Stuart Walker and Bob Roberts have travelled half way round the world chasing big fish. From the Cauvery river in southern India to the Nepalese border in the Himalayas; from the Nubian desert to the Canadian Rockies, they’ve chased fish and shared untold adventures. Here's their story concentrating on the life of river barbel, told by Bob Roberts
It was on one of these trips that we decided we really should be filming our exploits. Many dream of making these trips, few actually follow through and it’s important to capture the memories when you do, if only to show your grandchildren.
So we bought a video camera, and the results, are remarkable. We had no training, no background in filming or editing, yet Stu and I seemed to share a knack for capturing those special moments. Some of our earliest footage was even shown on Sky TV!
After we finally came back down to earth we needed a new challenge – to make a film here in the UK. We love barbel fishing and it was almost by accident that the Barbel Days and Ways DVDs were born.
Trouble is, we don’t do things by half. We set out to make something really special, something that would push the boundaries of what had been seen before and the logical way was to go right into the barbel’s domain; to film them close up so that we could actually hear what they were doing, never mind watch.
But I’m racing ahead. First, we had to invest in more equipment. We had to locate the waters where we could get really close to the fish, waters that were clear enough to see what was going on – not easy in Yorkshire.
Had anyone said that Stu and I would spend more than 50 days watching and filming barbel in the space of a year without wetting a line I would have said they were crazy. But it’s so easy for something like this to turn into an obsession. You learn so much from close-up observation and the more you learn the more you want to know. Trouble is, you can’t waltz into Waterstones and ask for the latest book on ‘How to film barbel underwater’ because it simply doesn’t exist.
We had to improvise, work everything out for ourselves and make plenty of costly mistakes before we got it right.
We had to modify commercially available underwater filming equipment and even created an underwater monopod that enables us to look down on fish using a cut-off bank stick and a paving slab!
Our equipment is compact, fairly unobtrusive and operates silently but we don’t have monitors and the camera cannot be manoeuvred once placed in position. That means we haven’t a clue what we’ve filmed until we download the footage later.
It only takes a single strand of weed to drape itself on the camera to ruin a day’s shooting and we cannot even be certain that the camera is level – it could be pointing slightly upwards or set on a tilt when the riverbed is uneven, which is extremely frustrating. But worst of all, the angle of view is limited, rather like wearing blinkers. Anything that happens six inches to the left or right might be missed.
Paul Garner’s excellent article starting on page 34 shows you how to catch a barbel. Filming from the riverbed helps us to clearly understand why some tactics work and why some simply don’t.
Here’s a baker’s dozen of tips based on lessons and observations made while filming our Barbel Days And Ways DVDs:
Lesson One: Hush - be quiet!
Let’s start right at the very beginning. We were the first angling film makers to put effort into recording the actual underwater sounds rather than the overdubbed tinkling streams and swish, swish of the fishes tails that others have used. What a shock we got. The underwater camera could clearly pick up our voices as we were talking on the bank and if the camera could pick up the sound then it stood to reason that fish could also hear us.
Not only do you need to avoid making heavy footfalls or dropping items on the ground, you really should be talking in hushed tones and whispers.
Lesson Two: Fish are noisy eaters
If that wasn’t eye opening enough the first truly dramatic revelation was about to hit us. We were baiting with pellets and the first fish to home in on them were chub.
In they came to sweep up the pellets and suddenly the noise was unmistakable as they crunched up hard pellets in their pharyngeal throat teeth.
Sound travels remarkably well in water and minutes after the chub began chomping, up popped a barbel, quickly followed by his mates. After filming this in numerous different swims it became obvious that chub are more bold than barbel but the noise of feeding chub stimulates barbel into feeding.
It became apparent that a barbel doesn’t have to be directly downstream of your feed to find it, providing there are chub around.
Incidentally, chub respond to the noise made by anything that falls on the water surface, often dashing in to intercept food items as they fall through the water.
Barbel can be heard when they feed, too, but the sound of their chewing is at a lower frequency.
Lesson Three: Stones are a pushover
The sound doesn’t end there, either, because barbel appear to love rooting around in the stones, happily rolling pebbles as big as a man’s fist with their snouts.
That was another interesting observation. We all used to think that the barbel’s head is shaped like it is for streamlining purposes, but it’s not. The snout is for digging and when we buried handfuls of pellets beneath coarse gravel the barbel swept in, presumably homing in on the scent of the baits, and began digging. In next to no time they had dug a hole in the bottom with their snouts to get at the pellets.
You will be amazed by how much noise is generated as barbel root around and disturb rocks and pebbles.
Lesson Four: Choose your swim wisely
We have been able to observe how baits behave in the flow and it shocked us to see how pellets, in particular, absorbed water before rolling away downstream.
On clean sandy bottoms or fine gravel it wasn’t unusual to see all our bait washed away by what were relatively slow currents and it made us think how often we had been left fishing single hookbaits.
As a result of our filming we now always try to fish over coarse gravel, pebbly or stony areas because we can be certain that some bait will lodge in the crevices.
Lesson Five: Gone in 60 seconds
We were also quite surprised to see how quickly a shoal of barbel could mop up our baits. It’s often suggested by ‘experts’ that we should bait a swim and wait an hour before fishing.
