How To Fish The River Trent For Barbel In A Flood.

Water Water Everywhere.

For five days and five nights the rain beat constantly against our windows and doors.  In the village streets antiquated drainage systems struggled to cope with the deluge as water bubbled up from the drain covers and culverts.  Broad leafed tree branches windswept and laden with excess water bent and buckled beneath the strain of it all with some heavy boughs cracking beneath the unbearable weight.  Smoking chimney stacks stood drenched and stark against threatening thunderous skies as the persistent rain ran down off red pan tiled roofs adding to the watery mayhem below.  Small children pressed their noses up against window panes to watch the dancing waters outside.  Now was not the time for splashing about in puddles, it is time for warm fires and hot soup.  Rain, almost horizontal bounced off the pavement as passengers stepped from the bus after work. Their quick step some trotting pace will not prevent them receiving a soaking tonight as they make their way heads down towards home.

As the dim light begins to fade, a car drives out of a village side street with its powerful headlights piercing the wall of rain.  Turning the bend the four by four leaves the village in a plume of spray heading up hill through woodland and out onwards into the storm.  Throughout the long night heavy rainfall lashed down upon roof tops so fiercely that old cast iron gutters overflowed unable to cope.  In the surrounding countryside wildlife was weathering the storm the best way it could by abstaining from any activity tonight.  The church clock chimes twelve bells and the village sleeps.

There will be no sleep for me tonight and I am willingly glad of it.  I am far from home, sat in a field with heavy rain falling all around.  In front of me the river rages past.  It’s an angry maelstrom of dirty and unforgiving water that takes everything in its path.  Sleep is for those who crave it, warm and snug all is quiet apart from the sound of rain and the old Grand Father clock ticking in the hallway downstairs. This is my time to shine, my time to fish.   I have a date with fate and she waits for me.  Her dark shadow is near, holding station in slack water she watches the tempest roar past from her sanctuary.

She spots the bait as it hits the gravel bed and quivers with instinctive anticipation.  Dashing forwards the golden scaled torpedo seizes the bait then surges away.  She is alone in her element, I am alone in mine.                                 

The floodwater contest begins.                            

Visit almost any UK fishing website forum and it won’t be long before someone starts a thread about how to fish a river in flood.  One of the local rivers near to my home is the Trent which is the UK’s third longest river at 185 miles long.  The river Trent is fairly deep with an average depth of 7 feet in normal conditions, so when the river rises significantly in times of flood the river becomes an angry maelstrom of unstoppable water rushing towards the sea.  With recorded flood water levels reaching as high as 5.50 meters in some locations it’s easy to imagine the sheer volume of water flowing down the river in times of flood.  Persistent heavy rainfall turns the river into an angry mass of dirty brown water that picks up everything in its wake.  Just about every item imaginable will be carried off by this watery thief.  Down on the river bed a watery hurricane is rushing through turning over rocks and pebbles causing a blinding water storm as sand bars and gravel plateaus get swept away.   Out in the main flow nothing escapes the tempest as this once peaceful place is turned into catastrophic confusion. As the river begins to rise, all the fish and invertebrate life implement their age old contingency plans for survival amid the storm.

Some species of fish cease feeding in flood water conditions and are happy to sit out the raging flood waters in sanctuary that could be any place out of the maelstrom.  Others however welcome the arrival of floods so will capitalise on the bounty the floods offer in terms of food being readily available.  Many species of mollusc and invertebrate are being washed down stream having been dislodged from their homes by the powerful water.  Snails are being crushed by pebbles and rocks turning over in the powerful current so they provide a feast for fish that are lying in wait for them.  This is a time of plenty for fish that have learned to cope with extreme conditions and none can cope better than the barbel when it comes to riding the crest of a flood water tornado.

 Barbel In A Flood.

It is a mistake however to assume that these barbel will be out in the main flow during a flood because the water there is like a mammoth washing machine turning and churning brim full of debris and rubbish.  Below the weirs tons of sand and gravel is being lifted off the river bed rising to the surface to be perpetually deposited elsewhere.  When the air pressure drops, fish sense when big rain is coming so move to their flood water locations  because it’s within these areas that the barbel will weather the storm whilst capitalising on the natural feast which is about to arrive shortly.  Most typical flood water locations for barbel are actually dry land in normal conditions.  One such place could possibly be a gravel beach on the inside of a bend or a spit of dry land which will become flooded when heavy rain arrives but remaining out of the main flow come high water.  Anywhere that is out of the main flow but close enough to it so the barbel can wait on the edge of furious water to catch passing food will be home to barbel during a flood.  Out in the main body of the river, which is the centre of the floodwater storm, nothing will be feeding so will be devoid of fish.  In the margins however and especially in areas that were once dry land but now beneath water barbel will be feeding hard.  Successful flood water barbel fishing is dependent on one thing alone, “Location”.  Get this crucial aspect right and you can expect to enjoy the sport of Kings when the river is in full flood.

