Leaves are falling and the nights have drawn in. There’s tinsel and tat in the shops and a lot of anglers have hung up their rods for a few months. But come the first frosts, a group of dedicated anglers will be taking advantage of the fact that the weed has died back, biting insects are a faded memory and the barbel are big!
According to Dan Whitelock, this is one of the best times of year to go out and bag that special fish. Here are his tips and tricks for snagging a good sized winter barbel.
Get to know your venue
Winter barbel fishing can be hard, but it’s also be incredibly rewarding if you follow a few simple methods and invest some effort. For the most committed anglers, winter barbel fishing starts in early summer. By walking the banks, making note of gravel runs, depressions, cattle drinks and snags, you’ll greatly enhance your chances of catching once the floods have cleared the weed and coloured water has rendered the riverbed invisible.
When to go winter barbel fishing
There’s one critical factor when it comes to winter fishing and that’s the conditions. Barbel are synonymous with low pressure, mild air, warm water and steady flow. Group those together and you’re more than halfway towards finding the fish. We’ll come to location and swim choice in a moment, but let’s look first at when to go fishing in order to maximise your chances of catching.
During the summer, it’s a fair bet to say you can pick any day between June 16th and early October and, barring a massive unseasonable flood or freak cold spell, you’ll only have to worry about picking a swim and finding some fish (see our Beginner’s guide to barbel fishing for summer tips).
However, in winter, it’s vital to look at weather patterns and consider the effect on the water – notably the temperature. If the temperature suddenly falls, air pressure rises, the skies clear and a frost forms, you may be wise to seek an alternative quarry.
On the other hand, if there’s been a period of cold weather, high pressure and frosts, followed by a warm southwesterly and falling pressure – this is the time to plan your trip. The rise in temperature triggers the barbels’ metabolism and feeding instinct and they go on the search for food. Couple this with a rise in river levels to wash some food down and you’re onto a winner. There have been entire chapters written on conditions for winter barbel, but if you look at it in a simplified way and fish in the above conditions, you’ll definitely increase your odds.
Of course, barbel being barbel and habitually forgetting to read the script, they do turn up from time to time in the frost and snow. In fact the last two seasons have seen a stretch of the Upper Great Ouse produce barbel over 17 lbs to chub anglers fishing with cheese paste on crisp, clear nights! While it isn’t recommended to target barbel in these conditions, there’s always a chance.
Using a feeder
If you do choose to fish for barbel in low, clear conditions, or you don’t have the luxury of being able to fish at the drop of a hat when conditions suit, then there’s no better way to find winter barbel than with a maggot feeder. I must stress that overfeeding will guarantee a barbel blank. They don’t need much food in cold water to fill themselves up. A pint of maggots steadily fed through a feeder in a swim will suffice for a day’s fishing in really cold conditions.
Pick a swim with a nice gravel bottom, steady flow and good depth and keep hitting the same spot with the feeder. If your swim has a large feature such as an undercut bank or overhanging tree, even better. This approach may entice a lethargic barbel to feed should it be resident, and it’s a method well deployed on venues with a good head of fish such as the Trent, Wye or Middle Severn.
Best locations for winter barbel
A flood is one of the favourite conditions for all winter barbel anglers, but a high river is an incredibly daunting prospect and can put beginners off. I must stress that you need to be familiar with your river here. Flooded fields, steep muddy banks, undercuts, strong currents and rapidly rising levels can be very dangerous. Anglers have died in pursuit of winter barbel so please, be wise, know your river and don’t take any silly risks. It’s a hobby at the end of the day and no fish is worth a life.
When you arrive at the river, go for a walk to find some swims. It’s four or five feet up from normal summer level, the last rain was early yesterday and most of the rubbish has been flushed through. Perfect. A rising river can, and does produce fish, but it can be incredibly frustrating dealing with leaves, weed, branches and flotsam coming down and fouling your line. If you have to fish at the peak of a flood or a rising river, then choose a steady flow with good depth and gravel close in. (Remember your summer homework?) This will enable you to fish with the rod pointing downstream and as low to the water as possible in order to present a bait with minimum pressure on the line. Whilst barbel aren’t the brightest of buttons, they rely on instinct and know what isn’t natural. A bowstring tight line running through their habitat, with a load of surface junk floating seemingly out of place isn’t natural and their instincts will tell them there’s danger.
Barbel like a nice steady flow. A boiling, whirlpool of a back eddy is a waste of time. All that river junk spinning about over their heads just isn’t comfortable. What you’re looking for is the classic crease swim where fast water meets slow, at least five feet deep with a nice clean bed on the edge of the main flow. This is where the fish will be holding up, waiting for food to wash down and settle. The summer cattle drink is perfect here.
Another great swim is the back of a raft behind a fallen tree where the flow steadies and food collects. The inside of a bend will often provide a good holding spot in the highest of floods. Couple this with the gravel bed that you found while walking the banks in the summer and you’ve another good swim to fish. Any depression or depth change is a key spot to fish and again, the summer legwork with a plumbing rod or fish finder will pay off. A fast walking pace or slower is ideal.