Don’t be surprised then if you don’t get a bite because chances are your bait has either been eaten or washed away! We have filmed barbel moving in on a baited swim within two minutes of us stopping using the bait dropper.
Lesson Six: Get them preoccupied using the right feed mix
This is why we have developed a special barbel pellet feed mix with Allan Parbery at Mistral Baits. It’s not actually available as I write but it will be in time for next season.
We have taken six different types and sizes of pellets from the current Mistral range and it is recommended you mix the pellets 50:50 with cooked hempseed. Barbel really do love hemp which encourages them to root vigorously for each last grain. It’s a lot cheaper than pellets alone which is a bonus.
Some of the pellets in our mix are only 2mm in diameter and they break down very quickly. Indeed, each pellet breaks down at a different rate so there is always some leakage of flavours and the pellets will range from hard to a soft mush depending on how long they have been in the swim.
It’s all about getting fish preoccupied with looking for food and drawing more fish into the swim and holding them there for as long as possible, which brings me to social behaviour.
Lesson Seven: De-bunking the bullying theory
I wish someone would pay me a thousand pounds for every time I’ve heard talk about barbel moving into a swim and bullying the other fish out.
I’d probably be a millionaire but it’s complete bunkum, honestly! Barbel, chub, bream, carp and even minnows feed side-by-side without the slightest care in the world.
Feeding chub stimulate barbel into feeding. The reason why chub activity ceases in a barbel swim is because they are hopeless at picking up static baits and much prefer to intercept falling and moving baits. We see this time and time again when we are filming.
Lesson Eight: Throwing caution to the wind
Another thing that surprised us was how barbel lost their caution when you got them feeding well. It was not unusual to wade into the river several times as we repositioned the camera.
We have footage of barbel sheltering under a bush not four feet from where Stu is stood in the river and they are just waiting for him to get out of the way so they can get back to the bait. Once, they were back on the feed before he got back to dry land.
Lesson Nine: Does your hooklink come up short?
We learned so much about rigs and how we present our baits, too. Asubject that we are still learning even more about.
One incredible surprise has been the number of times a barbel can pick up a bait on a short hooklink and get away with it – especially if this is attached to a bolt rig.
The evidence is there for you to see for yourself on the DVDs and, as a result, I’ve spent the whole of this season using hooklinks that are three foot long and I rarely miss a bite. Nor do I ever deep-hook a fish.
We have become very conscious of the barbel’s reaction to end tackle and to rig materials in particular.
I used to be a fan of fluorocarbon hooklinks but I revised my views and changed tactics after watching barbel spook away from it on numerous occasions.
Lesson Ten: “Boo!” – that scared you...
Barbel appear to have little fear of supple hooklinks, even thick ones that they can quite obviously see. We’ve filmed them with both weed and a braid hooklink draped over their noses yet they show no alarm. However, when they touch a fluorocarbon line, which is not only quite stiff but practically invisible in water, it really spooks them. It’s like someone has crept up behind them and shouted, “boo!” Sinking braid and a running rig is now my choice.
Lesson Eleven: Back to the drawing board with back leads
If we take the presence of line to its conclusion we enter a key area when it comes to rig presentation and spooking fish.
The point where your reel line rises from the bottom is clearly where barbel may run into a taught line that can cause them to flee. By ensuring your feeder lies at the upstream perimeter of the baited area the chance of a fish touching the line is reduced but not totally eliminated. You need to take great care over accuracy when positioning your end tackle.
Some anglers use back leads to effectively pin another metre of line to the river bed. This seems a great idea but in reality the river bed is seldom flat – there are pebbles and stones, bits of weed and debris, so more often than not your line is actually held up just off the bottom and acts like a trip wire. Often, we’ve seen fish brush this line and flee.
The trouble is, it only takes one panicked fish to bolt and the entire shoal will follow. It’s a nightmare, especially on pressured rivers where fish spook easily.
Lesson Twelve: Telegraph lines
Another point that I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere before is that a taught line makes a noise. I’m sure you’ve played fish on windy days and heard your line singing in the wind. Well, your line makes a noise like that in the water and the fish can definitely hear it.
Lesson Thirteen: A bag of tricks?
There’s no doubt that barbel anglers were quick to adopt one of the carp anglers’ favourite methods – hooking on a pellet-filled PVAbag each time they cast out so the hookbait is then surrounded by a neat pile of free offerings.
The theory is that a barbel will be more prone to making a mistake and it sounds a brilliant idea, but few have properly thought this through.
PVAbagging can be an expensive waste of time, effort and money not just because your bunch of baits would probably drift off on the current in many swims but because the PVAbag often never gets there.
Solid PVAbags contain air and therefore they are quite buoyant. It was quite a shock when we first filmed this – our bag waved around like a kite a foot off bottom. Only when the bag began to melt did it release the pellets which were immediately swept away by the current, landing miles away from the hookbait. Sometimes, the point where the bag is hooked melts quickest and the whole bag detaches from the hook and floats off downstream.
If you are going to use PVA, choose a stringer or a mesh bag. Don’t use bags in deep water (in summer) because the mesh through which the hook is nicked may melt before the lead hits bottom in warm water.