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Targeting Bigger Barbel

by Ian Grant

The Beginning

There was a time when I thought that deliberately targeting big Barbel, and by that I mean fish into of double figures, with any degree of certainty was an impossible task, and dismissed it as a waste of time. However as time passed, and always seeking new challenges, my thoughts once again returned to the subject with renewed interest. I suppose it was reading articles in the monthly magazines notably articles from a few writers that always hold my interest that fired me up.

Over the years I’ve rubbed shoulders with some excellent anglers, from whom I’ve learnt a lot. That’s not to say that I copy their tactics, on the contrary in many ways we differ considerably in our approaches, the invaluable lessons I learnt from them, was how to think about my fishing, the consequences of what I was doing, and above all the patience to evaluate my results.

When first setting this challenge for myself, which I suppose was around 1995/6, I found it difficult, in fact very difficult, spending long hours failing to hit my target, catching plenty of barbel, but that double was maddeningly elusive. Now and again I came close with 9lbers, but I wasn’t consistently catching those either, at times my old belief that I was wasting my time came to mind, but still I persevered.

At the Start of the 1997/8 season though I had been fishing the river Kennet, I decided to expand my fishing in Berkshire, which I knew had Some excellent barbel waters for me to explore. I had decided to re evaluate my approach, and fish one swim only, for at least several sessions, my idea being if I couldn’t find them, I’d try letting them find me!

Where before I had used many different baits, my method of baiting was to bait when I fished, and afterwards solely with mincemeat and hemp or mashed meat with hemp – spiced up, and spicy luncheon meat on the hook. It was on St Patricks Stream at Charvil in September 1997 that success finally came.

It was a very damp sultry autumn evening, that just screamed barbel at me, casting out before dark, after baiting the swim, I settled back to take in the atmosphere, I was loving every minute of that gorgeous evening. When the rod hooped over I was well into a daydream, I Immediately knew this was something better than I’d ever hooked previously, after a hard fight she was on the bank all 11lb 9oz of her, and I was ecstatic to say the least. Was this just a lucky capture though ? I decided the only way to find out was to repeat the tactic in different swims. So I’d target a swim, often being thwarted by finding another angler fishing in the swim I was targeting, but still the doubles started coming.

I came to realise that my biggest mistake had been flitting from river to river, venue to venue, and using just about every bait under the sun were the biggest factors in my failure to consistently catch double figure barbel. After some success using meat, I decided to change my bait, It was around 1999 that I started to use boilies as I had been with carp fishing, hoping it may improve my catch rate further, over the course of that season I think I must have tried every flavour going…. result – though I was still catching barbel my catches of doubles stopped, I had fallen well and truly into the bait trap!

So in frustration I went back to my old favourite spicy meat in 2000, used in the way that had caught me my first double nearly 3 years earlier, with almost immediate improvement. It wasn’t long before a new personal best was on the bank 12lb 8oz from the River Loddon, which by now had become my favourite river haunt. Still I wondered how I could improve my catches of doubles, and in truth the answer to that question I’ll never stop looking for.

Eventually I went back to boilies, in 2002 I started to experiment with my own base mixes, with some fairly good results but still chopping and changing, and really still in that bait trap! Rescue eventually came when I met a chap on the bank who was to become a very good friend, and who put me onto HNV baits which changed my style of fishing for barbel forever.

After about 12 years now targeting big barbel, I’m still learning, and that is what I really enjoy, the day I feel I’ve stopped or can’t learn anymore will be the day I give up and turn my attention elsewhere – fishing or not, as it is the learning curve that feeds my interest without it there is no interest for me.

My Way

There are many ways of skinning the cat as the old saying goes, the methods I use are only one way, and many specimen Barbel anglers may disagree with my methods, and I theirs.

What I’ve come to realise is that one of the essential ingredients of success ( or what I consider success ) is that I or any individual specimen angler have to be confident with the way we fish, belief in the way you fish is paramount to success, without it you are lost.

One thing I avoid is pressured stretches of river, unfortunately the presence of big fish – the very thing I’m trying to catch brings with it hoards of fish chasers, so unless I find a big one that nobody knows is present in a stretch I’m fishing, I have to accept that the biggest may always remain unattainable, so I content myself with catching the biggest I can find, whilst keeping true to the ideals of fishing the way I like it, not necessarily in solitude, but able to roam and choose where I fish, to sacrifice that would destroy my enjoyment, making it all pointless, and is primarily the reason I’ve come to love fishing the River Loddon so much.


I am of the opinion that it is not so much the bait itself but the way it is applied that is the key to success in consistently catching double figure barbel, that’s assuming they are present in the first place. Having said that I also believe that a quality bait will always out fish an inferior bait, IF APPLIED CORRECTLY.

e off sessions on different rivers, stretches, or even different swims, and constantly chopping and changing your bait you stand no more chance of catching that big one than any other angler fishing the venue( watercraft accepted ) relying on luck especially if there are large numbers of smaller fish present.

In my opinion it is vital to find quality bait and stick to it, to the exclusion of all others, a little tweak here or there fine, but essentially the bait itself should not alter. It is sticking to one quality bait (and the permutations are endless) and the regular application of it into a chosen target area, are the major factors in consistently catching your target.

