By Pete Tillotson
October is usually a time when the river Kennet colours up and floods but this year it has been very low and gin clear for long periods. Despite the rain that we had in September, the river just will not rise. This makes the fishing much more difficult and the barbel can be very spooky. Every time it has rained, I go fishing expecting to see a little more water and colour in the river but it is just as low as ever.
If you were to ask me what are my favourite river conditions to go barbel fishing, it would have to be when the river is rising. This is particularly true in the winter. There is nothing more likely to set the adrenaline going after a cold frosty spell than for the weather to warm up and for heavy rain to set in. To my way of thinking the resultant rise in the level, colour and water temperature are banker conditions. When I know that river is rising I just can’t wait to get down to the water’s edge.
Timing however, when you go fishing in these conditions can be very important. I strongly believe that the best time to go is when the river is on the up, that is, when the river is rising. If you are able to go when this is happening, you will have your best chance of catching barbel and often you will be able to catch several fish.
Of course you need to know the river you are going to fish, as not all rivers rise at the same rate. In my area for example, the river Loddon rises very quickly indeed and if heavy rain falls the morning, I would consider going the evening of the same day. On the other hand, the river Kennet is a little slower rising and I might consider leaving it for twenty-four hours. Of course it does depend how heavy and prolonged the rain is.
By the same token, the rivers can fall just as quickly as they have risen. In the case of the Loddon, if the rain stops, it could start falling by the next day. Although the water temperature remains constant, you should still catch barbel but it’s nothing like the banker when the river is actually rising. As for the river Kennet, it will drop back a little more slowly.
My experiences of fishing a rising river are that barbel will feed freely, although there is a school of thought that it will fish better when it is fining down. I definitely find that this is not the case. With the river rising and colouring up, these are the optimum conditions. Once the level has peaked and starts to fall and the colour starts to go out of the water, fishing gets progressively more difficult. I remember several years ago after heavy and prolonged rain, the river rose considerably and for almost the rest of the season it seemed almost permanently high. Barbel were caught during the initial increase in level and colour, but once the river level steadied and the colour started to go out of the water, the fishing got progressively more difficult. If you had gone fishing at this time you could have been forgiven for thinking that conditions were ideal, whereas, crucially, some of the colour had gone out of the river.
There have been many debates over the years as to why barbel feed so well during flood conditions. I strongly believe that the crucial element is the colour. I can remember many years ago fishing on both the Kennet and the Lea when gravel workings at the side of the river caused it to colour up and I caught several barbel from both rivers during the day, although after dark is usually always the best time. The increasing level and water temperature do play their part, but for me the colour is the key factor. More colour in the water reduces the visibility underwater, encouraging barbel to feed more freely. Without the natural clarity of the water, much of the barbel’s caution lessens. In short, they feel less under threat in coloured water. This would also explain why when the level drops and the colour starts to go out of the river, bites get fewer as the barbel get progressively more cautious.
There is another topic regarding coloured water that I would like to comment on. It has often been said in the past that it is essential to use large smelly baits in high coloured water. I have never found this to be the case. There have been many occasions in the past when I have used a block end feeder with maggots in these conditions and caught fish, sometimes I have caught several barbel in the session. I honestly believe that the size or smell of the bait in these conditions is irrelevant, although I would be reluctant to use hemp!
As to where to fish? Well, I have invariably fished off the main flow (particularly when block end feeder fishing!) Areas I do like are over hanging trees, the inside of bends, crease swims, close to snags, deeper, slower water and close to the bank. The reason why I prefer to fish these areas are two-fold. Firstly, you have a greater degree of control of your tackle and secondly you are less likely to get "dirty washing" on your line. If you happen to be baiting up an area (e.g. block end feeding), it’s much easier to confine your bait to a smaller area, as you are out of the main flow.
However I do accept that many people put a lot of weight on their line and fish right in the flow and they do have a lot of success. Years ago I was fishing the river Lea in floodwater and I fished in the main flow. I had no trouble in catching barbel and I remember thinking at the time that barbel will feed in the fastest of flows. So I am not advocating that you fish only the areas that I mentioned earlier, just fish the areas that you feel confident in.
In optimum conditions, I think barbel will feed on your bait no matter where you put it - as long as it is on the river bed! I personally prefer to fish off the main flow for the reasons outlined earlier but I also believe, generally speaking, that the bigger barbel are closer to the bank.
To sum up, head for the river when you know the river is rising and colouring up. Get there at the right time and you could bag up.
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