It is no coincidence that the barbel's elongated, powerful shape bears resemblance to a long carp - the barbel is part of the cyprinidae, or carp family of freshwater fish. This is not the only similarity - it is also similar in habits and physical characteristics.
Barbel is happiest in well-oxygenated river water, and will often be found in fast runs over gravel or a clean sandy bottom, although it can also thrive slow moving rivers.
Most river barbel are in the region of 3-6lb, and generally group together with other barbel of the same size. Any barbel exceeding 8lb is considered a fine specimen.
The barbel has four sensory barbules, one pair at the point of the snout, the other at the rear of the top lip. When netting and retaining barbel, extra care must be taken due to its strong, serrated spine that starts at its dorsal fin - this spine can become entangled and then broken.
Its front is triangular and skate-like, and its tail is large and forked, the top lobe being sharply pointed, the lower being rounded. The scales are small and lie close to the body, the colours going from an even olive-brown to brown-grey at the back, and pale brass flanks, with a matter white belly.
Barbel can be reluctant to take the bait during lighter hours of the day, feeding more confidently from dusk through the hours of darkness. However, if they have a sanctuary they can continually nip in and out of (ie sandy runs between beds of tall bullrushes) they will feed well during daylight.
Winter barbel fishing can be slow - the last few weeks of the season being the best time. Weed cover will be lessened by frosts which makes barbel shoal in much tighter groups, becoming far less spread out. There are certain conditions can prompt aggressive feeding from barbel: a rising river, points at which clear water starts to colour, when, during winter, there is consistently high air temperatures or mild spells.
Although they occasionally take their food to the surface, the majority of its food is found on the bottom, so most of its feeding will be done there. Its diet consists of shrimps, snails, crayfish and aquatic insect larvae, which it will probe for at the bottom, using its the sensitive taste paids on its long whiskers. Barbel will also eat small fish such as minnows, loach, gudgeon and lampreys.
This usually takes place during late April / early May. White tubercles appear on the males' heads and backs, distinguishing them from females. This is the only time of year where there is any distinguishable difference between male and females.
Several males will gather round the female, who is now heavy with eggs and use their noses and shoulders to nudge her to stimulate her to release the eggs. Once released, the males will distribute their milt over the small yellow eggs, and they flow downstream to stick to stones and rooted weeds. Once fertilised, they eggs take up to 14 days to hatch, although this can depend on water temperature. After that, they are thrown into a hostile world where most will fall prey to other fish, including its own kind.
Barbels choose homes where they feel that they are safe - this will often be somewhere that they have cover over their heads, or close by. Particularly good for barbel are swims with dense beds of flowering weeds or beneath lines of trees whose lower limbs are part sunken.
Barbel can generally be located visually in clear water, during summer except in the deepest rivers. Buying a good pair of scratch-resistance polaroid sunglasses can help barbel locating dramatically. Yellow lenses provide increased brightness - helping close observation of the river-bed in low light, such as overcast days and at dusk and dawn. For the middle of the day when the sun is high and bright, standard grey or amber lenses are really helpful. A pair of lightweight binoculars are essential for observing the river's flow patterns and distant swims.
Look out for...
Gravel beds of rivers are perfect feeding grounds for barbel.
Barbel love fast water, particularly downstream from wiers.
Look closely behind streamer weed as it's here you'll find fish.
Barbel can be found in several English river systems where they have been introduced over the last 30 years, the Ouse being particularly well populated. Yorkshire is the most northerly county they can be found, and they're not found in Ireland. They are also common to rivers throughout Europe.
Have you caught a barbel of 4lb or over? Click HERE to see if you've qualified for a Shimano Mission Accomplished badge and a chance of winning quality tackle with Catch of the Month...