Steve Pope Barbel Fishing

Catch more barbel!

It’s a Fine Line at Times


Across the Berwyn’s it said, three rather innocuous words on the piece of paper I unravelled with shaking hands. Directions that Peter had written down for me to assist with my day trip to Snowdonia, satnav’s are still alien to this technophobe, can’t quite get my head around the voice constantly talking to me, its bad enough listening to the backseat driver!

 However, in this case I should have given them more attention. The reality, a road, well a track actually, where two mini’s would struggle to pass each other and a five hundred foot sheer drop on my side with no barrier at all save for the odd bollard at fifty metre centres! Forget the M25, this was the road from hell, more suited to mountain goats and I was on it, there was no turning back. It scared the living daylights out of me, I’m not ashamed to say!

Now I’m used to dodgy roads, every week I travel on the eighth most dangerous stretch in the world according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, the infamous A44 between Leominster and Worcester but this was something else! Real and apparent danger hits home hard when you’re a little older, long gone are the days when testosterone helped to convince us that we were all invincible and nothing fazed us at all, fear was never a word to be entertained.

Apart that is when it is used in a fishing context, then for some strange reason we all still stupidly believe we have this air of immortality. There’s no danger on the riverbank, is there?

Wrong, there is danger everywhere whenever we set out for that day s fishing in idyllic surroundings at peace with ourselves and away from it all.

I had a call the other day from one of my very best fishing pals, someone I know really well, someone who is an excellent angler, someone who until very recently treated danger with an air of disdain. Then, out of the blue on the treacherous banks of the River Teme, one fateful step was nearly a step too far as that once stable piece of turf gave way and my pal went head first into nine feet of running water while carrying a full set of gear.

 If his yell for help had not reached a couple of lads who luckily were within earshot this accident would have become a tragedy for sure. Many of us, the Crabtree generation are of a certain age, as the song says, we ain’t that young anymore, and we’ve got to be bloody careful

It needed two to get him out of the powerful flow and if those guys are reading this a massive thank you on not only his but everyone’s behalf.

We anglers are not quite so invincible as we may believe, so this is a salutary and timely warning to us all.

Anyway back to that road in the mountains, what was I doing there in the first place?

I was spending a few days taking in all the delights close by to where I have currently hung my hat. The majestic landscape surrounding the awesome peak of Snowdon, the mysterious Lake Vrynwy cloaked in mist with its iconic Gothic Tower, the quaint seaside town of Aberdovey with its superb beaches and the gastronomic delights on offer at the Ludlow Food Festival, all to keep my daughter amused as she took a few days well earned rest away from the Smoke.

 But it was now time to run her back to London and for me that meant two days on the Kennet all to myself, superb.

A while back I asked in an article what do we really know, well on my way back to London I stopped off to see what was happening on the Lower Severn and also to collect my twelve pints of casters from Alan’s, the tackle shop in Worcester. Let me give them an unashamed plug, this shop has the finest maggots on offer and always has casters when you want them, great service in the old fashioned style and the place to go when you’re fishing the area.

 At the river I was just in time to see a fellow put back a very nice eleven-pound barbel, nothing strange in that except, it was not quite midday, the sun was shining brightly in the totally clear blue sky, the river was as low as it gets and the fish was caught a rod length out in barely two foot of water with no cover whatsoever! One swallow and all that but it does make you wonder that perhaps we think a little too much at times!

So down on the Kennet and as I said, two full days for myself, no one else to worry about, this is all about polishing up on the skills I’ve picked up with regard to this caster fishing lark.

We anglers are often slow in giving credit to others perhaps somehow thinking it lessens our own prestige, I’m not one of those. We all pick up tips along the way, it’s what makes angling such a fascinating pastime, and I like to make sure those who have influenced me are given full credit and acknowledgement.

I’ve always used maggots for barbel and been fortunate enough to experience many great days using this bait, casters I tended to dally with. I was obviously well aware of the success guys like Stef were having and well remember sitting behind him about fifteen years ago when he was fishing what I considered to be my swim on the lower Severn. He was using casters and getting plagued by eels, catching one after another, but then as if someone had flipped a switch the barbel moved in and once again it was literally one after another, quite incredible as I had been happily pulling out doubles after dark on lumps of meat and here was an angler doing likewise in daylight but catching three to my one! I was going to say I’m a quick learner but with regard to caster fishing I’m probably not. Not long after that encounter with Stef, pellets arrived on the scene and soon took over as everyone’s favourite particle. It wasn’t until John Found blew me away for the third trip in a row that I decided a real effort with the casters was required and these days it’s my number one approach on the Kennet.

 I’ll run through the way I do it because like all angling techniques you can adapt and refine even the most productive to suit your own preferred style.

First job on arrival is to change clothes, can’t be driving along the M4 fully kitted out in Realtree. It’s a bit difficult explaining to a policeman at 4am in London why you are head to toe in camo even with the rods by your side. I remember Ray Walton once telling me of his self same predicament a few years back when he was fishing the Ouse, he smooth talked his way out but it was touch and go!