It has been some years now since I have used meat, having been shown the benefits of HNV baits, it was on the advice of a very good friend spoken of earlier that I started using these baits. Getting the best from HNV baits in my opinion means baiting very little and as often as you can, NEVER give them enough to fill them up, but keep it going in. Applied correctly your catches will take off and you’ll never look back.

Regarding the bait itself the factors the specimen barbel angler needs to consider most are as follows :

Nutritional quality, – a protein level in excess of 70%, and a level of fat (lipid ) of 5 – 9 %, to ensure this in my opinion you are far better to design your own bait, as you know exactly what’s in it.

Proteins are used by all living creatures, and are essential for bone growth, and tissue regeneration. Fats, are used for energy, though too much will be stored and will make a fish fat, which may be viewed as a good thing by some anglers, but may not be healthy for the fish.

A balanced profile of amino acids which are derived from the protein profile, and minerals are essential for the general well being of the fish, being used to promote growth, and a healthy digestive, and immune system, amongst other benefits too numerous to list here.

A high level of digestibility will also improve the long term effectiveness of your bait.

With a bait that has a good nutritional profile the barbel will keep coming back for more, I believe fish given time are somehow capable of recognising a food that is extremely beneficial, and will want more and more. Personally I steer clear of powerful artificial flavours, a good food bait doesn’t need them, and will I believe eventually become a danger signal to the barbel.

Secondly ….the individuality of the bait is especially important when others are fishing the venue, as they will be in almost all cases. This is of paramount importance, as will be seen in the next section when I’ll talk about bait application.


Is probably the hardest part of all in targeting big barbel, it can be very….. difficult, frustrating, maddening, all those words spring to mind and a few I can’t put into print!! , it’s certainly time consuming, but without doubt to my mind very rewarding.

Bait application in the context of a big barbel ‘campaign’ is when without doubt you will learn most about your quarry, their habits, and the environment they prefer.

Again as with the subject of bait itself, it would be easy to devote a long article to this subject alone, and surely is the one area of discussion amongst barbel specialists that provokes the most, and at times venomous disagreement. Living in east Berkshire I’m spoilt for choice for places to fish for barbel, In past years the river Colne and Kennet were my favourite haunts, and may be again one day, but with so much quality barbel water on the Loddon I’m happy enough.

My approach targeting bigger barbel, has without doubt evolved over the years, and differs from venue to venue, mostly dependant on the pressure on the water, what I will describe here is a broad evaluation of my methods.

When I choose a venue to fish, I do so with at least several weeks of single mindedly fishing that venue in mind, what will influence me largely is the frequency it’s fished by other anglers, venues that are very busy in summer can become much less so in winter, and those which see few anglers in summer can become almost deserted in winter.

When first considering a new swim to fish – or one I haven’t fished for a while, I first visit the swim to bait as many times as possible for at least a week, and often two, prior to fishing, This realistically is about 2 or 3 times a week, more if I can do it, but often less when commitments of work and family dictate.

The fish though will still respond to less regular baiting, but it may take a little longer, it very much depends I believe on the resident number of fish, which will likely eat your bait – not just barbel and whether I have been fishing the venue regularly. I usually bait with about a handful 12mm broken boilies, but again the amount is dependant on the number fish resident, now I’ll explain something which some may think crazy! Dependant on the population of fish present – not just barbel as I’ve said will dictate how much and how often I bait, and how long I will continue baiting before fishing the swim.

The crazy bit, ….. The more fish that are present the less bait I will introduce on any given day, but if I can I’ll bait more often, and obviously commitments will dictate whether I think the swim or the venue for that matter is worth fishing at all.

Putting large amounts of bait into a highly populated area of river will only see more and more fish become attracted to the swim you are baiting, and feasibly overwhelm even the biggest barbel, by introducing small amounts, of high quality bait, the bigger barbel will eventually, recognise the regular high quality food source and assert their dominance, this is the law of the wild, the biggest and most dominant will always dominate the best food whether this be fish or any other animal.

If I’m fairly confident the swim will likely not be fished by others, I’ll concentrate my baiting solely in that swim. I will then fish that swim after maybe 5 or 6 baiting applications if I can manage it, normally at the weekend, but sometimes on a weekday evening. Only when considering a change of venue will I bait with this frequency before I fish, any swim on a venue which I’m currently fishing will usually see me bait only 2 or 3 times maximum prior to fishing. However even this frequency doesn’t become too necessary if I’ve been fishing the venue regularly and particularly if fishing the same swim.

The longer the swim can be left without fishing the better, this will give any big barbel in the vicinity time to find the baited spot, because without doubt usually the more numerous smaller barbel, and other fish will find it first. This situation can be used to the anglers advantage, firstly because the bigger cuter barbel will see the smaller fish feeding freely without being caught, and big barbel will be no stranger to an anglers hook, gaining the barbels confidence is vital to consistent results, or you’ll be relying on chance to hook one, no matter how good your bait is.

