Accentuate The Positive
By Rob Stoker
I have been barbel fishing for about 20 years and it never ceases to surprise me that no matter how much we may think that we have seen it all, there are always new challenges to overcome. In my case, one of the greatest challenges I need to overcome is straightjacketed thinking and a need to adopt a more flexible approach. A good example of this occurred last summer when I was fishing the Hampshire Avon.
The particular stretch in question is a well-known fishery with good head of fish of a high average size. By 21st century standards, the fish are not huge but fish of 10lbs are consistently caught and there is a chance of something a little bigger.
For whatever reason on this particular evening, all the recognised swims (and even some unrecognised swims!) were occupied. If I didn't pack up and go home, it meant that desperate measures must be put into practice …. the use of (shock horror) watercraft! I walked well over 1200 yards upstream of the access to the fishery trying not to be prejudiced by over 20 years knowledge of the stretch and all those previous futile attempts at trying to catch from perfectly reasonably looking, but ultimately heartbreaking swims which, as far as I was aware, had never produced a fish.
As I was walking, I constantly reminded myself that I was armed with 10 years of Barbel Catchers Club experience. A wealth of knowledge of "hundreds of anglers over the years". How many rod hours had gone into distilling this fund of angling knowledge, I mused. I also had some freshly prepared "Wessex Wonder-Mix". A bait which, apart from accounting for more than its fair share of local lunkers, the previous season had sent sulky Dane barbel into a frenzy of feeding. In crude terms, a bite a chuck for over 3 hours!
Trying my best not to be influenced by a previous lack of success in various spots, I narrowed my choice down to two swims. One was a deep near bank hole with a noticeable patch of clear gravel surrounded by thick weed. I rejected this in the end due to the likelihood of not being able to locate it accurately in the dark. There was a certain amount of perverse logic to my final choice of swim.
In the previous couple of years, I have been constantly amazed by a local friend’s ability to boldly go where no modern automaton unthinking angler has gone before, as a result of which, he has fished the pants off everyone in sight. Believe me, he has fished what appear to be some absolute no hopers and ended up mumbling in various car parks that he has caught twice as many and twice as big as all and sundry and spent half the time feeding swans or fighting off mosquitoes (or was it mink?).
So, taking a leaf from the his Wessex Book of Watercraft, I settled on a stretch 2-3 feet deep, shelving into 5-6 feet downstream on solid gravel, 50% covered in weed in the shallow section but running into solid weed in the 5-6 foot deep stretch. The plan was to fish on the gravel part of the upshelf, with a second rod upstream on whatever gravel I could hit in the dark.
I baited up with a dropper, dividing half a gallon of hemp between each target area, and depositing a couple of droppers of WWM in the vicinity.
Confidence is a great thing when fishing and a lack of confidence is a killer. No such thing here. In 25 years of fishing the river, no one had ever blanked in this swim to my knowledge because I had never seen anybody fish it. The state of the bank seemed to confirm the fact that certainly no one had been near it during the season.
As I was to find out later, it had an interesting challenge in store. The swim contained probably the fastest water on the whole stretch, but I was able to hold bottom despite this with a 1 oz running ledger upstream on 10lb Big Game with a 12lb Merlin braid on a size 6 hook and downstream on a 1½ oz ledger on similar tackle.
As I previously said, confidence is a great thing when fishing and between the 2 rods, I fancied the downstream rod to produce. The upstream rod was very much an afterthought and some tackle to keep my mind focussed during the 2 hours of total darkness before it was time to pack up. Prior to that, there was no chance of catching. The river was so shallow that you could see the bottom from one side to the other and no self-respecting barbel would be feeding until, as my father would say, "it was black dark".
In the best tradition of pioneering, confidence was not long in being rewarded but it turned out to be in a rather unusual fashion. Before total darkness, the UPSTREAM rod lurched and I was into a fish. It rocketed off downstream and past my other rod into the thick weed. When I had sorted out my senses, I wound into it and moved it out of the weed and got it stuck under a large bush on the near bank. I walked downstream and pulled it out backwards, played it up and around the bush and netted it. At 6lbs plus, it was one of my smallest ever Avon barbel, but one of my most cherished.
About 30 minutes later, the rod lurched again but this time it was a bigger fish and instead of bolting downstream, it went across the river and upstream. I worked it back to the near bank until I thought it was under the rod. Anxious to see what I had connected with, I shone my torch into the margins and sure enough it was a good fish. This is where a game of cat and mouse commenced. I was fishing from a raised bank which fell sheer into the water. The fish was about 1 rod from the bank in less than 3 feet of water trying to pull downstream with the fast current. I could hold it, but couldn't reach it with my net even though the handle extends to nearly 10 feet. By kneeling down I could make a better shot of it, but holding a large net into such a fast current and manoeuvring such a heavy fish was just too difficult. I must have tried and failed to net the fish at least 3 times and was almost on the point of giving up when everything came together and I was able to slide the fish in. It went 9.07 and I was ecstatic, not least because these two fish proved to be more and larger fish than anyone else fishing known swims that evening had caught. I fished on that evening for 3 hours without further success.
The following week, I was again faced with a "full house" on the fishery. As this swim was again unoccupied and seemingly unfished since I had last been there, I decided to repeat the experience. The weather took an immediate turn for the worse and no sooner had I set up my rod when it started to lash it down with rain. One of my pet hates is fishing in a thunderstorm. Before now, I have travelled for hours to the River Severn to be confronted by no fewer than 3 separate storms and an immediate return journey not having taken the tackle out of the boot of my car. On this occasion, I thought that what was in fact lightning was a firework display from an outdoor concert taking place locally. The rain was so heavy drumming on my umbrella that I never heard the thunder!
This time I did catch on the downstream rod which I previously thought would produce but it took much longer to catch and it was well into dark after 9pm when I connected. The fish shot off downstream and I knew it wasn't huge. The torrential rain made playing th
e fish in the open a most uninviting prospect. So, I decided to stay put … until the fish lodged itself firmly under the same bush as before. There was nothing for it but to brave the elements. I extracted the fish without any trouble and netted it straight away. It weighed 7lbs 12oz and as I read off the Avon’s, my umbrella blew away (I had pitched it as best I could on solid Avon bankside gravel). I dropped my torch (and, luckily, not the fish which I was holding in my left hand) and caught the umbrella pole with my right hand as it bowled past, avoiding a futile chase across the Hampshire countryside.
By the time I had sorted myself out and returned the fish, I was absolutely wet through, ultimately sitting down on my chair on which half an inch of water had accumulated. This is a feeling which I don't think I will forget for a very long time.
So, at bit of watercraft, a bit of wacky thinking, putting prejudice to one side and a lot of learning as a result of being a Barbel Catchers Club member, 3 fish on the bank and some very positive thoughts!
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