even my own 15Ib 3ozs from Severn Stoke, were all caught in what could be described as the “ backend period’’.

Steve Williams 12-3

I am going to diversify here slightly but it is linked to my theory, as you will see.

Another expression we also hear is the phrase barbel Ace, barbel expert, barbel specialist, etc. what in essence this means is the individual it is applying to, it is because of his ability to put lots of big barbel on the bank, a consistent big barbel catcher is what he is perceived to be and probably is, but actually there aren’t that many anglers that know that much more than anyone else, time is the biggest asset to any fisherman, and you would soon see that some of today’s barbel experts spend a hell of a lot of time on the bank.

If you tried to catch a big barbel with just one outing in the month of your choosing on the lower Severn I would say the odds would be stacked against you and you would fail. You could use the best tackle, have the best bait and be in a proven area, but what you would need is a lot of luck, but if you under took this task with the ability to fish for three to four days stints as and when you liked I would say your chances increase by ten fold. An extreme example would be, if you never went fishing you wouldn’t catch a fish, so my reasoning has always been time is the greatest resource of the barbel angler backed up with basic knowledge of the species. Yes, I have been called expert and the like, but really I know just as much or less as the next man, I am no different, but what I have got and always had was a thirst for the finer points of understanding the species, hence my thought process of backend barbel.

Back end Severn

My experience in fishing for barbel over the last thirty-five to forty years was that at certain times of the year, barbel weighed more for their length, were easier to locate during certain conditions and fed differently at different times of the day, in different weather conditions and at different times of the year.

We are told that salmon do not feed once that have their spawning cape on and only snap at the fly, spinner or bait out of instinct and aggression, and how on earth do they find their way back to the river they were born in? Something triggers their desire (on mass) to make their return, some chemical change, and some scent trail of the river. Look at the eels migration from and back to the Sargasso Sea in their life time, even the real experts, scientists, professors of marine biology still struggle with the answer for that one. We as anglers no little about our quarry really, yes we become enthused, we are inspired, we imitate the experts, we read their words from the library of books on the subject and we have the best rods and reels, but I believe if we spent a little more time in deep thought on the species, we would understand them even more.

‘’So let’s understand the Backend Barbel phenomenon………’’

I hope I am getting my point across here, you see I think there is a little more to the statement of backend barbel, I am likening it to the mysteries of the salmon and the eel, something that we as barbel anglers may never know the intricacies of, and I wonder does anyone really know for that matter, but we know it exists and I know it can be used to our advantage. I definitely believe that at a particular time of the year barbel talk to each other (no I am not mad!) with some sort of chemical trail, hormonal, feremonal trigger messaging, which over a short period of time creates habitual changes in the barbel. Singular large barbel suddenly have the desire to be part of a shoal, particular holding areas can become empty of barbel, barbel suddenly become different in their day to day lives. I actually think that if the fishing season ended in the middle of April (I am not suggesting it should) and not March then we would see even more evidence that the backend period is a true phenomenon.  

March Severn

Its hard to imagine that the delicate brown trout in a Shropshire stream seems so finicky on a May evening, yet this same trout would have braved the backend of the year in freezing conditions to get to their reds and perform their spawning ritual. The backend barbel phenomenon is about fish losing their caution; it’s about barbel very early on getting into the spawning mode, even though the water temperatures could be below four degrees centigrade. In those conditions we would have the barbel angler still in winter mode, all in one suit, small baits and a mindset that the barbel aren’t feeding because of the air temperature, the water temperature, a bank high river et al, I think it is more likely that the barbel aren’t in front of the angler they are somewhere else.

Howard, Dave Evans, Lol, Chris King and Steve Pope

So in these conditions what can we do to capitalise on these times and perhaps catch a big barbel?

Andy Orme’s excellent book Roving for Barbel holds some clues, in its title for a start, Roving for Barbel. We rove, what my suggestion is that from mid February (conditions and access allowing) we adopt a summer type swim hopping approach. But first we must pre-bait, where it is possible a period of two to three days is spent pre-baiting our chosen area / stretch with a minimum of five swims being chosen. Now I know this isn’t always possible, if it isn’t, get there as early as possible on your chosen day, but if you can do it over a longer period, then do it as it is more effective.

Large groups of barbel will eat large amounts of bait this time of year when in the ‘”phenomenon’’ mode, but for every swim with barbel grouped and present I believe there are four that are empty and what the barbel seem not to do during this time is actively move around, so you can’t draw them to you as you could do in the summer. The area chosen could be the area they choose every year for whatever reason, thus certain spots having the reputation of good winter swims for producing big fish.


My mathematical approach of the 80/20 rule is great for this approach. When we have baited our swims either on the day or three to four days previous, in my experience one swim out of the five will hold the barbel and once it is found I will spend 80% (hopefully) of my time in that swim to maximise its potential. So on an average day, an eight hour session, I will hope to fish the holding swim ultimately for about six hours or so, therefore half an hour in each swim on a rotation basis should be enough to locate the barbel either by indications or actual bites and landed fish. The barbel in these conditions are less likely to be spooked so bait can be continually dropped over them, their shoal instinct is great at this time of year seems to counteract any fear. We as anglers must not keep our selves in winter mode at this time, we should capitalise on the potential of the barbel’s vulnerability to be located and caught.

 You know how people put human values on their pets? Failing to accept that the cuddly little dog is an animal and not a child, and failing to accept that they have little or no thought process but just evolved natural instinct, I think we are in danger of doing this with barbel. I know we all have a mind’s eye where barbel fishing is concerned, we imagine, we picture, and we sit and ponder on how a big barbel will slip out of its comfy lair to take our bait. Perhaps the Barbel sitting there looking at our giant size chunk of meat and thinking shall I or shall I not, do we really think we are getting an understanding of the Barbel by doing that? I don’t think we are, but we all do it, and will do it again (me included by the way) it’s our humanity taking over in putting human values and process’s on what is a quintessential wild creature that is no different now to what it was 10,000 years ago! So forget human thoughts, get into the fishes instincts that are purely based on survival and breeding.

We are coming up now to the backend period and already despite the floods and freezing conditions I know our barbel are sensing, feeling the need to do something, they feel the body changes, and all of them are feeling the same, no thought process here, just poor animal instinct that can be used by the barbel angler to put that monster on the bank. As the next few weeks progress you will see in the angling press the pictures of big barbel and hopefully you will have a better of understanding of their captures and your own backend barbel.

 Lawrence Breakspear

Copyright Lawrence Breakspear

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