Summer offers the barbel angler a wonderful opportunity to catch their chosen quarry.
Consistent water levels and clarity, bright conditions, and steady water temperature all contribute to an environment which makes barbel willing to feed and easier to locate.
The Barbel Society’s Dan Whitelock takes us through the most effective methods, rigs and baits for a summer barbel session.
As mentioned in our beginners guide to barbel fishing, the biggest factor is location. Look for steady gravel runs, streamer weed beds, overhanging cover and depressions in the riverbed. If you were good in the closed season and did your homework, you’ll know where these areas are. Find these features and you’re much closer to getting those barbel to your unhooking mat.
Remember to wear your polaroids, keep off the skyline, and avoid stomping around on the bank. Be discreet – that way you’ll avoid spooking the fish before you get a chance to see them, and minimise your chances of a blank day.
Static or mobile?
There are two main ways to approach summer barbel fishing. Firstly, the mobile approach on small, clear rivers with minimum baiting. Or, the static approach (‘bait & wait”) where you build a swim up over several hours and let the fish gain confidence in feeding over your baited spot. The latter is a popular method on larger rivers such as the Trent or Lower Severn, though it will also work on smaller rivers such as the Great Ouse, Lea, Teme and Loddon.
One rig to rule them all
There’s one basic rig you can use for both of these methods. The key factor is simplicity. There is no need to overcomplicate your rigs and end tackle. Barbel are confident feeders and lack any hint of intelligence, so there are no trick tactics needed to hook them.
My go-to rig is a simple running rig compromising of my mainline running through a run ring, stopped by a bead, which is tied onto a quick change swivel. I thread a tail rubber onto my hooklength to lock it in place. So when I have a fish resting in the net, or I wish to change my hooklength I simply have to slide the rubber down, unclip the hooklength, pop the new one on and slide the rubber back over the clip.
Fishing smaller rivers
For fishing on smaller rivers, use a long hooklength – at least two feet. This keeps the bait as far from the mainline and lead as possible, to avoid line bites and enhance the presentation. That said, it also pays to use a couple of pieces of plasticine up the line as a backlead, to keep the line away from fish as they move around your swim.
If you’re lucky enough to watch barbel feeding, you will see that they work their way over the baited area, sucking in morsels of food and abruptly turning downstream to the tail of the swim again. It’s this turning that gives us the classic barbel bite that we all love and I believe that the longer hooklength, light lead and slack mainline enhances the presentation, and gives the barbel the confidence to pick up the bait without feeling any resistance.
This rig is best suited to fishing with larger baits such as boilies, pellets and meat on smaller venues. Start off by choosing a section of river about two to three hundred yards long, with roughly 50 yards between each swim.
A barbel swim is simply the place you choose to put your bait. Start at the downstream end, and using a baitdropper, deposit no more than a dozen samples of your chosen hookbait into the swim. It’s best to do this in all four or five swims then return to the first one.
Swing the rig gently into position, with a small PVA mesh bag of freebies clipped on to the lead. It’s best to clip it to the lead, as when the PVA melts in flowing water, most of the bait is washed far beyond the hookbait if it’s clipped to the hook. By releasing the bait where the lead is, it drifts down and lands around your hookbait: right in the path of the barbel!
Fish each swim for about an hour before moving on to the next one. Before leaving the swim, drop in another dozen freebies in case you choose to return later. Barbel can travel quite a long way and by having five small swims baited up you’ll greatly enhance your chances of catching.
You can even try a variation on this method, fishing even more swims for a shorter amount of time, say, twenty to thirty minutes.
The variation to the running rig works best when you are staying in one swim and building up the feed with particle baits such as hemp, maggots, caster and corn. The rig is almost identical to the mobile approach, but uses a much shorter hooklength – it only needs to be about 4-6” long – and a large, heavy swimfeeder. This gives a bolt effect which is required when fishing with small particle baits on the hair such as casters. Barbel tend to ‘’hoover’’ up lots of these in one go so we need a bit of resistance to be felt to encourage that abrupt turn when they pick up the bait.
This approach requires both patience and confidence but will give you a much greater chance of a bite.
Baiting up for static fishing
The best bait for this method is a hemp and caster combination, or maggots. Either way, you’ll need about a gallon of bait. With the hemp and caster combination I like to use about three pints of caster for a gallon of hemp. Start off by depositing a good couple of pints of bait in your swim using your baitdropper.
Leave this alone for about an hour for the fish to gain confidence. It’s best to select a swim where you can gently swing a dropper out with minimum disturbance to avoid spooking the feeding fish. However, it’s amazing to see just how quickly feeding fish will return to a swim following the splash of a dropper.
The swim will need topping up with a couple of pints per hour for a good three or four hours, if you can do this over five or six hours then even better. It may sound hard to fathom, spending six hours by the river and not casting a baited hook, but it’s essential to build up that confidence in the feeding fish so that when you do cast your rig out, the bites will come very quickly.
The most effective presentation of the hookbait is to use two neutral buoyancy rubber casters glued to a fine hair. This avoids the problems of smaller fish destroying the hookbait and hooking themselves. The feeder is loaded with the loosefeed, and cast into the same spot.
It’s vital that the dropper and feeder land in the same place every time. You can make sure you manage this if you sit in the same position each time, and use the reflection of a tree, telegraph pole or weed as a marker.
Mobile barbel baiting
A favourite bait for the mobile method is boilies, fished either whole in smaller sizes, or broken in half and fished back to back to offer something a bit different.
Any decent boilie from a reputable company will catch barbel. The fishmeal base mixes with a meaty/spicy/fishy flavour are the most successful. Halibut Pellets are a superb summer bait too, in the small quantities described, and will draw fish to your swim quickly. If bites are hard to come by, and you know that you have fish in the swim, try supergluing two small pellets back to back on the hair with a smaller hook.
For after dark fishing, try wrapping boilies in a matching paste and leave in the swim for a good hour, or fish a generous lump of flavoured luncheon meat over a bed of hemp and small pellets. Beware though, if your river has problems with signal crayfish your lump of meat won’t last long!
So that’s about it, you can’t get any more simple. Use this rig and these baits to catch barbel all over the country throughout the summer months. The tackle you need is all covered in the beginner’s guide.
There’s never any need to over-analyse your rigs, worry if your bait is working or if you’re wearing the wrong colour hat! Barbel are an incredibly obliging fish once you find them: all they’re designed to do is eat, avoid danger and make little barbel. Keep that in mind and your barbel fishing will rapidly become more successful.
Remember, though, that success isn’t always measured in the biggest or most fish. Enjoy the time on a riverbank in the summer as it’s one of the most magical places you can spend a few hours. Don’t take it too seriously and remember to smell the flowers along the way.
Always consider that in the summer the fish fight hard and can take a while to recover from the battle, so make sure you follow the Barbel Society Handling Code, and ensure fish are fully rested before release. If you release an unrested fish, they may struggle later in the day when they’re moving against the flow of the river.
Tight lines, and happy fishing!
All images © Dan Whitelock unless otherwise stated