Hooked On Barbel

Some of you may have read my article that I wrote in March 09 following my first year back to fishing after a 25-year break – Hooked on Barbel.

I ended it by describing my first ever Barbel, caught in February ‘09 on the River Kennet near Newbury……..

It was a really cold afternoon and I almost didn’t venture away from the fire at home, but the lure of a Barbel was so strong that I arrived at my swim with air temperature not much above freezing and water temperature not much higher! I set up with a quiver and alternated between lobworms (can’t believe you can buy these on the internet now!) and halibut pellets, hair rigged with a hemp/hali crush mix in a small feeder.  For the next 3 hours of daylight and the first of darkness – nothing, not a twitch. Then just as my hopes were fading a small knock had me on the edge of my seat. Seconds later the tip rammed around and I was up with the rod bending round and a fish on. The water was pushing through quite fast so even though the fish felt like a good ‘un I wasn’t sure. Inch by inch it came closer and then, in the darkness I caught a glimpse and, YES, it was a Barbel and it looked like a nice fish!  I was very wary of the last few inches of the fight and when the final lunge came I was ready for it  and a few seconds later it was mine – my first Barbel.

Kennet Barbel8lb 7oz Kennet Barbel, my first

What a fish! Caught on lobworm and weighing in at 8lb 7oz Barbel fishing had me hooked!

And so ended my first year back to fishing. I’d fished many different venues with a wide variety of methods, catching several different species and right at the end I caught my first Barbel – and now I wanted more!

During the recent Closed Season I spent much of the time researching Barbel, their habits and habitats, methods of locating them, rigs & tackle and baiting strategies amongst other things!  As I said in the original article – there’s more than enough info out there, the difficulty is in working out which advice you want to take (or believe!).

I read hundreds of articles in magazines and on the web, several books and bought  a few DVD’s.

I found the following particularly useful

Trefor West’s book – Barbel, A Lifetime’s Addiction
Barbel Society wesbite
BFW website
Anglers' Net website
DVD’s, Barbel Days and Ways, Barbel Up Close and Personal

After much notetaking and deliberation I made a few decisions:

I would concentrate on just one or two methods. In the past I’ve choppped and changed too much to test the effectiveness of any particular method I’ve used

I’d concentrate on just 4 or 5 stretches of the Kennet near where I live, on Newbury AA and Thatcham AA tickets

I’d fish as much as work (and wife!) will allow for the summer, then sit back and review what happened

I set myself 2 targets - catch Barbel & learn and achieve a new Personal Best

Having made these decisions, I looked at my approach.

  • I’d spend a lot more time looking at the environment and trying to work out where the fish might be before baiting/ fishing
  • I’d rove the River, lightly loaded, spending no more than 1 hour in a swim if biteless. I’d search out overhanging trees and deeper glides or holes
  • I’d feed hemp mixed with a few small pellets via 4 or 5 deposits with a medium sized baitdropper (ie not too much) in two swims then fish the first swim. Then I’d move to the second swim after selecting and feeding a third. In this way I’d be fishing a swim that had been fed 30-60 mins before.
  • I’d take Trefor West’s guidance (thanks Trefor, fantastic book, well written) and use his “Rolls Royce of summer baits” – you’ll have to buy the book folks! - but I’d always have an alternative bait in the bag – luncheon meat with added garlic and liver sausage flavouring.
  • I’d leger a cage feeder with a mix of Hemp & Hali crush groundbait and 5 or 6 small pellets.
  • I’d use either a fluorocarbon or braid hooklink
  • Use a size 10 or 12 hook with a hair rig
  • I’d fish mostly afternoon and evening sessions, into the first couple of hours darkness


Armed with this newfound knowledge and brimming with confidence the season approached!

Opening Day and I managed to get the day off. I’d selected a stretch that I’d only fished once before and had blanked but was confident that I would catch this time. I arrived at 8ish and was surprised to find that no-one else was on the River at all so I was able to follow my plan meticulously, baiting, fishing, moving, baiting, fishing, moving. It was a hot, sunny day and by early afternoon I had fished at least 6 swims and I was hot, tired and fishless. Biteless even. Newfound confidence gone! I decided to cut my losses and move to the stretch where I’d caught my first (and only!) Barbel.

Arriving mid p.m., I expected to find others already there and the good swims gone but, again, there was no-one around – where was everyone? I saw only 3 other anglers all day on both stretches, which I found surprising for Opening day.

Again, I baited 2 swims and fished the first.  After 30 minutes or so nothing, so I moved to the second swim and put my bait right under the overhanging branches and on top of the hemp that I’d put in a little earlier. 

