It is some years since I began to fall out of love with barbel fishing. It wasn’t the fish that put me off, but the attitude of some anglers left me a little cold. Things began to get a bit too serious – conversations became guarded, bait boxes would be stashed out of sight, and swims would be occupied for days on end.
I had also begun to slow down – I couldn’t live life at the pace of a winter river because all too soon I’d be lost to the current and swept out to sea.
Instead, I stepped sideways into the carriers and backwaters, finding new species and pleasure in less likely places. The barbel sank back into the shadows – not forgotten, nor unwanted, but swimming in places where a float would not carry a bait of mine.
Then came last month’s trip to the River Wye. A new river and the most incredible barbel I had ever seen stirred feelings of old. It turned out that Chris had been similarly nudged, and before the sense dissolved completely – and winter led us down a one way perch-lined street – we decided to indulge it once more.
Chris hadn’t caught a barbel from the Hampshire Avon for a decade, and despite a few close shaves (and some lovely chub) I had never caught one. Despite this, we would go and fish the Avon, on a stretch few anglers ever cast, but without any pressure of expectation.
There was no rush to get to the river and it was well after lunchtime as we crossed the meadows that edged the lower beat. We had brought just a rod and reel each, a net, the kelly kettle (naturally) and a few hooks and shot in our pockets. Bait would be luncheon meat (Lidl’s bacon grill in my case) and we would fish into dark with the thought that one decent bite between us would represent a job well done.
We began at the bottom of a long straight section, where the river slowed and deepened beneath our feet. A few taps and nips followed, certainly from fish with eyes bigger than their stomachs, and we cast our way steadily upstream. As the light closed in we found a gentle crease below a bend which was the first pool that really felt fishy. Chris had a decent rap, probably from a chub (‘Why didn’t I hit it?’ he begged), but nothing further moved and we fished on.
I fancied a swim where the river narrowed and dived beside a fallen willow, but I couldn’t get any feel for it in the darkness and having wandered back to find Chris we decided to have a final cast in the crease where we might tempt that chub to have another nibble.
I added an extra swan shot and found, with the rod held high, that I could just hold bottom. Lowering the tip a fraction would let the bait roll a few feet further downstream – I felt that I had found the right line and if any fish were present then surely my bait would find them.
Chris was telling a great story of a trip he had made to the Avon thirty years ago – when he and Ferret found a swim solid with barbel and bettered one another with every fish – when I felt a sharp pluck on the line. There was no further pressure but I could feel the leads tripping across the gravel – the bait had either been dislodged or a fish was moving with the bait. I gently tightened the line and felt faint but definite resistance – I lifted the rod sharply and felt that glorious solidity. It was a fish!
At first I thought I’d hooked a chub. The fish seemed to come straight of the bottom and kick a couple of times in the current. Then, it lunged, and the line whistled in the wind. It was a barbel, not huge, but a barbel. Chris was soon by my shoulder.
‘If its a barbel on this stretch – its probably a double.’ He said. But, no – this didn’t feel that big.
I worked my way below the fish, using the current to my advantage, and it rolled somewhere out in the oily black. The splash sounded sharp – not the great ker-splosh of a big fish – and I began to put more pressure on. Then, as I drew the fish in towards the bank, it woke up. The reel whizzed and the rod tip dived. Woooah….I had left the split cane and centrepin at home this morning, opting instead for a fixed spool on a lighter, carbon alternative. I was glad for it now. This was a good fish.
It nearly went horribly wrong as Chris moved to net it. I hadn’t screwed the head on properly and the it twisted sideways, leaving the fish half in and half out. Chris risked a bootfull to grab the mesh and it was ours.
‘That’s a double…’ I said.
‘Its a twelve,’ Chris assured me, but on lifting the net, ‘or maybe a big thirteen.’
It weighed 14lb 2oz – equaling my best ever – and measured a fraction less than 33 inches from nose to fork of tail. I tried to get a snap on my phone (see above) and Chris tried to take a portrait but the blurry results don’t matter. My first Avon barbel was rather a special fish, and to share the capture with one of my closest friends was worth a thousand photographs.
I’ll sign off with a slightly retro shot of my ‘other’ 14.2 – this one from the Kennet, caught in the company of another of my closest friends, Martin – when my hair was thicker and my beard less white.
I could get back into this barbel fishing mullarky…..