So given that barbel retreat to their flood water locations during times of heavy rainfall and high water levels, how does the intrepid angler go about finding where these flood water locations are?  In order to do that one will have to walk the river in normal conditions and normal levels to seek out all the likely areas that barbel will move towards in times of flood.  The first and most crucial thing to remember is that barbel “WILL NOT” be out in the main current when the river is dirty brown and breaching its banks.  Once you accept this basic principle barbel floodwater locations are fairly easy to find if you follow a few basic rules.  Barbel will want easy access to food during a flood.  Fish have instinct’s born from millions of years of experience so will know exactly where to be when the river is in flood.  The angler does not have the benefit of this experience so will have to rely on water craft in order to second guess where the fish will be heading for when high water arrives.   Walk the bank in normal conditions and note any dry land which will become flooded in high water.  If these spits of dry land once flooded are out of the main flow note them as they will almost certainly be favoured by barbel.  Look for headlands with dry land downstream of them in normal conditions.  Once flooded these sections could be out of the main floodwater flow if the headland upstream diverts the main current past the area creating a “slack” that fish can congregate at in times of flood.  Look at weir pools but more specifically the dry land which is directly adjacent to the weir itself.  During a high flood the river rises and floods into the fields adjacent to weirs very often spilling into surrounding meadows.  Out of the main flow with perhaps only two or three feet of water covering the field barbel will feast on worms and invertebrates that have come into these pools from the back flow of the flooded weir pool.  Estimate the rivers flow during a flood to ascertain where all the likely fish holding areas will be during a flood.  Look for areas of slack water within easy reach of the main flow where barbel can sit quite comfortably on the edge of fast water to be able to dash out and take food as it comes past then return to the slack water again thus preserving their energy.

What type of tackle does the angler require for river Trent flood water fishing?   In reality, even though the river is raging through, the flood water angler will be fishing in relatively calm water so there is no need for heavy leads or ultra-powerful fishing rods.  In fact, the tackle used for normal conditions remains the same for flood water fishing with perhaps the addition of an extra ounce of lead to compensate during a flood.  Once a barbel is hooked play it much the same as you would in normal conditions.

Seeing as the fish will be feeding in slack areas very close to the margins there is no need for rods above 1.75 test or leads above 3ozs.  For all of my river Trent flood water fishing I use 1.5 test 12 foot rods, 2-3oz leads and Shimano 4010 bait runner reels loaded with 8-10lb line.  My preferred flood water rig is my “Scorpion Tail Rig” described in the Methods and Tactics section with a 3ft hook length, running lead and funnel web PVA bag of pellets on the hook every cast.  This is a very simple method but absolutely deadly for Trent floodwater barbel fishing.

There is no need to apply lots of bait in the form of free offerings when flood water fishing.  Provided you have got the location right the barbel should be present in fairly large numbers with more than enough natural food to sustain them while the river remains in flood.  Like I said in the paragraph above I attach a small bag of funnel web wrapped pellets to the hook on every cast which ensures I have a cluster of bait around my hook bait.  I also tend to throw in a hand full of pellets with every fish caught just to keep the barbel interested in the bait.  Another amazing bait for flood water fishing is worm.  I use the worms I breed myself at home which are dendrobaenas.  (See my “Building a Fishing Wormery” in the Methods and Tactics Section for more information)  Worm is an instant bait and by “instant” I mean seconds after it hits the bottom in a lot of cases!  Large numbers of barbel present means that takes on worm will be fast and furious so keep hold of the rod at all times because barbel will pull a rod off rod rests and that might just be the last you see of your prized fishing rod if you don’t!  I generally find that when fishing with worm during flood conditions there is no need to introduce any free offerings at all simply because the fish will already be there feeding hard on natural food.  As such a single worm will be taken instantly with no suspicion aroused at all.

To give the reader some idea what a really good flood water barbel location is here are two examples based upon real locations that I regularly fish myself.

The first location is actually dry land in normal conditions.  It’s on the inside of a long slow bend being a gravel beach with a high bank of around seven feet to the rear about 20 feet back from the water’s edge.  In normal water levels the general area has a few barbel present but just as many chub so a mixed bag of the two species is to be expected.  When the river rises at the onset of a flood this beach disappears beneath the rising water to the extent where the high bank also disappears when the river is in full flood.  The water’s edge is now at the top of the high bank but 20 feet back from where the original water’s edge was in normal conditions.  In full flood the raging water comes around the long slow bend so that the fast flowing water is from bank to bank as it enters the straight where the gravel beach once was.  However, the river in the area of the gravel beach is now cut back 20 feet from the main flow so forms a “slack” out of the main current.  It is within this slack that the barbel will congregate in times of flood remaining out of the main flow but very close to it so the fish can pick out food items that are passing by.  They merely wait in the crease between fast and slack water.

