Barbel Behaviour – A Different Viewpoint

A feature of Yorkshires six main barbel rivers is that opportunities to watch barbel feeding are few and far between. Even when the rivers are low and clear they carry an amber stain from the peat covered fells from which they flow. Whilst it is often possible to see barbel, it is another matter altogether trying to see exactly what they are doing. Last season I at last found somewhere where it was possible to observe the fish at close quarters and quite an eye-opener it proved to be.

I imagine that most of us have experienced the next scenario:

We arrive in our chosen swim mid-afternoon on a warm, bright August day and using a dropper deposit a pint of hemp and hookbait samples in the river. For four hours there are no signs of fish but around 6 p.m. the odd line bite occurs. This line bite activity starts to pick up, indications increasing in frequency until 8 p.m. when at last the rod gives a three foot twitch and your "in". A couple more fish follow and you go home a happy soldier.

It is obvious what has happened isn’t it? Initially no barbel were present and then as the light began to fade a few moved onto the feed giving those first indications. More fish arrive and then the light levels drop enough for one to make a mistake.

Now let me tell you what I have observed on the Wharfe. The swim is right under the bank and two feet deep so it is possible to look right down on the barbel. I arrive mid-afternoon on a bright August day and deposit a pint of hemp and corn ten feet from the bank. Within minutes a couple of barbel appear, soon followed by more and more until there are perhaps a dozen in the swim with their heads down munching away. After half an hour they drift away so I put more bait in and lower a couple of grains of corn in on a size 12 hook to 6lb line. The barbel come back and start to feed once more and for the next two hours they feed hard but the tip never moves an inch. Then the light starts to fade and the "liners" start. The sun drops behind the far bank trees and now the tip is rattling away until eventually it lunges round and I’m "in". Had that days occurrences taken place in ten feet of water it would have been all too easy, and probably quite reasonable to assume that the original scenario had occurred. My observations however proved such "reasonable" theories to be utter nonsense!

There is no doubt in my mind that those barbel were able to avoid my line until the light deteriorated to a certain level. How often I wonder, have we all assumed there to be no barbel present in our swim because there are no signs of activity and ‘it’s too bright for them’?

Now let’s move on a couple of weeks. After a few captures from the swim the fish are becoming a little more cagey, their natural suspicion aroused. After ‘baiting and waiting’ I introduce a hookbait and watch. A barbel comes into view five yards downstream and in line with my feed. It inches forward but three yards short of the hookbait it bolts. Hmm? I recast with no hookbait just out of curiosity and a few minutes later a couple more barbel appear. They put the brakes on, look agitated then bolt. A close inspection reveals that even though there is only a few feet of line from the rod-end to the leger, there is still a significant bow in the line. In fact even in a moderate flow this bow extends well below the hookbait fished on a two foot tail. The barbel are having to swim under my line to approach the area of feed. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE FEAR THAT LINE CAUSES.

There are of course several remedies for this problem all of which I hope to try and observe next season:

  1. Backleading
  2. Using a heavy lead to facilitate winding down tight to reduce the bow
  3. Submerging the rod tip to river bed level to lay the line flat
  4. Using a very long tail

Circumstances and the features of the bank and swim will indicate which will be the best to use.

‘I haven’t had a touch all day’. I wonder how many times we have all said this, not realising that we are talking garbage? I have thought for some time that I probably hit 95% of barbel bites in winter and 99% in summer when they ‘hook themselves’. What I observed in this respect last summer was another real eye-opener. I stood holding the rod, line crooked over my finger and watched barbel after barbel pick up both corn and meat right at the edge of their mouth and either back off with it or move between 6 and 18" sideways with it without the merest hint of a tweak on either the line or the tip. In deep or coloured water you have not the slightest prayer with these ‘bites’. Hitting them when you can see it happening is a nightmare! I reckon I hit about 1 in 25 of these pickups. Of course we all catch enough barbel to do without this level of effort but one day it might just put that extra special fish on the bank.

Another particularly interesting observation was seeing how barbel react to a moving bait. Whereas, when approaching a static one, the fish will move up gradually before either taking or refusing the bait, the approach to a moving bait is quite different. At the tail of the bottom swim in the area concerned the water is barely a foot deep. It is possible to spot a fish, cast well across and upstream before bouncing the bait in the vicinity of, (but not directly at) the barbel. It’s reaction will make you jump for the fishes approach will be more like an exocet! It is easy to see why as fish used to feeding in shallow, pacey water are conditioned to grabbing at any food that passes or they might miss out on their meal.

Which is the more likely to spook a barbel, a grain of corn on a size 12 or a bloody great swimfeeder full of hemp or corn? I have watched a group of barbel circumnavigate a hookbait and then virtually suck the feed out of the feeder. Eventually the hookbait will be the only food left but they still give it a wide birth as the barbel leave the swim.

The reaction of barbel to natural baits in comparison to meat and corn was interesting. Whereas a barbel that intends to refuse the latter might give it a wide birth or even bolt, a barbel that intends to refuse a lobworm will park alongside it with total indifference.

From time to time we all have to make assumptions based upon our experiences, results and logic. However clever or expert we might like to think we are I reckon that on an awful lot of occasions we are successful in spite of our logical reasoning rather than because of it. This has to be the case, for if ever angling responded to our logical reasoning then success would be almost nailed on and our sport would be exceedingly boring. The magic of angling is in it’s uncertainty, when poor conditions produce a red letter day and banker conditions leave us with a straight rod. What my observations have done is to dramatically increase the number of things I am able to consider when things are not going to plan. At times, I have gained far more enjoyment, interest and certainly knowledge just from watching the fish and their reactions to different situations rather than fishing for them. Lets hope that this season the conditions will once again allow me to open a few windows into the barbel's domain.

Mick Wood