Twyford & District Fishing Club
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Barbel and the Pats
Posted on 07/07/11

An article by Ian Grant in response to requests by some members for an article on fishing St Patricks Stream for barbel.

St Patricks Stream – is without doubt one of the best small stream rivers in England for barbel fishing, or at least the Lower section.

It is true to say we almost have two different rivers in one here with regard to it’s barbel and chub population, and although like all rivers has seen it’s highs and lows has been that way for as long as people can remember, though barbel are certainly present right throughout it’s roughly one and a quarter mile length the reasons the Lower is by far the more prolific for barbel will be argued over for years to come.

My personal opinion is that you need look no further than the Borough Marsh Stream that enters the Lower Pats about 100 yards downstream of the Loddon drive bridge, bringing with it water which has been enriched with oxygen by the riffles it passes over in the last 100 yards before entering the Lower Pats, my theory confirmed in my opinion by the fact that once the colder weather arrives, and the waters oxygen content naturally increases, the barbel start to spread out moving much further into the upper reaches, though the lower section still retains the larger part of the barbel  population.

What is true though is that is that the methods and theories which I’ll write of here hold good whether fishing on the upper or the lower St Patricks Stream, and in fact will do for any similar river, and in many ways will also for even much larger rivers, the fundamental principles, of finding, feeding, and not spooking barbel are the primary considerations of all barbel anglers wherever they fish for their quarry, and it’s these three principles which I’ll dissect and break down hopefully giving the less experienced of our members the grounding they are looking for to go out onto St Pats – and our other rivers hopefully and catch those wonderful – but brutally hard fighting fish. 

 

My First Double From St Patricks stream 11lb 9oz September 1997

 

Locating Barbel

This first hurdle is where I feel the majority of newcomers to barbel fishing fall, though I don’t believe that very specific location is necessarily the big problem.

Very specific location of barbel, and particularly on a small prolific stream such as the lower Pats is not necessary, and certainly does not figure in my approach, whether targeting average or big barbel.

The lower St Patricks stream has a large enough population of barbel for an angler never to be very far away from them, and certainly using the right type of bait will attract them, I would go so far as to say, no matter where you stand on the banks of the lower Pats, you are probably never more than 10 yards from a barbel up or downstream of your position, and if you are lucky enough to happen on the right swim can have several within that distance.

If it were possible to know the exact spot a barbel or a group of them were lying I would use that knowledge to place my bait several yards upstream of them, the risk of spooking them being too great to take the chance of putting a bait close too them, much less of a problem with the small immature barbel that shoal up in groups, confident of their safety in numbers, but never the less still capable of being spooked, and spooking a bigger fish with experience of an anglers hook many times throughout it’s life will mean your chances of catching it have blown for the day.

What is fact though is that generally speaking you won’t be able to see them, I often have a chuckle at anglers who regularly say things like ‘Oh I just popped down to the river today, and found a fish in the margins, and fed it for a while, Oh really!!! whilst I know it happens, I challenge any angler to do it even once in a while never mind regularly, at least on the rivers I fish, many many of these accounts are fishermans stories methinks !! don’t take them all in and believe that you are rubbish at spotting barbel, you’re not, and if you are then I am too !!!

If you want to try spotting them, loose feed a likely looking area, the problem being that barbel in clear water, or at least with a degree of visibility do not like coming out into the open where you can see them, it’s not particularly because of a fear of anglers this is natural caution at work, so you must choose an area of clear river bed close to over hanging or bankside cover, or a small clear patch in streamer, place your feed as quietly as you can, and…… wait !, usually for a very long time, if you haven’t spooked them eventually one or two may take a chance and venture out, nick a few mouthfuls and dash back for cover, though finding  a group of immature youngsters in the 5 – 6lb bracket can, once you have their confidence be encouraged to feed freely even in the open, being confident of their safety in numbers, the bigger stamp of fish are a different ball game altogether, and I’ll talk more about spooking them later.

With most of the time not being able to see the barbel, you have to make an educated guess as to where they are, the more you know your river the more accurate your guesses will be, this is where years of learning watercraft, and regularly fishing your river will pay you back in your catches and as I said in the thread ‘Baiting’ in Club Chat on the forum, there is just no easy route to that.

However whatever stage you are in your angling proficiency, you will have to make that guess when arriving on the bank to fish, but don’t get hung up on very specific location i.e. under this bush or that, if you are unable to physically see them how could you do that anyway, and if you have managed to find them under that tree or bush – whatever, you may well find by the time you’ve set your tackle up they’ve moved to another bush. As I said the advantage if you do actually see them is in not inadvertently spooking them

Swims that hold barbel

Barbel will be found anywhere they feel secure particularly if the river bed is prolific with food either natural or delivered by us.

