As a youngster the river looked too powerful, too deep and totally daunting. You would spot the occasional fisher. At 11 years old and from four feet high they always seemed to be incredibly old and dressed like vagrants. Slime whitened trousers evidence of the large shoals of bream that could be found in the middle reaches of “Old Father”.
Now and again, a roach man would be sighted, with a cane pole and gossamer thin tackle. A small quill float would held back and attached would be either “gentles” or hemp. The slightest tremble would be struck and roach, dace and sometimes a mighty chub would become another addition to the bulging keepnet. In general the Thames fishers would not be too generous with advice, sometimes a muttered curse would be your only response to an enquiry.
Jump 30 years and the numbers of anglers fishing the Thames had decreased. This was the onset time of the commercial fisheries. All amenities were on site. (Even a loo!) Certainly, with the increase of ramblers, boaters and general leisure walkers, fishing certain parts of the River could cause frayed tempers and an audience of anoraks!
Recently however, the numbers of anglers challenging this mighty river have increased tremendously, and some are consistently finding large chub, bream and that most wonderful of fish the barbel. Thames Gold. It is not a river however to challenge lightly, as the saying goes…first find your fish, and that with the amount of water available this is the first and certainly the most difficult part.
Much has been written about barbel haunts and ideal locations. The fact is you will find them anywhere at certain times, but consistency is the main aim.
From my experience the features I look for when locating Thames barbel are;
Even paced runs immediately after a widening river.
A gravel bottom for part of the way across, if swan mussels are present so much the better.
Side stream or island junctions, but in the even paced run off areas.
Obvious features, especially weirs, either under the sill or as the water evens out downstream.
One of the best books I have invested in is Chris Yates’ River Prince. Full of stories of Thames barbel being caught over 100 years ago. Here there are many mentions of Thames swims and areas.
Seemed like a good starting point! 4 barbel to 7lb came from this delightful Thames swim
Of the fishing clubs I belong to, one has a good section of river just below some of the mentioned areas and it was here that I would start my campaign for that elusive Thames gold, the target being a very ambitious double figure fish.
Using the first of the swim selection criteria listed above, my first serious attempt met with unexpected success. Four barbel, the best around 7lb caught on the hemp and caster feeder method. As this was in December I was to say the least…. “Excited.”
Indeed I managed 2 more sessions the following week and added another 6 fish, none however bigger than the 7lber.
One of the biggest problems with fishing the Thames is that there are more obliging rivers, easier caught barbel and like many anglers I was seduced away to the Pats, the Loddon and the Kennet.
Occasional outings always ended after 4 hours or so, without any reward and the River taunted me. I fished two days for barbel on the trot, gave up and decided to try and catch some chevin. First cast to the far bank with bread mash feeder and flake on the hook ripped the rod around and after negotiating some sunken branches a 7.14 barbel was in the net!
A MONSTER barbel, taken on meatball, which kept low in the water and kept diving under the rod tip, changed into a 16lb common carp on the surface.
Frustrated, the Thames flowed away from my rods for two years.
Last year two friends were having some success on another part of the Thames, and I wangled a fishing trip with them. We had been sharing experiences so I only felt a “little” bit guilty!
On my first visit I decided to try under my feet in a very fast sill swim. Beneath the turbulent white water was absolute calm and a 1/2oz lead with a lump of Cajun meat was sufficient to hold bottom. The bite was almost immediate, a tap and then a pull. That was met with an upward strike and the clutch singing. Great battle, half way across the rivers flow and then turned and powered back away from the sunken rocks. A carp 14lb. One thing I have found, as have many others, there are an awful lot of carp in the Thames!
Two barbel did follow the carp however with the biggest around 6lb. This area was worth having a good look at.
My friends continued to have some success with fish up to the low 9’s indicating that that dream of a Thames double was achievable.
The only minus point was the bream, on some days as soon as we cast, the rod would start rocking back and forth as bream tried to engulf our baited hooks. We caught plenty, well into double figures, but it was the barbel we sought. Indeed we waited patiently for the rods to stop moving, hoping that barbel had moved them on.
Fishing with true friends is enjoyment in itself; in fact strangely we shared our successes and failures together as one. No one was more delighted than me when one of them broke the double barrier with a 10lb plus fish. It was richly earned because this angler had put in a fantastic amount of time and effort into locating and catching Thames barbel and it was an honour he truly deserved.
My moment came months later; on a day that had been more noted for its carp and a 6lb plus tench. Fishing half way across the gentle flow my rod bucked and slammed down. Consistent power without a mad rush away told me it was probably a barbel and a big one. Gaining line was difficult but a high vantage point allowed me to bully the fish through the inside weed bed and into the waiting net.
Strange…. pure joy mixed with a sadness as I realised that my search for a Thames golden double was over. This was indeed a mighty fish. Elated we put a number on it, but even today I can’t remember whether it was 11.4 or 11.7. It matters not.
I had caught bigger fish, but none had t
aken more effort and more blank days.
Looking up I realised that one of my friends had recorded on video the moment of capture, weighing and release. Was I crying as I allowed the fish to swim back to the depths? I was certainly choked.
If you could describe the best of fishing, memories of events to take forward, this would be one, shared with good friends without envy.
I had the pleasure of taking the ‘photo some months later of one of the friends present with another 11lb plus Thames fish. I know how he felt and shared his pleasure.
The search was over. A double from the Thames. All those years ago a young boy, felt daunted by the mighty river, now, whilst it would never be tamed, it had yielded up the ultimate prize to that same boy.
What next to aim for. Am I alone in that when achieving goals the enjoyment is also tinged with sadness? That first barbel, that first double, a new personal best.
There will always be targets to aim for but if those became unrealistic would the magic also depart?
Fellow Thames fishers, I wish you all good friendship, real bankside pleasure, and hopefully a few fish to add to the magic moments.
I will leave you with a picture that sums up my angling today.
Graham Elliott - 2002
(With thanks to Dick Dowing for the bottom picture compilation and overall help)