Steve Pope Barbel Fishing

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Winter. Tales of the Little River by Lee Fletcher

A cold dawn breaks and a freezing mist covers the land surrounding the river.  Long gone are the lazy days of summer and the golden days of autumn remain a distant memory. All along the river bank now, trees stand starkly with their grey branches white sleeved with snow. The tinder dry grasses and reed stems below glisten with a flawless coating of hoar frost.  A kingfisher flies up river streaking by in a display of cobalt blue turning sharply to alight on a dead willow wand overhanging the river. 

 This is one of the birds many hunting perches as he endeavours to find breakfast on such a cold day.  Below in the river the swirling current creases and boils down towards a raft of flotsam caught up in the overhanging branches of an old willow tree.  Beneath the surface of the river here, the willow roots sprawl out like octopuses tentacles wafting gently in the cold current. Below these in a deep bowl hewn out of the riverbed by the current, chub and barbel nestle closely together lying torpid with the cold flowing water going past over their heads.

These fish will not venture out from their lie to feed now as they are in semi-hibernation living off fat stores gathered in late summer and autumn when the pickings were rich.  Amid the cold river grayling and brown trout are perhaps the only species on the move that can be tempted to feed if the angler employs maggots or a juicy fat worm. Such baits trotted down under a float will often produce a bite if grayling and trout are present especially in weir pools or other stretches of fairly fast water.      

Out in the hedgerows surrounding the river flocks of redwings chatter amongst the thick hawthorns.  The ripe hawthorn berries are all but gone now due to the many species of birds having feasted upon them in the few weeks prior to Christmas.  Seeds from grasses and plants are also in short supply, so the seed eating birds will survive on meagre rations until the thaw comes to melt the snow. 

 The wren always an ever busy bird can be seen working the riverside thickets and brambles for food in a series of skips and flutters close to the ground.  Normally her diet consists of insects of all kinds, caterpillars, insect larvae and spiders but in these snowy conditions she will have to work extra hard.  Come dusk she will join others of her kind as wrens roost communally huddled together in tight clusters during very cold weather. To keep warm out of the nesting season or in periods of cold weather members of the tit family also roost communally at old nesting sites in hollow trees or holes in old walls, its how these small birds survive the sub zero temperatures.  I often see blue tits begin to arrive at particular holes in tree trunks one by one disappearing inside or watch a line of perhaps 10-15 wrens play follow my leader at dusk hopping in line through a hawthorn thicket to eventually settle and huddle together.                                                            


Out in the snow covered field, four hares amble together looking clumsy with their long hind legs and shorter front legs going from patch to patch where the snow is thinnest and crops poke through.  Having spent half the previous cold night in thick grassy nests or “forms” as country folk call them, the warmer temperature as the morning sun comes up encourages them out to graze on whatever they can find. 

In the same field, a covey of partridges is also on the move slowly working in a close formation amongst exposed patches of vegetation.  Partridges feed on caterpillars and insects of all kinds but also eat the seeds of weeds or any green shoots and grasses.  These ground living birds are also communal roosters so when dusk falls the whole covey roosts together on the ground in a tight circle.  Roosting sites vary given prevailing weather conditions but each roosting site is known to the birds as the various roosting sites have been used explicitly by successive generations of the same covey for hundreds of years!  But during these snowy conditions during daylight hours members of the partridge covey face great danger, because in these bright white conditions the birds lose the protection of their camouflaged plumage.  Now each feeding bird amongst the covey is highlighted against the snow like targets, and a quarter of a mile away perched high in a beech tree sharp eyes have spotted them.  A sparrow hawk!

As still as stone the sparrow hawk trains her binocular vision towards the partridge covey and although she is nearly a quarter of a mile away the hawk begins to weigh up her attack.  Sitting right up against the tree trunk very close to the canopy she shudders slightly then opens her wings to stretch in readiness for flight.  In an effortless stoop she drops from her perch like a dart gliding down towards the snow covered field.  

With just a few beats of her wings she nears the hedge between her and the partridges then veers off towards the wooden gate in the corner silently gliding over the top rail clearing it by only an inch.  Still keeping very low her flight quickens as she knows the covey will be alert offering just the one chance of attack.  Closer and closer she flies towards the birds, most have their heads down picking at green shoots save for two or three partridges with their necks erect looking for danger. 

 Almost upon them the sparrow hawk surges forward and at the last second alerts the covey she is there but it’s too late.  The hawk crashes into a frenzy of beating wings and cloud of feathers as the covey takes instant whirring flight up and out in all directions.  But one amongst their number preoccupied by hunger and a tasty clump of green shoots paid nature’s often heavy price.  Left behind on the cold snowy ground with downy feathers scattered about, the hawk sits with her wings draped over the kill like a shroud.  As her talons grip the prize tightly the bird’s proud head looks around with piercing eyes out into the snowy landscape, it has been two days since she last ate so she will not be going hungry today.

Long after the sun has set melting into a moulted cauldron of light, the cloudless moonlit sky along the river grows very cold bringing in its wake a renewed hoar frost that coats everything it touches.  Shafts of moonlight pierce the old willows submerged wafting willow roots and weed fronds, forming kaleidoscope patterns on the river bed hollow making the gravel pebbles glisten and shine.  Here the fish lie ghostly still with only the fluttering of fins and clusters of moonlit scales glimmering amongst the shadows. 