Once confident that the food source is safe the bigger barbel will muscle in and eventually assert total dominance over the feeding area. Except for carp which if present, other than very large numbers of smaller fish will be their only serious rival for a regular food source.

With initial baiting visits it’s ok to put a larger bed of bait down, If I do this I usually bait with about two handfuls of broken bolies, and hemp sometimes including the old favourite mincemeat, which will attract all fish as well as the smaller barbel, which is desirable in the first instance but I do not want to catch them. If you fish at this point it will be those smaller fish – chub as well, that you will catch, dramatically decreasing your chances of that big one.

What is vitally important that this level of feeding is not continued for more that 3 visits maximum, after that the bait must be reduced to just the sprinkling of about a dozen broken baits, but doesn’t have to be boilies, and the longer this baiting continues, and allowing the fish to feed without being disturbed or more importantly caught the better.

By narrowing the feed down to a very small amount ( this depends on how many visits I can make per week ) it ensures that there is not enough feed to support many barbel feeding but still enough to attract the big barbel with regular baiting, which after a time it will come to regard as its regular dinner table.

Hopefully the bigger barbel will stay close to what it has come to realise is a regular supply of quality food, and will bully any smaller barbel or fish away from the area especially with so little available, possibly even when there is no food present, and it’s this natural dominance that we can use to our advantage and substantially load the odds of it’s capture in our favour, this is basically the key to my method of fishing for big barbel.

Once again I must stress too much bait will encourage smaller fish to feed in the targeted swim, which the big barbel may well allow if there is enough feed to satisfy itself and go round, remember the big barbel will still be eating it’s natural food too, by applying a quality bait in small quantities the bigger barbel will always be hungry and willing to feed, and looking for more, if there is only enough for him or more probably her! it will not allow smaller fish to feed, this situation can only be achieved with a good quality bait, and regular and minimal pre baiting.

Deciding when to fish, is dependant on how soon the swim would likely be fished by another angler, but to offset that likelihood is the importance of the individuality, and the quality of the bait. To ensure the Barbel comes to your bait you have to offer something that bit different, something that will stand out in the crowd, and that it will instantly recognise, but never be tempted to over flavour your bait to achieve this. Using say a fishmeal pellet you may even be using exactly the same brand as the angler fishing a few swims away, result – there’s every chance it’ll pick his bait not yours!

Still the risk of leaving the swim unfished for too long increases the risk of another angler fishing the swim, and catching the fish you’ve worked so hard for. When to decide to fish the swim can only come with knowledge of the venue. I would recommend you find a venue you can visit regularly, pick one or two swims that using your experience contain barbel, and hopefully big barbel. As the weeks pass, you can move up and down the stretch, repeating the process.

Try the methods I’ve described, but give it time to perfect your own approach, big barbel are fickle creatures, and the best piece of advice I can give you is nothing is ever written in stone.

There are many things to consider besides bait, and it’s application, location, tackle and it’s use in certain conditions, and how your approach may differ according to conditions, low water clear water, cold water, coloured water, flood water, upstreaming, downstreaming, it goes on and on and learning is in my opinion the whole point of it all.

I will say this, – you must do everything in your power not to spook the Barbel.

As I’ve said, and as you well know big Barbel are no strangers to an anglers hook, Personally I don’t use feeders now at all, the continual bombardment is a sure fire way to a blank, when you might just have that one fish in your swim, employ extreme caution on the bank, lights, heavy footfalls etc should all be avoided, to get so far and achieve your goal of getting one barbel to dominate the swim, and then fluff it right at the last…. Arrrgh!!


My way is only one way, it works for me, with experience gained over hundreds of barbel captures. No doubt others going down this road will find their own way, in fact they surely will, rarely will you find 2 specimen anglers who fish or apply their bait in the same way, there will be many similarities for sure, but factored into the equation are many variables, the biggest of all these considerations is the distance that the angler lives from his chosen river.

This dictates considering family and work commitments how often the angler can visit the river, to bait, observe, and of course fish, and ultimately dictates his style of fishing. Many anglers despite this are very successful in their pursuit of big barbel, proving there is no all superior method to catching big barbel or even just average barbel, the secret of success in my opinion is perfecting the approach that suits your situation.

Have you got what it takes? In my opinion the most successful specimen anglers regardless of species have one glaringly obvious attribute – patience, it is the one ingredient that is vital for all specimen anglers, some call it controlled impatience, call it what you like, but those that have it will know what I mean!!

What I’ve described here especially in the bait application section is how it all comes together in an ideal world, but rarely will you experience a situation where everything is ideal, and sometimes nothing. There are many things to go wrong, other anglers, weather etc, but when you’ve put in so much effort and a spanner gets thrown in the works, You just have to pick yourself up dust yourself off and start all over again, when you can do that you can say you’ve got what it takes!

Remember it’s not necessarily about catching the very biggest, to do that you have to fish where the very biggest are, along with a multitude of other anglers chasing that fish …. Not for me, catching the biggest I can find is to me an equally if not more worthy challenge.

Tight lines to you all wherever you are and whatever you fish for, and I hope one day soon will bring the fish of your dreams!

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