It pays to keep mobile
Assuming you’ve got several of these swims on your venue, you’ll need to decide how to approach them. In winter, it pays to keep mobile. The fish tend to hold up so if you’ve sat for three hours and not had a bite, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re simply after a fish that isn’t there. An hour in a swim is more than enough. Ten minutes in the right spot is much better than ten hours in the wrong one.
When it comes to bait and baiting, forget the baiting part. You’ll be filling fish up and decreasing your chances of your hookbait getting taken. A big, smelly single bait will out-fish a load of free baits in flood conditions. The critical factor is where to swing out that bait. If your swim has a really long run, then it’s simply a matter of starting at the head and moving down ten or twenty yards every half hour or so. Trundling or rolling a big lump of luncheon meat is worth a go here. You could give the quiet swim behind the fallen tree an hour, but after that it’s worth a move. You can’t catch what isn’t there!
Best bait for winter barbel
Don’t overthink your bait. Barbel are incredibly stupid. Put some food in front of them and they’ll eat it until they’re full. In a flood, the latest fancy bait won’t catch any more fish than a chunk of luncheon meat or a lobworm. In coloured water, a decent chunk of meat, a paste wrapped boilie or a big old lobworm are the top three baits. Don’t get bogged down in worrying about choosing the ‘’right’’ boilie for winter barbel. Conditions and location are far more important.
One bait that isn’t so effective in winter is the pellet. The oils inside them are no good for the fish in cold conditions and they don’t break down. Leave them at home until the summer. In low or clear conditions then feeder fished maggots are hard to beat. Small boilies fished with a small stringer of half a dozen freebies are also very effective but again, don’t overfeed these as you’ll ruin the stretch of river for several days.
Should you pre-bait for winter barbel?
Pre-baiting can work to an extent, but bear in mind that if you’re fishing a popular venue, the chances are there’ll be several other anglers filling up the swims and the barbel won’t be hungry when you come to fish. Small river venues are particularly vulnerable to over-baiting.
Think about this: if an angler walks a stretch of a few hundred yards, picks out the best six classic winter swims and throws a dozen boilies in each on Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning ready for his Saturday session, he’ll be full of confidence when he turns up and puts his boots on. Quite rightly so.
If a couple of local retired anglers are fishing on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday while it’s quiet and throwing in a few freebies to ‘’get them going’’ that’s another load of food gone in. Add three or four more anglers to the mix and by the weekend that’s several kilograms of highly nutritional food that’s gone sailing right into the barbel’s homes. The two or three barbel that are resident in each swim will each eat half a dozen baits and then hold up to digest for a day.
The angler goes home Saturday night frustrated at the rubbish new bait that he paid £12 a kilo for and tries another that’s supposed to be better. The cycle continues, and the stretch gets a reputation for being hard or devoid of barbel! The odd, greedy big double gets caught, more anglers turn up to catch it from that snag swim and the process snowballs.
It’s been witnessed first hand on the Great Ouse, Ivel and Nene over the years. Please think about what you’re throwing in the river, especially during the winter. Less is more, I promise!
Tackle for winter barbel
It’s important to have the right tackle for winter barbel fishing and it must be up to the job. Strong hooks, strong line and powerful rods are essential. For big rivers in high flood conditions, a stepped-up barbel rod with a test curve of around 2lbs is ideal. It’s very rare and completely unnecessary to fish with anything heavier – you’re fishing nice and close in on most occasions, especially in a flood. You need that progressive action to absorb the powerful lunges in the flow – if you start using carp rods you’ll get hook pulls.
On smaller rivers you can get away with slightly less. I prefer an 11ft rod with a 1.75lb test curve for my winter fishing. It’s light enough to present a bait close in on local rivers, but has enough power should a big barbel take the bait and move out in to the flow.
Rigs are best kept simple – a running rig with a lead to suit the conditions is all that you need. A lump of plasticine three feet behind the running ring will pin everything down nicely. It’s best to fish with the rod pointing downstream and almost parallel to the bank to minimise line pressure and bottom weight required. Bites are still unmistakeable!
Don’t spook the fish
One final point that’s often overlooked in winter barbel fishing is stealth. Maintain the same quiet manner on the bank that you use in the summer. Even in a flood, the fish are looking up into the light and can see movement and silhouettes on the skyline.
In the same vein, vibration can ruin your day before you’re within twenty yards of your swim. Next time you’re in the bath, lay back with your ears underwater and gently tap the side with your finger. It’s surprisingly loud. Sound is magnified and travels well in water. A barbel’s senses are far more advanced at detecting sounds and vibration in the water than the human ear. Bear this in mind when you dump your rucksack in the swim, unfold your chair and shout to your mate upstream.
So there we have it, winter barbel fishing in a nutshell. A river in winter is a special place to be. The birds are easier to spot without all the foliage and there’s a unique and peaceful atmosphere that you don’t get in the warmer months. The fish are much bigger than in the summer, the riverbank is a much quieter place and the rewards are great. Enjoy your fishing and tight lines!
More about the author
Dan Whitelock grew up in the North Bedfordshire countryside and learned to fish on the famous Upper Great Ouse above Bedford that ran a few miles away from his home. He started barbel fishing at the age of thirteen and has an impressive list of fish to his name from the Ouse, Ivel and Nene. He devotes a lot of spare time to his local angling club and maintains a healthy balance of fishing for all species, photography, family and work.