5 minutes later – WHAM, the rod tip wrenched round and I was into a Barbel. That heartstopping moment reminded me what this was all about and the adrenalin was coursing through me.  I had to make sure that it didn’t get snagged in the roots that were undoubtedly down there, and as I had reasonably strong tackle (8lb) on I gave it some welly and had it in the landing net a few short minutes later.  It looked a good fish! After resting it for a while I unhooked and weighed it – the scales zoomed round to………….8lb 11oz! I’d caught a new PB on opening day! RESULT!

8lb 11oz – an opening day PB!
8lb 11oz – an opening day PB!

I had nothing more that day but a week later I managed a short evening session at the same venue and tried 3 different swims using the same tactics but to no avail this time – apart from this clonker of a Chub! At 6lb 4 oz another PB!!

6lb 4oz Chub6lb 4oz Chub, complete with weird unplanned lighting effect!

So that was week one of the season gone, 2 sessions and 2 PB’s – chuffed or what!

Over the next 3 weeks I managed 3 more sessions at the same venue and as I refined my tactics my “luck” improved.   I caught another 8lb‘er in the first, then 3 between 4½ and 5½lb, then 4 in the last session, all around the 5lb mark.

The refinements I made included switching between braid and fluorocarbon hooklengths, adjusting the length to a variety between 12 and 48 inches, using a bomb leger vs cage feeder and others.

During one of these sessions I caught……………..a bat!

I’d been pestered by bats flying into the line for an hour or so but they almost stopped as it got darker. Then, I had what I thought was a sudden bite, struck hard and felt something. As I reeled in I decided it wasn’t a fish and then, suddenly, the line jammed on the top of the rod. I switched my headtorch on and discovered this poor little chap! I’d lasso’d it as I struck and unfortunately it was now a very ex-bat.


A million to one chance?

Back to the Barbel.  So far I’d caught some fish, learnt a lot and achieved a PB – two with the Chub! So I was feeling quite good.

A few days later I planned a session on a stretch I’d never fished before. I spent an hour or so reconnoitering the evening before and so arrived with a plan in mind.  I got to the river at 3ish and baited what I thought looked like the best swim with my (by now usual) 5 baitdroppers of hemp. It had a fairly steady glide which, just downstream, all but disappeared under the branches of a couple of trees which extended almost to the far side of the river. There had to be Barbel under there!

Then I moved upstream, baiting one or two others before finally fishing at the top end of the stretch. After 20 biteless minutes I found myself impatient to get back to what I thought was the best swim, the first. I was worried someone was going to take it and reap the rewards of my baiting strategy!  I spent another 20 minutes in a second swim and then “heeded the call of the first”.  As I settled down in my chosen spot a couple of guys arrived and I discovered that a) this swim had a good reputation and b) they’d been hoping to fish it! Perhaps I’d timed my return well?

I cast in and just as I was tightening the line the tip wrenched around and I was in!   A few minutes later I had a fish of around 6lb on the bank and was a very happy bunny! Little did I know what would follow…………….

In the next 6 hours I had 11 fish; 3 Chub and 8 Barbel, the best at 9lb 10oz – a new PB!

A lovely 9lb 10oz Kennet summer Barbel

A lovely 9lb 10oz Kennet summer Barbel

All (except that first one) were hooked with a remarkably similar bite pattern; first there’d be a very small twitch on the tip – one of those that makes you sit up and think “that wasn’t smooth enough to be the water flow, was it?”. Then between 10 secs and 5 minutes later there’d be 2 or 3 bigger knocks where the tip moves 3-6 inches followed almost immediately by the classic, wrenching bite that we love to see and feel.

Each and every one put up a good strong fight and most were in lovely condition. I say “most”. Actually, one was in a pretty poor state with a couple of sores in it’s mouth which I assume were caused by heavy handed anglers removing hooks without the approriate care and attention. This caused me to review my own handling techniques and I’ve subsequently bought a bottle of adcortyl-in-orabase (as recommended by the Barbel Society and Barbel Fishing World) that I can apply to any fish that I catch.

So, 11 fish in one session, 8 of them Barbel and one a PB – if I ever repeat such a session I’ll be amazed.

I decided that some of the research I conducted and decisions I’d taken in the closed season, together with subsequent refinements, were paying off. I can’t pin it down exactly, but I now have enormous confidence in Trefor’s recommended summer bait – I hardly used the luncheon meat back-up and didn’t catch on it anyway. I feel that the 2 refinements that made the most difference were probably hooklink and hair rig lengths. I settled on an 18-24 inch fluorocarbon hooklink length and made sure that the bait was no more than ½”, preferably ¼”, from the hook. 

So, here we are, half way through the Summer and I’ve gone from one Barbel last season to 17 so far in 6 sessions.  I’ve a holiday planned shortly………..I wonder what the barbel are like in Mallorca…………….?!!??

Happy Barbeling
ahop911