Picture the scene; my latest pupil, David Booth, begrudgingly helped one more of his mates to land yet another barbel from the River Severn.
Looking downstream to where his gear lay, his heart suddenly sank as his eyes locked on to his still dry landing net. A curious mixture of jealousy and longing overcame him, as brutal as a smack in the face.
Having put in over 200 rod-hours and thrashed the water to foam on every major barbel river in England, David’s landing net still hadn’t welcomed one of the graceful, hard-fighting whiskered torpedoes that he longed to catch.
Ever since he was a boy, David has loved river fishing. The draw of running water and the chance to catch a truly feral fish – like a barbel – seemed much better than targeting some podgy, lake-bound carp, tench or bream.
Falling away from the sport in his teens to concentrate on marriage, family and career, the 47-year-old master baker returned to angling four years ago, but he’s still to realise his 40-year dream of catching a barbel.
Recently, he thought he’d finally done it. When fishing on the Severn, his rod hooped over and a very strong fish tore off upstream.
Playing the fish to the net, David’s hopes were once again dashed as a beautifully marked, white, orange, black and gold koi carp of 10lb rose to the surface and flopped into his waiting net.
Now at the end of his tether and with thoughts of long, lean whiskery barbel filling his every waking moment, he called me to help finally put him in contact with his long awaited prize.
Arranging a day on the River Trent, a stretch owned by Scunthorpe Police Angling Club, I set about trying to help David exorcise his barbel demons and help realise his 40-year fantasy.
Here’s how we got on…
Why target weir pools for barbel?
In his search for a barbel, I first wanted to offer David some watercraft skills.
When faced with a foaming, rushing, frothing mass of water that is a weir pool, it’s hardly surprising that many anglers don’t know were to start.
The combination of fast, powerful water and snags can be quite daunting. But weirs are probably one of the finest areas to fish for barbel, particularly during the really warm months, because the constant crashing of water forces huge amounts of oxygen into the river.
Furthermore, the force of the river over the weir’s sill scours the bottom clean, revealing a gravely bottom. It is this combination of fast, well– oxygenated water and a gravel bottom that attract barbel in considerable numbers.
The best area to target barbel is just in front of the sill, right in the pool’s main flush. They can also be found at the tail of the weir pool.
Weir pools don’t only contain barbel. The swirling water and constant food supply coming over the sill is attractive to all species of fish which can be found in different areas of the pool (see diagram below).
I replaced David’s 10ft leger rod with my longer 13ft model. By setting the rod at a 45-degree angle to the bank (beachcaster-style), the longer rod helps keep more of the mainline out of the flow. This allows me to use a lighter feeder to hold bottom because less line in the water means there is less water pressure pushing against the rig, which could force it to bounce down the swim.
I haven’t had a great deal of experience targeting barbel, so I decided to attack the river using old-school, match-style tactics, rather than using more modern methods with boilies, PVA and groundbaits.
My approach would revolve around the use of a Kamasan Black Cap Blockend feeder.
I had modified the feeder by cutting a couple of groves in the side with a pair of scissors to enlarge the holes. This allows the bait of hemp and either caster, or 4mm pellets, to easily wash out of the feeder.
The weight of the feeder is dictated by the flow of the river. Weir pools can be quite powerful, so I kicked off with a 50 gram (2oz) feeder.
The only unusual addition to my rig was a nine-inch length of 14lb powergum. This helps prevent the fish from shedding the barbless hook on the take and during the fight when they use the weight of the feeder to throw the hook.
The powergum is doubled-up at one end and it is this doubled-up end which is attached loop to loop to the mainline.
Running on the powergum is a bead to protect the swivel knot and a snaplink bead.
The hooklink is 18 inches of 0.18mm (6.5lb) and the hook is a size 14 Drennan Barbless carp for 14mm banded or hair-rigged pellets, or two or three casters.
For smaller pellets, I use the same hook but in a size 16.