You’ll find them under overhanging trees particularly with deep slower runs under them, and in areas where you have the classic creases where drifting particles of food drop off the flow into the slower water, and where you can find both you surely are on a winner !

The barbel will usually be under the mid sections of these overhangs where they feel safest, and ideally you need to place your bait at the furthest upstream point of the overhang to avoid spooking them, however if the overhang is adjacent to a crease, a bait a few feet to the side of the overhang, and on the furthest upstream point of  the crease is a good spot, where the barbel will be looking for food, spook them though, and they’ll dive straight back under cover, and that’ll be your lot if they are the bigger fish.

The way I like to target these swims is first to hand feed a very small amount of loose feed and observe where it falls, if not possible to see then an educated guess will have to suffice, then preferentially lower your bait on that spot, followed by 1 or 2 golf ball sized lumps of loose feed ( more on loose feed later ) you can if you wish dribble very small amounts of feed onto the spot with exact accuracy, ideally your hook bait should be at the furthest extremity of your bed of feed to avoid liners which you will get and will spook the barbel especially those big ones if your hook bait is in the middle of your bed of bait.

Dribbling in the feed will also provoke the minnows and small fish into a frenzy which barbel close by will find hard to ignore, never ever be worried about ‘small stuff ‘ bashing away at your bait as long as your hook bait can take it, it is one of the biggest weapons in your armoury !

Areas of dense streamer weed are also a favourite of barbel, and quite literally you can have several barbel right at your feet, and never see them, targeting these areas takes a bit of experience, but can be so worthwhile.

I normally approach it by finding an area which is clear of weed, and if possible position myself just upstream of the end of the run of weed, my hook bait is placed right on the furthest most extremity of the weed without actually pulling into it, but as close as I can physically get to it, my rods are then kept fairly low, and the line pulled down into the weed preferably in exact alignment with the flow of weed, and then a few feet of slack line paid off the reel, this will not only disguise your line but, a barbel in the weed hitting your slack line will feel no more than it does when coming into contact with the streamer, it’s a deadly tactic I can tell you, at night or daytime.

 

16lb 2oz taken from a clear patch in streamer weed October 2010

 

Generally deeper holes or runs will usually hold a barbel or two not only being comfortable and secure for the barbel knowing it cannot be seen from the surface, but are also natural larders of food that fall into them which then cannot be pushed out by the flow, again place your hook bait at the furthest upstream extremity to avoid liners.

Even if a particular hole has no barbel present they will often visit especially at night to feed, and especially if you’ve put food in their for them !

In a nutshell I don’t try to put a bait right on top of them for fear of putting a lead right on their heads, and spooking them, -  they come to my dinner table - I don’t go to theirs, yes I have an idea – I hope a pretty good one! of where they are, but I don’t throw food through their front door, you can spend many long fruitless hours trying to tempt a group of barbel that you have already unwittingly spooked, but lay a table for them, in a place that’s not too open where cover is nearby for them to retreat to, and with judicious feeding if enough are present can be easily caught.

It has been probably 8 years or more since I have spent any real time on the Pats, and though some of the barbel have grown on to huge proportions since I fished it in those days, I know will still respond to the tactics I’ve just described.

What I’m saying is yes location is important, but don’t overly concern yourself with it to the point of trying to understand if the barbel are lying under this tree or that, if your bait has enough attraction, there is every chance it will pull a few into your baited area, I’m by no means saying you’ll catch every time, but you will catch regularly, and the more you catch the more you learn, and the more you learn the more you catch.

I guarantee unless you do something very stupid, you will in a short space of time be catching barbel on a regular basis using these methods. Of course if you start fishing for them in mid winter, you are going to be right up against it, struggling when the fish are at their least active with no firm foundation to build on, so get out there now, spend as much time as you can fishing for them and learning about their habits these are all parts of the jigsaw, and the pieces will come together, next season you’ll find after a winters reflection things will come easier still, and so the next, and the next, this is a process that has no end, or at least I hope it hasn’t and there may well come a time when you feel you want more of a challenge, and so the learning process will move on.

In the next section I’ll talk about feeding them, and the type of baits it’s best to start with.

Bait and barbel

It is true that barbel will at times eat anything that’s put in front of them, and I’ve heard it said by so many that any old bait will do, well I have to wonder just how many they catch..