 A few yards away in the undercut bank a white clawed crayfish scuttles out from beneath a large boulder, she is a female and carries her over wintering eggs on her swimmerets.  Being a night feeder she is venturing out just long enough to try and find something to eat.  A small dead fish perhaps or a snail or other crustacean.  Directly above the water on the riverbank a large brown rat scurries along a well worn run dashing from one hole to another a few feet away.  His scurrying feet dislodge a pebble that tumbles down and plops into the river sending the crayfish swimming backwards into her home beneath the boulder. 

 Up on the riverbank, ratty comes back out to the entrance of the hole sniffing the air whilst his whiskers twitch nervously.  Like all creatures abroad on such a cold night he is hungry and knows not far away there are pickings in the farmer’s barn.  But danger also lives there in the form of a collie dog, two cats, and the pair of barn owls so better to stay near home on such a cold night when every rustle is heard.  The long silent night wears on and the temperature plummets lower still forcing most wild creatures to either weather the cold or search for food as best they can.


On the distant horizon a thin band of light appears in the eastern sky as a farmyard cockerel crows out the morning alarm.  The milking shed lights have been on for several hours casting shafts of light out through the high windows onto the snow covered ground below.  Outside the milking shed in the half-light the farmer is taking the frosty breathing milk herd back out to the cowsheds, tapping each one on their haunches with his stick to hurry them along. 

Normally Jess the farmer’s collie dog is busy about the herd encouraging the beasts along but today something else has caught her attention. Standing at the gate to the paddock with a front paw off the ground and her ears pricked up sharply she peers out into the half light.  Something is out there but she can neither smell it nor hear it. Slinking down along the hedgerow in the paddock behind the cowsheds is a dog fox that like Jess, also stops periodically to listen and smell the chill morning air.  He knows well there are plump hens to be found here as he has had several before in previous raids and got away with his crimes. 

 But today he is too early as it will be another hour before the farmer’s wife comes to open up the chicken sheds and give the chucks their daily rations.  In any case, the fox caught a young rabbit early last night eating half and burying the rest in deep snow to eat later so he’s not that hungry.  He will make an appointment to call later another morning so growing tired after his night’s hunt he trots back up along the hedge and melts into the thicket in the corner of the paddock towards home a mile or so away. 

 The sun begins to rise casting long shadows over the farmyard Christmas card scene with its collection of red brick buildings and white covered roofs.  The farmhouse chimney sends up a long trail of wispy white smoke into the cold clear skies above.  Down in the yard the cowman lifts up his hand bringing it to the peak of his flat cap shielding his eyes from the glare of the rising sun, over in the field next to the river he sees something moving just above the willows.  It’s a barn owl, probably one from the hay barn quartering the river bank looking for its breakfast.  He watches the bird’s progress for a while then calls his dog over as he makes his way over to the farmhouse.  The welcome smell of bacon fills the air so he knows his breakfast is ready and it’s been a long morning.

The barn owl flies over the riverside willows with their branches covered in frost and snow.  Her head is trained downwards with binocular vision that sees all sifting every movement no matter how small.  The white winged ghost works the riverbank making odd detours off her flight line out over the field headland looking for movement in the field’s rough margin.  She had stayed very close to the hay barn roost last night only venturing out twice into the farmyard looking for a meal but to no avail.  Even the two indoor stoops she made from her barn perch failed to connect as the mice were lucky last night, so now feeling the pangs of hunger with her senses honed razor sharp nothing will be missed. 

Flying towards the old willow she spots movement that instantly turns her regular flight into one of silent hovering. Her broad white wings beat softly scooping up air that keeps her aloft and stationary above.  Below in the snow covered bank that has long dry grass stems poking through something moved, just enough movement to tremble a couple of grass stalks causing snow to fall from their dry seed heads.  The culprit is ratty who has been nervously working the runs beneath the snow covered banks most of the night searching for food.  He stops along the run to sit on his haunches cleaning his face and whiskers causing the grasses above to tremble.  With only a few yards to go before he reached his burrow the rat scuttles along under cover of the grassy roofed run until he reaches the open run leading to home. For a few seconds he stops sniffing the air for danger before crossing in the mad dash manner that all cautious rodents do.  Happy there is no danger he makes the last dash for sanctuary and home whilst up above unseen and unheard his fate has already folded her wings dropping like a stone with talons bared.


Drops of clear melting ice fall from the old willows frosty branches into the clear cold river below.  The river surface boils and creases illuminated with light from the early morning sun making the whole river look like a moving sheet of glass.  A flock of long tailed tits fly from tree to tree settling in the top of the old willow, they are joined by a solitary robin busy about her work in the lower branches searching for food. 

 Below the raft of flotsam held firmly by the overhanging branches, sub surface willow roots and weed fronds continue to waft and dance in the rivers current as a myriad of bubbles burst from the currents created.   In the hollow below barbel and chub lie almost motionless their scales and red fins glowing brightly in the cascading shafts of sunlight that burst through the tangles above.  On the rivers surface just upstream to where the fish are laying a “plopping” sound is heard followed by ripples emulating outwards on the surface.  Then more plopping sounds in quick succession with hazelnut sized balls of cheese paste falling through the clear water tumbling through the weed and tree roots coming to land gently in the hollow close to where the fish are lying. 

The few pieces of bait introduced now are merely there to bolster their memory of it and give me a bit of confidence when using it later.  No these fish will not feed now as the river is still too cold, but soon when the temperature rises and the snow begins to melt the water temperature will rise and fish all along the river will begin to move out of their wintery lairs.  .  And when they do I shall be waiting with rod and line to begin the adventure once again because those fish and I have an appointment to keep.  Until then.

Tight lines to all, best regards,

Lee Fletcher.

Copyright Lee Fletcher 2010


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