Barbel offer some of the most varied, exciting and dynamic angling in the UK. Aside from their sheer beauty and power, they can be found across a wide range of rivers. From small, shallow venues such as the Nene backwaters and Teme; steady flowing rivers like the Upper Great Ouse and Kennet, through to larger, powerful rivers like the Lower Severn, Wye and Trent.
The variety of river venues that we have in the UK offers the angler the choice of catching multiple fish of average size in a day, or putting the time in on tougher venues for a double figure fish. There is no finer moment in angling than when that barbel, big or small, picks up the bait and gives us the classic ‘three foot twitch’ on the rod. They can be caught all year round, using an endless variety of baits and tactics.
This piece shows you the very basics, along with a few simple tips to put your first barbel on the unhooking mat.
Finding the right location is by far the most important aspect of barbel fishing. After all, you can’t catch what isn’t there! Barbel are usually found in clean, faster flowing rivers, such as those mentioned in the introduction, although it often pays – especially in the winter months – to seek out the deeper, steadier flowing water.
Barbel love to feed over clean gravel; if you can find the gravel then you are half way to finding a good barbel swim. The most important part of your armoury in the summer months is a good set of ploaroid sunglasses. These cut out the surface glare on the water, and help you to spot the gravel beds, deeper holes, weed beds, and if you’re really lucky, some fish!
Swims to look for are areas of smooth surface movement with some cover nearby. Streamer weed beds are the classic holding area for barbel, and finding gravel channels between the weed will increase your chances of catching.
Barbel also love to have a roof over their heads so seek out overhanging trees and bushes, preferably on your near bank to make feeding and fishing easier. It’s worth noting at this point to avoid the temptation of fishing tight to the snags. It’s these areas of refuge that barbel like to drop back into and it’s easy to spook them out of the area completely if you fish right in to their front door!
The ideal barbel swim will have a deeper area of water among a streamer weed bed, about twenty yards upstream from an overhanging feature, nearside reed bed or undercut bank. The best time to find these features is simply by walking the banks in the closed season and having a good look about. You’ll soon get an idea of the river by doing so.
Barbel are one of the hardest fighting fish in UK waters. Couple this with powerful flowing water and you’ll need robust tackle to land your quarry. Robust tackle doesn’t mean heavy: using rods that are too stiff with very heavy lines will result in hook pulls at the net.
The ideal rod on small and medium sized rivers is a 1.75lb test curve rod with a good through-action to absorb the powerful lunges close in. There are dozens of superb rods dedicated to the species on the market now to suit all budgets. I like to have a pair of isotopes on the rod tip about twelve inches apart to aid bite detection at night and give a useful sight tip in lower light conditions.
Reels need to have a good, smooth clutch and be of medium size and reasonably lightweight. This makes them more practical while moving between swims. While baitrunner type reels are useful, their designed use isn’t recommended, especially if fishing in snaggy rivers. A barbel can cover quite some ground in a short space of time, and become snagged before you pick up the rod!
Line should be of at least 10lbs breaking strain monofilament. Don’t be afraid to go up to 12lbs if you think the river calls for it. My personal preference is Gardner Gr60, or good old Daiwa Sensor in either clear or brown. The TF Gear nantec mono is also good stuff.
All offer good strength and abrasion resistance. Hooklength material is another topic that can, and has, have entire chapters written about it. I prefer to use the new Mimicry hooklength by Pro Logic, or Airflo fluorocarbon in 15lbs breaking strain, with a short two inch piece of supple braid running to the hook as a ‘combi rig’.
This offers a superb presentation that helps to fool the wise, old barbel in my local rivers. There’s also no reason why you can’t use a decent quality soft braided hooklength in a nice gravel brown to match the river bed you’re fishing over.
Hooks need to be strong and sharp. There are dozens of good hooks on the market, and any good tackle shop will be able to offer advice. One thing worth looking for are hooks with an in-turned eye as fishing over gravel will soon blunt your hook and you’ll be changing rigs every cast!
You’ll need a selection of leads from half an ounce to two or three ounces depending on the flow, and some free running rings and beads. A simple running rig is all that’s needed for barbel with a hooklength of around two feet, three feet if the barbel are a bit wary of tackle.
A couple of small lumps of plasticine three and five feet back from the lead can also help to pin the line down to the river. Of course, you’ll also need a rucksack to carry your tackle and refreshments, a decent hat in the summer, a lightweight chair if desired, and some comfortable clothing.
A decent landing net of at least 36’’ is essential, along with an unhooking mat. Most clubs now insist on the above items and good fish care can’t be emphasised enough. More on that later.