Leaving aside location and stealth getting that all important hook in their mouth is finally down to what we offer them as food, and referring back to that ‘any old bait will do’ theory - if I put a plate of beans in front of you, and an 8oz sirloin steak which would you rather eat ?

But offering them the best definitely doesn’t mean the most expensive, in fact can be far far cheaper than many proprietary baits.

Specifically talking boilies there is an awful lot of rubbish out there, and the hold they seem to have on some anglers bemuses me, and I’m convinced is the reason of many in failing to catch barbel at least with any regularity.

There are some that are excellent, but in my opinion no more so than the vast options open to us by using meat, at least from a perspective of general barbel fishing. So not wishing to bore you with the pro’s and cons of boillies, and pellets etc, etc, I’ll confine this section to what I consider to be one of the best, and most versatile of barbel baits – meat in it’s various forms.

Meat in all it’s forms except paste ( and maybe even that if prepared properly ) can be fried with a variety of so many flavourings it would be nigh on impossible to list them all, all I will say on this is – barbel, in fact most fish adore spicy, and savoury flavours, you can add to the frying pan, Curry pastes, all manner of spicy and savoury vegetables, even liquidise them if you wish before or after going in the pan which will help the meat absorb the flavour, be imaginative and experiment, you will be amazed at what the barbel find tasty !, however once having found a flavour you like you can tweak the flavouring as time goes on to prevent your bait becoming a danger signal to the barbel, make small changes over a period of time, because as much as you don’t want the bait to be recognised over time as a danger signal, you do want the barbel to instantly recognise it as a good source of food.

I’ll list here some examples but these are just a few, again I think I could go on forever.

  • Luncheon meat or Spam – best used with flavouring because of the colour potentially spooking barbel
  • Sausages – especially the herbal varieties fried and flavoured if you wish.
  • Beefburgers– watch it as depending on their fat content some can float, fried and again can be flavoured
  • Ye Olde Oak Ham or similar, best used at night unless flavoured and coloured which I think spoils the succulent nature of the meat.
  • Chicken breasts – buy in packs from the supermarket, chop up and fry with flavouring if desired.
  • Pork Crackling – Floats if fat is still on it, and use as a hook bait only
  • Pepperami  – can be flavoured but is excellent as it comes, best used on the hair because of its hardness, but can be crushed and used on the hook. Bacon, can be flavoured as it is fried in the pan if you wish.
  • Steak pieces – frying steak can be bought in bags already cut into cubes, fry and flavour .

Meat Pastes…………

Any of the above meats can be liquidised, or combination of any and bound with a powder, milk powders are excellent for this, as is semolina or a mixture of both, also short crust pastry mix can be used very effectively. The meats before or after liquidising can be flavoured in a frying pan if you wish.

Instant Pastes, particularly if you have no time for preparation

  • Cheese – just take a slab and knead it until you have a paste – ready to go, can also be used in chunks haired or on the hook.
  • Corned beef – can also be fried and flavoured if you wish, bind with same as above.
  • Various pates, tends to be sloppy, and needs a lot of binding, but excellent!
  • Sausage meat, bind with same as above.

All can be given extra flavours with herbs and spices if you wish.

Loose Feed

Chopped meats of any of the above and anything else you can get your hands on ! and again can be flavoured in the frying pan.

Spaghetti Bolognese – not joking ! I have caught hundreds of barbel on this and is my favourite loose feed mix, just get the Mrs to make plenty !

These I like to mix with hemp or a particle mix – the jars of the Dynamite brand are excellent and ready to go.

Can be fed as a mushy loose feed ( messy ) or bound into balls for slower breakdown, also useful if you want the feed to hit the bottom quickly.

The best binder I’ve found is Weetabix, but liquidised bread is a good alternative.

Feeding

Is simple! as described earlier preferentially I like to observe where my feed hits the bottom, and lower my bait on that spot, purely from a point of view of not spooking fish, cast if you have to but lower if you can, avoid unnecessary re casts if you are hoping for a big fish.

I always put out a few samples of hookbaits on the bed of loose feed in order to familiarise the barbel with them.

Always try to keep your hook bait on the edge of your loose feed nearest to you, this helps reduce liners, which again will spook the big fish especially.

Spooking fish

Brushed on earlier, but I’ll re cap and go into a little more detail here.

Everybody knows the necessity of not spooking fish, but so many neglect to take it on board.

I have a little saying many are aware of it but I tell you as well……..