So I always carry lots of fishing clobber in a dedicated holdall.

My favoured swim is eight feet deep even with the river as low as I’ve ever seen it. Something needs to be done because if it drops much further the river bed is going to be exposed on the shallow runs, all sorts of reasons are being put forward as to why the levels are so low, I know we haven’t seen any rain but there’s more to it than that I’m sure.

Overhanging trees give added security to the nearside and the barbel lie in close to this bank, a perfect swim.

Placing fifteen droppers of hemp and caster accurately is easy and then it’s just a matter of resting the swim while the barbel decide whether to visit the restaurant now that it’s open for business.

Weather wise it’s fine. We are enjoying the last throes of an Indian summer; yesterday the temperature hit 26 degrees. The sky is a beautiful autumnal blue with just a few clouds dotted about to break it up and it gets a bit nippy when the sun hides behind them. Driving along earlier the outside temperature went down to 6 degrees which may just delay any feeding spree, we shall see. It’s a pleasure to be on the river in these conditions and you know what? I’m the only one here and it’s a Sunday, where are the river anglers?

I’ve caught many barbel at night but have to say that these days I much prefer to catch them during the daylight hours and with that blue sky above. You can actually enjoy the fight and delight in the beautiful golden sheen of the fish as it lies in the folds of the net, to sum up it’s just a damn sight more pleasing!

I’ll take you through my tackle set up.

My rods are Free Spirit models, reason, because I became involved with the company many years back when they were breaking into the barbel market. I’ve helped them over the years and would recommend them to anyone, however rods are always a personal choice and what suits one may not suit another.

For this swim I use the 1.5 lb Tamer, it has enough power in reserve to get the fish in quickly while affording me the utmost pleasure while playing the barbel. My reel is almost always a centrepin, I have lots and they all get used. My favourite for this type of fishing is a very old Rapidex, I love the sound it makes and it fits comfortably in my hand making the set-up very personal to me. Now the slightly controversial bit, the reel is loaded with 20lb Powerpro, a microfilament line that in this breaking strain is as thick as 6lb mono.

Now this line isn’t for everyone, I have used it for a number of years having previously used Fireline. I don’t lose many fish, the rods I employ are very forgiving and more than compensate for the lack of stretch in the line, I have never experienced a damaged fish, in short it works very well for me. Because I know the swim very well I go straight through to the hook with the main line, I’ve done this before on similar swims at Adam’s Mill while in pursuit of the monsters there. If I believed that snags were going to be an issue I would use a different material such as Drennan Striptease for my hook length, I do this on the Lower Severn.

Before moving on it’s interesting to recall that about seven or eight years ago I questioned my old acquaintance Ray Walton for promoting the use of 30lb Spiderwire as I considered that others may copy his technique without taking on board the subtleties which while being second nature to Ray would be missed by those less experienced with the method. These days rods are available that deal with this situation and allow for these new generation lines to be used a lot more safely. As I said I lose few fish, the fish are not damaged and it’s an enjoyable all-round experience and as far as I’m concerned the tackle is well balanced.

The hooks I use are Drennans and a size 12 Barbel Hook suits me fine with a short length of 2lb mono tied to the bend with three casters superglued to that hair. Twice through the eye and a five turn grinner ties the hook.

I use the Enterprise Adjuster Stop with a small stonze weight giving a 3 feet tail. I’m not backleading at the moment because I’m unsure of the numbers in the swim but I have a couple of rig stops already threaded on the line to allow me to fix a saddleback backlead if I feel it is needed.

 Lastly I pinch a piece of Kryston putty onto the hook length to be sure it lies as flat as possible on the bottom. I’m now totally confident with my tackle so after spending the best part of an hour away from the swim back at the car having a drink and sandwich I’m all ready to get the baited hook in to the river.

An hour later and the first take is noted as the rod top goes over and the reel begins to spin and after a lively tussle a feisty six and a half pounder is in the net. A good start, you never know what the first fish or any fish for that matter is going to weigh, could be three pounds, could be thirteen pounds and I like it that way.

Another six droppers go in and time for another rest, BBC, bait, breather then catch, that’s my mantra!

The clouds have now blotted out the blue sky completely, still mild though and it should bode well for a good barbelling day.

I forgot to mention, but it goes without saying that you need a dedicated dropper rod when fishing this style. I often put the dropper down while the bait is still in the swim and many is the time the reel has started to spin as the lid opens on the riverbed for the third time. One, two, three and bang I call it and it’s brilliant, unfortunately it isn’t working this morning! Hey, but that’s fishing and if everything was guaranteed we wouldn’t do it, would we?

