Steve Partner: Has the sun set on big barbel fishing?

Despite being in the business of routinely breaking big fishing stories, it takes something momentous to bring the entire Angling Times office to a virtual standstill. But on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday morning in October of 2004 a distinct hush descended when the call was taken. Make no mistake, Britain’s first 20lb barbel was massive news.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, that capture, even though it was eventually topped, was probably the single biggest thing to happen in what will be remembered as a truly golden decade for the species. It was a seminal moment. A moment when the British record reached a weight no-one thought possible. In just 12 years the national best had risen by exactly 6lb ¬ or more than 40 per cent ¬ and in the interim barbel fishing had undergone the biggest revolution in its history.

Up until the late 1990s it had been considered a species of only a marginal interest, but very quickly it discovered new-found popularity. Tackle manufacturers began producing tailor-made items, bait companies followed suit, dedicated websites were spawned and the group set up  for like-minded barbel enthusiasts saw its ranks swell to record proportions. The boom was such that, in status terms, the species found itself elevated to a position only second to carp.

But with each boom comes a bust. And barbel fishing ¬ and I’m talking specifically specimen barbel fishing here ¬ is in such rapid decline that it borders on bankruptcy.

The big fish have all but gone. The rivers ¬ the Great Ouse and Wensum ¬ and the stretches ¬ Adam’s Mill and Sayers Meadow ¬ that made them famous are pale imitations of what they were. The record, once broken three times in three months, has remained static since 2006, and the anglers who clamoured for the expensive syndicate tickets have disappeared. In short, the era that will surely be remembered as the greatest ever has come to a close.

Sizeable barbel are, of course, still caught. Not all our rivers are completely bereft of specimens. But the facts are utterly indisputable.

In 2006, as Grahame King re-wrote the history books three times with fish to 21lb 1oz, 17 different river records were broken. In 2007 that number rose to 23 before dropping marginally in 2008 to 21. This season though, only six have been claimed.

Yes, there’s still a large, and arguably very productive, chunk of the season left to go, but those statistics tell a damning story ¬ that big-barbel fishing has most definitely peaked.

The question, then, is what went wrong? What happened to cause such a dramatic decline? There is no obvious answer, instead just a collection of different events that, cumulatively, have conspired to leave barbel under the greatest threat in living memory.

Otters, though, seem to take the lion’s share of the blame. Following a successful period of nationwide reintroduction, this once rare mammal has taken a stranglehold over many of our rivers. With no natural predator it’s thrived too. But as they have acclimatised, bred and then spread, so our river fish populations have dwindled. And as the most sought-after, it’s the absence of the barbel that we’ve really noticed.

Just take a look at our highest-profile example. Adam’s Mill on the Great Ouse completely dominated the big-barbel scene from the late 1990s up until 2006, producing 13 separate record claims. Fish like the ‘The Pope’, ‘Teardrop’, ‘Red Belly’, ‘Gregory Peck’ and ‘Traveller’ became the most famous ¬ and coveted ¬ barbel in the country, and anglers from far and wide travelled to this half-a-mile a stretch ‘above Bedford’.

But not any more. The waiting list for a place on the syndicate set up during its hey-day in 2002 is no longer dead man’s shoes, and the huge, named fish that made the place famous have gone. Otters, almost universally, have been blamed.

While Adam’s Mill might be the stand-out example, it’s certainly not the only stretch or river to suffer at the paws of this fish-eating predator. The River Wensum, a place that came very close to snatching the record, has been hit hard, as has the Windrush, Cherwell, Upper Thames, Dorset Stour and Bristol Avon to name just a few. And, according to one expert, otter damage has been that bad on the once prolific Teme that stocks are down a staggering 60 per cent on what they once were.

Let’s not, though, be naïve. Otters, while clearly having a devastating impact, cannot be solely blamed for the demise. There are clearly other factors too. Pollution remains a constant threat, mink have a reputation for occasionally taking fish and, to an even lesser extent, a number of foreign nationals like to eat what they catch.

But however strong an argument is presented, none of the above convince me. Neither do flooding, crayfish or cormorants. Agreed, all three, by way of destroying spawning grounds, eating eggs and attacking juvenile fish respectively, may play their part in damaging the long-term future of the species, but not when it comes to today’s, or yesterday’s, specimens Some too, will argue, that old age, coupled with angler pressure, have taken their toll. And while this may well be true in occasional circumstances, it’s hard to believe that this, or anything else, has had a greater impact than otters.

There is, though, an interesting point to be made here. The majority of barbel that have perished share something in common ¬ almost all of them lived in relatively small, clear rivers that made them extremely susceptible to predators. The very same set of circumstances that was so attractive to anglers ¬ they can be seen, fed and then selectively targeted ¬ made them equally attractive to otters.

But what of the bigger rivers, the likes of the Trent, Severn and Wye? It is surely no coincidence that the form on each of these venues continues to improve. In the relative safety of vast, wide waterways they have survived the predatory onslaught and steadily grown. They may have yet to consistently reach the weights of their late Ouse cousins ¬ primarily because they are impossible to feed up with such ease ¬ but they are catching up. In fact, rumours of individual giants, especially on the Trent, already abound, with unsubstantiated, but no less vivid, tales of 20lb, 21lb and even history-making 22lb fish. It could just be possible that barbell fishing ¬ having spent the last decade held hostage by the big-fish angler ¬could just be returning to its more wild, natural and challenging roots.

Maybe these events, however unpalatable, were needed to restore some much-needed perspective to this branch of the sport. The last decade, with its seemingly never-ending conveyer belt of giants, helped paint a distorted picture of the truth. You probably wouldn’t believe it if you arrived on the barbel scene post 1997, but a double-figure fish was ¬ and still is ¬ a fantastic and relatively rare specimen. What the likes of Adam’s Mill did was give everyone who wasn’t fishing it an inferiority complex, a belief that if they couldn’t catch something of 15lb-plus, it wasn’t good enough. That was, of course, elitist nonsense. So without the out-sized, almost freakish, giants, a state of normality could return to barbel fishing. But it’s a big ‘could’.

The con-cerning element about the current scenario is that so many of the back-up fish seem to have disappeared too. Otters aren’t discerning. They make no distinction between a record-breaker and an eight-pounder. To them, the flesh tastes exactly the same.

Is there a solution? No, not an obvious one. The Barbel Society has remained silent on the issue, understandably nervous to pin the blame on a mammal most of the public call Tarka. Quite rightly, it realises calling for a cull is absolute suicide.

What we have to remember here is that big fish are cyclical ¬ they come, they go, they come back again. Yes, otters have hastened the demise. They will also delay the return too. But fish, big ones included, will find a way to survive. In the interim, barbel anglers will just have to work a bit harder for their sport.