This is every barbel angler’s favourite topic and one that has also had entire books written on it! Favourite baits include pellets, both big and small; luncheon meat, boilies, paste, maggots, caster, lobworms, bread, sweetcorn…… I’m sure you get the picture! Many anglers’ favourite bait is a decent quality boilie.
You can use a variety of sizes depending on conditions and the river I’m fishing. 14mm is a decent average size for both feeding and hookbait, though it pays to have a mixture of sizes and shapes both whole and broken up. Pellets are a superb summer bait too but use them in small amounts It’s very easy to overfeed, especially on smaller rivers.
Luncheon meat is a fantastic bait, and the following preparation is a simple and cheap way to make an effective bait:
Using an apple corer, bore into the meat in the tin and halve the pieces that you remove. With the leftover oddments, tear these into small chunks and pop into a freezer bag with the cylindrical shapes you already made.
Sprinkle in a generous amount of curry powder, shake about and pop in the freezer. Thaw out the night before you go fishing and you have one of the finest and cheapest hookbaits about! The cylinders can be presented on a short hair or directly on the hook, with the rough pieces that you tore off threaded onto a PVA string and tied to the lead.
Undoubtedly the best tactic for barbel is the ‘bait and wait’ method. The theory here is that the fish build up confidence in feeding in your swim over several hours, so that when you arrive and cast out, you’ll get a bite within minutes.
You might be crying “but I don’t have time to feed a swim, I only have a day to fish so I need to get my hook in the water!” Well, every angler is in the same situation and the predicament is easily solved as follows:
You arrive at the river full of excitement and anticipation. You get out the car, pop on your polaroids, fill your pocket up with a few dozen boilies, some broken up, and maybe a few 8mm pellets.
The biggest mistake is made at this point by many anglers is that they do not move along the bank quietly and stealthily enough! Barbel will sense bankside noise and disturbance while you are still a long way from the swim, so stay low, quiet and use any cover you can.
Pick out three or four swims, and using your bait dropper (a handy item of tackle that’s neglected by far too many anglers), lower in no more than a dozen samples of your hookbait over your chosen area in the swim.
On the last swim you come to, your ‘’banker swim’’ (ideally one that’s got a lovely deep hole about twenty yards up from an old overhanging willow tree), deposit a good couple of dozen broken boilies and small pellets. Forget about this swim completely now for several hours.
Quietly wander back to your first swim and get yourself comfortable, and if possible, off the skyline. Fish with your bait and a small PVA bag of free offerings over the baited area. It’s worth spending a couple of hours in your first two or three swims before moving into the final swim.
Barbel commute along the river all day long so it pays to wait just that little bit longer in a swim to increase your chances of catching one as they swim through and find your bait. Fish with the rod pointing roughly towards the bait, low to the water, with a slack line as possible to avoid spooking the fish with a tight line to swim into. Many anglers believe that barbel can sense a tight line ‘’singing’’ in the water.
When the barbel does find your bait, you’ll know about it! Barbel give the most spectacular bite of any coarse fish so it’s essential that you sit with the rod butt on your knee, or within arm’s reach. Play your fish firmly and keep the rod bent. With the right tackle you can stop the most powerful specimens in their tracks and it’s never good to prolong the fight.
Don’t ‘’bully’’ the fish to the net, but have faith in and use your tackle as it was intended. Once you have the fish in the net DO NOT LIFT IT FROM THE WATER STRAIGHT AWAY. Barbel give everything in the battle and they need to recover. You too will want to catch your breath and steady your hands after your first encounter with ‘Old Whiskers’!
Landing your barbel
Make sure your net is in a steady flowing margin, with plenty of depth and that you won’t slide in. While the fish is upright and resting, wet your unhooking mat and weighing sling, zero your scales and set up your camera. With practice, the fish can be out the water, unhooked, weighed and photographed within a very short space of time.
Always check for other anglers’ hooks in the mouth, especially on pressured stretches or rivers that are match fished. Ensure a barbel is fully recovered by holding it in the flow with its head upstream. You’ll feel the fish regain its strength and only let go when you are sure it’s strong enough to swim away.
For more detail on handling this glorious fish, check out the Barbel Society’s handling code right here:
As the start of the barbel season starts on the glorious 16th of June, there’s plenty of time ahead for you to get out and find your first barbel. The methods mentioned in this piece are ideal for summer barbel fishing. But with a little bit of adapting, they can also put a big winter fish on the bank.
All pictures (unless stated) and article from Dan Whitelock of the Barbel Society