How to upstream leger
With the weir to the left, and the river running from left to right, we’re going to have to make a 30-yard cast upstream to drop the feeder half a rodlength off the weir sill where the barbel live. The rod is then put in a rest pointing skywards. This is known as upstream legering.
I’ll be teaching David to fish for drop-back bites where the tension in the rod tip caused by the river pulling against the line is suddenly released by a fish hooking itself and dislodging the feeder. The result is the rod tip springing back smartly to the straight position, rather than being yanked downwards as you’d normally expect.
The idea of upstream legering is to deliberately allow the current to form a big bow or sag in your reel line from the rod tip to where the feeder lands. If your line was cheese-wire tight, the power of the river would drag all but the heaviest feeder out of position.
he bow in the line effectively reduces the water pressure on both the line and feeder, allowing you to hold bottom with a much lighter leger weight and fish with a lighter quiver tip rod, rather than a big, heavy Avon-type tip. All you have to do is strap extra lead weights – known as ‘dead cows’ – to your feeder until it just holds bottom.
I started off with a 50g Drennan Black Cap maggot feeder, but this was too light. Adding a 1oz (28g) ‘dead cow’ perfectly balanced it. Now the slightest touch on the hookbait will dislodge the balanced feeder, sending the rod tip springing back and driving the hook point home.
Sometimes the rod tip will go over, depending on which way the hooked fish runs, and the rod can be virtually ripped off the rest. But, you’ll find that you get more drop-back bites with this upstream legering technique. Either way, both types of bites are unmissable!
As we’re fishing match-style, I’ve decided to use smaller particle baits like hemp and caster, with maybe a little pellet, rather than boilies and pastes.
Hemp and caster is a classic barbel bait combination and has sadly been all but forgotten these days in favour of designer baits. But, the combo caught well in the 70s and 80s and it still works supremely well today.
The great thing about using small particles is that the force of the river helps to move them downstream, leaving a trail of food items that will help to draw fish up from five or six pegs away.
The other advantage of these baits is that once the barbel start to eat them confidently, they will stay in the swim all day trying to pick up every single bit of hemp and caster from the bottom.
Once you get the barbel feeding like this, they become unbelievably easy to catch because they are preoccupied by food. They don’t even notice you pulling one of their mates out of the shoal around them, such is the power of particles.
I’ll be loading the feeder with 70 per cent hemp and 30 per cent caster, and then will be looking to cast every five minutes to lay down a good bed of bait.
I’ve also brought some 4mm pellets as a change to the casters. If we put pellet in the feeder, I’ll fish a hair-rigged pellet on the hook to complement these freebies.
I’ll only swap over to pellet if the small fish – little chub – are smashing the casters before the barbel have a chance to get at them.
Living the dream…
We kicked off the swim with casts every couple of minutes for the first quarter of an hour to get some bait down. Then, we reduced casting to every five minutes. And it didn’t take long before David’s quivertip was starting to show signs of there being a diner in the swim. Several knocks, bumps and line bites saw the tip quivering like a jelly.
“Sit on your hands until it goes,” I commanded.
A couple of minutes later, the tip lurched forward slightly, before springing violently straight. Hit it! A hefty strike saw David with his first barbel of the day on the end of his line.
Getting the fish under control after its initial powerful run, he was doing well…when disaster struck.
The rod sprang straight and the fish was gone. He’d had his reel’s clutch set too stiff and the barbel had snapped the hooklink. What a nightmare. It looked as if David’s dreams might still remain unfulfilled.
But after retackling and hooking another three casters on to the hook, we set about rebuilding the swim and the barbels’ confidence.
After two hours, things were looking grim. Then, the rod showed a huge drop back bite and he was into a fish again. This time there were no mistakes and, after a short but brutal fight, David had his first ever barbel under his belt – a fine 5lb Trent fish.
Building on this success, David went on to take another similarly-sized fish, finishing the session with a flourish.
At the end of the day, David’s huge grin showed it all. He looked like the cat that had got a gallon of cream. He had finally realised a personal goal and accomplished a 40-year dream.
It reminds me of when I fulfilled a long held dream and won my first world championship, but that’s another story…