You may whilst fishing have 300 chances to spook a barbel, but only one to catch it, remember that, and do everything in your power to remove all spook factors from your fishing, keep lines low and slack as you can, never never fish with bowstring tight lines, especially with regard to the bigger barbel, they have been on the bank many times throughout their lives, and associate many things with that, the biggest of all in my opinion is hitting a tight line, bye bye big barbel.

Torch lights, constant re casting, stomping on the ground, also heavy and repeated feeding, all these things will potentially, and inevitably in most cases spook your quarry, if you have spooked it, you’ll never know but will leave you wondering why you blanked.

You may also affect the fishing of others in nearby swims, which I know has been the cause of much bad feeling from other anglers.

It can be so frustrating when having got everything right, the fish feeding and have their confidence….. and then you fluff it by a silly mistake.

It is so much more frustrating when somebody in the next swim spooks them for you – ARRGH !!!!

What was it Dick Walker Said …. ‘ Study to be quiet ‘ - one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever seen !

Barbel Recovery

To finish, I’d like to add to this article something which has nothing to do with the subject matter, that of barbel recovery.

Given that I hope many of the people particularly interested in this article will be inexperienced in barbel fishing I would appreciate you taking particular note of what I say here, forgive me if I go on a bit !.

Barbel have a physiology that gives them great power which they almost always demonstrate when hooked, during the fight their bodies draw on every ounce of oxygen their metabolism can deliver to power their muscles, often exceeding their reserves resulting in huge amounts of lactic acid building up in the muscles, which can if the fight is unnecessarily prolonged result in the barbel being completely and dangerously exhausted, please always ensure your tackle is capable of keeping the fight to a minimum duration to avoid this.

Once in the net if possible leave the barbel to rest in the water with it’s head facing into the flow leaving the hook in if you are unable to remove it whilst the barbel is in the water, until you are sure the barbel has been recovered enough for removal from the water. If removing the hook with the fish out of water put the fish back in the net straight away before any photo gear is  set up, do not set up whilst leaving the barbel out of the water, at best you will end up with a Barbel in dire trouble, at worst you’ll be taking a photo of a dead fish.

If you intend to take a photo, make sure you are completely set up, and fully the ready to take the photo before you remove the barbel from the water, if things go wrong -  having trouble with the camera etc, DO NOT RUSH AND PANIC, put the barbel back in the net, remember the barbel will come to no harm whilst it is in the net in this already recovered state, you can then sort your problem at leisure -NEVER leave the barbel on the mat whilst you are trying to sort your camera problem out,

In hot weather a barbel can go beyond the point of recovery in less than a minute out of water, and in these conditions especially if you are inexperienced in taking self shots, it would be wise to consider the wisdom of even attempting a photo, in 2006 – six Barbel that I know of died this way, and two more that were uncomfirmed on St Pats, whilst I realise this was not deliberate, it is not acceptable, and so easily in the majority of cases so easily avoidable.  

If I put my mind in top gear, I can have a barbel out of the water – in front of the camera – click – and back in the water inside 30 secs, and inside 45 without trying, that comes from experience, this kind of speed is not necessary in cooler weather, but well worth practising on occasion to keep your hand in.

A bit of forethought in the positioning of your camera set up, and a run through of your procedure in your minds eye, and you will learn it’s easily achievable.

Once the barbel is back in the net there is no set time for recovery – do not release the barbel unless you are sure it has fully recovered from the fight, and the period of time out of the water.

Ascertaining this is best done by watching its gills. If they are moving rapidly it is the equivalent of you struggling for breath after heavy exertion, when the barbels gills are moving slowly and rhythmically it has fully recovered and can be released, you will normally find the barbel will just glide off, when people say it powered off really strongly, in my opinion is a fish still in a state of panic, and easily capable of fooling you into thinking it has plenty of energy reserves, when in fact it hasn’t and may actually be dangerously exhausted, resulting in being unable to support itself a few seconds later, resulting in the barbel going into shock, once this happens unless re captured will almost certainly die, and may do so even then..

They are beautiful creatures worthy of our utmost respect given the liberty we take with them, lets make sure we all show them that, it’s not at all hard it’s just needs a bit of thought in advance, and you’ll quickly become accustomed, and proficient in the procedure with practice, it would be wise though to avoid self takes until that level of proficiency is attained.

Well good luck to you all, I hope this has given you a leg up, remember the most valuable lessons are those you learn yourself, get bout there and learn, and most importantly enjoy the process.

Tight lines

Ian Grant.