Mid morning now and it’s proving to be slow, a couple of anglers have turned up on the other bank but I really would have expected to see more. As I said earlier it’s Sunday, this is a prime stretch of barbel river in the South of England and the banks are empty. I truly don’t accept there are as many keen out and out barbel anglers as some would have you believe, if I had to guess, I doubt there are many more than five thousand. I realise that some rivers see a decent number on the bank, the Trent for example, but to believe our numbers reach twenty thousand is pie in the sky in my opinion and I’ll stick with my more conservative number.

Half past midday and we have number two, a fighting fit nine and a half pounder has brightened up the morning. This fish put up a tremendous battle forcing me to put a fantastic curve into the rod, but with the confidence I spoke of in the tackle there was only ever going to be one winner.

Another half a dozen droppers into the swim and time for another breather.

We’re now five hours in to the session with two fish to show for it, all things considered that’s pretty slow going and it takes another couple of hours before the third is on the bank and size wise it was the twin of the first.

Tried a mini blast of ten droppers at four o’ clock but to no avail, three fish was the sum total of a hard days work.

Plenty of time for reflection back at the car while contemplating another early start next morning.

Monday morning, five am, shades of Simon and Garfunkel there, not so cold overnight, temperature did not fall below thirteen degrees so I’m full of optimism for the days fishing.

Go through the usual routine, this time twenty droppers go in to the same swim as yesterday, actually felt a fish nudge the dropper so that’s a positive sign.

The wood pigeons are still at it, three of them were talking to each other last evening across the river, the constant cooing must have been some sort of ornithological ménage a trois, I’ll check with Stef!

While on the subject of birds, the kingfisher is particularly busy this morning and that reminds me. A few days ago I managed to get the photo I’ve been after for a very long time. Like most of you I’ve had this beautiful creature perched on my rod many times but no matter how hard I tried it was just impossible to capture the event on film. Back on the Severn the Kingfisher stayed around long enough for me to click away, very nearly captured the money shot as it dived into the water but not quite. We anglers are very fortunate, it still amazes me the number of people who have never even seen a kingfisher.

Back to the fishing and once again it’s hard going, the low water level has certainly impacted on the barbel’s behaviour, everything else is right and this is one piece of the puzzle that I can do very little about.

Midday arrives and with it the first barbel, a lovely nine-pound fish a couple of ounces heavier than the one I had yesterday.

Three young anglers have turned up on the other bank and pitched up below me, far enough away not to be a nuisance but their voices carry and they talk non-stop, why? Heaven knows.

A quarter to three, another song title for you and its barbel number two and this one has been worth the wait. A truly awesome battle ensued, every time I managed to bring the fish upstream away from the catch area this fish wanted to get back and we entered into a real war of attrition! I know just how much I’m prepared to give in these situations and it’s not a lot, applying maximum side strain the barbel eventually gives in and I’m able to play it out in front of me well away from the baited area. As it shows itself in the low water the sun catches the golden flanks and I knew we had a good un, and so it proved when the scales went around past the twelve mark, a lovely fish.

The lads on the other bank had obviously heard the commotion, which was surprising considering the noise they were making, but to be fair they were very polite as they watched proceedings and so was I. Just hope I don’t find them back in this swim next time I’m here but I like to be more charitable and believe the fish will inspire their own fishing, I hope so.

Incidentally, this barbel came as the third dropper hit the deck, the old one, two, three trick works again!

However, that was it, no more barbel no matter how hard I worked and I did!

The only other excitement if you can call it that was when the crayfish boys turned up. If your fishery has Ron and Reggie problems you need these guys, the enforcers! The amount they pull out of the river in their traps is incredible, you can measure the mass in hundredweights! It does keep the population down though, I dread to think what it would be like if they didn’t keep some control. The riverbed would be covered with the monsters. With the level so low their hidey-holes are exposed all along the stretch and I can tell you there’s enough to fill the Albert Hall!

Back at the carpark, a quick change into sensible clothes and time for the long drive back home.

That was a typical two-day session on the Kennet for me, sometimes I catch more fish, sometimes more doubles and on rare occasions it can be a real struggle.

It may seem to some of you – not Stef I might add – that five fish including a 12 and a couple of 9’s is good going but it’s all about expectation. We all know you can only ever catch what is in front of you. If you were on the Mill during the best of times you were always hoping for something approaching twenty, in that mindset even a fourteen can be insignificant. On the Dove now, some of the guys are expecting really big fish and are not terribly surprised when they catch them. Elated, yes, but surprised I would say probably not.

Likewise here on the Kennet, there are days when I’ve had three doubles before lunchtime and I’m talking barbel here! Days when a dozen really good-sized barbel have come my way so you can see my point about expectation.

You can never be disappointed when a two-day session includes a twelve-pound barbel though, that is still and always will be a very special fish. But, if the doom and gloom merchants are correct and I sincerely hope they are not then in years to come I may well look back on this as a red-letter time.

So whether it’s what goes on your reel, the difference between success and failure, even life and death, it really is a fine line at times.

Steve Pope. Copyright 2009

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