The second location is the area below a headland or piece of land that extends out into the river upstream.  Below the extending piece of land the river is fairly shallow in normal conditions.  Anglers can sit at the edge but have to cast a fair way out to be in deeper water.  Behind the angler, a high bank rises up to around six feet and beyond this high bank there is a track and adjacent meadows.  Come heavy rainfall and floods the area where anglers normally sit to fish becomes flooded beneath six feet of water.  The high bank disappears and becomes the water’s edge downstream of the headland upstream.  The headland however which extends into the river upstream diverts the raging current so a large slack area forms a couple of rod lengths out from the high bank.  Here barbel congregate as the large slack provides sanctuary and easy access to passing food.  It was in this particular location that my youngest son Sam caught his 14lb barbel when he was only ten years old.  We were out flood water fishing together at night when this barbel took his ledgered bait.  Prior to his capture we had both caught quite a lot of barbel to just under ten pounds. A lot of these river Trent flood water locations are fairly big so hundreds of barbel will be present during high water.

The two examples above are just a sample of what type of locations to look for when flood water fishing on the river Trent for barbel.  Having said that, it’s also important to know exactly where to cast when fishing for barbel during a flood?  The fish will be sitting in the crease between fast flowing water and slacker water waiting for food to come past.  The fish will congregate out of the raging flow but just inside the slack area.  To determine exactly where this is the angler should cast a lead out in the area he/she thinks it is and put the rod in rests.  If the rod hoops over within a few seconds you have cast too far and weed and debris coming down the main flow has caught up in the line causing the rod tip to hoop over.  Reel in, clear the line of weed and debris and cast out again but this time closer to the bank.  Repeat this until the rod stops hooping over and the line remains weed free to determine where the crease between fast and slack water is.  Very often the angler will find that the crease will only be a rod length out or even less.  It is crucial to determine where the edge of this crease is because this is where the fish will be lying.  During a flood barbel will be feeding extremely hard on the natural abundance of food being brought to them by the current.  Therefore it is essential you present your bait in the same place that the fish are laying.

Every year since time began heavy rain has brought floods and catastrophic conditions to rivers and watery places.  If fish had not learned how to survive they would have been washed out to sea millions of years ago.  Knowing how river fish cope with flood water conditions is the secret to catching them consistently when the big rains arrive.  It always amazes me how few anglers there are out on the river bank when the river is in flood because flood water fishing is so productive for barbel during these conditions.

There is actually several stages attached to floodwater fishing along the Trent (equally so along other rivers as well) when the angler can capitalise on the prevalent water levels and conditions.  Learning what these are will enable the angler to catch more fish and master the elements of a rising river from the onset of heavy rain right through to the eventual run off when the river begins to revert back to normal when the rainfall ceases.

The Rising River.

The flood water angler needs to keep a close eye on the weather at all times during the river fishing season if he/she is to get the very best out of this particular style of fishing.  The first stage of any full blown flood is the rising river when water levels begin to creep up.  Barbel will have known for some while that heavy rain is on its way because like all fish they can detect changes in barometric pressure way before we humans can.  As such, they will have already begun their exodus from normal haunts moving towards shelter from the approaching storm.  If the angler is fishing a noted area for barbel in normal conditions it will be noticeable that catch rates start to taper off days before heavy rain actually arrives.   The fish are already on the move.

If the angler is fully aware of all the floodwater venues along his or her patch then good fishing can be had by moving with the fish into the floodwater areas.  To begin with the fish will be close by these areas but not actually in them because they have yet to fill up with rising water and become flooded.  But very good fishing can be experienced nearby especially if the water is fairly deep (7feet plus) as the barbel begin to congregate prior to heavy rain arriving.  During this stage I would fish normally for the barbel which would involve the use of free offerings.  This fishing stage can be fairly short lived and is dependent on how quickly the river is rising.  As the river rises and begins to become coloured the fish will move towards the sanctuary of the floodwater location.  As the river continues to rise and pick up current speed it will become dirty brown in colour.  At this stage the fish will cease feeding as they wait to move into their floodwater quarters which are already starting to fill up quickly.  Out in the main river rubbish and debris is starting to flow through so feeding has ceased completely there.

The Raging River.

The river is now in full flood and continuing to rise with more heavy rainfall predicted over the next several days.  The barbel have moved into their floodwater quarters and feeding begins in earnest.   Now they will feed ravenously and grow extremely fat in a very short space of time.  There are easy pickings for the shoals as the whole river becomes a barbel banquet.  If the river remains in this condition the barbel will not leave these sanctuaries and will continue to feed almost none stop only stopping for short periods to rest and digest.

Many river anglers stop fishing completely once a river goes into full flood which by and large is reasonable seeing as most fish species cease feeding once floods arrive.  Barbel however, are definitely the exception to any rules concerning floods as they feed extremely hard during these periods.

The Brim Full River.

All full blown floods have a “Brim Full” stage when as if by magic the river begins to slow right down.  Whilst it is perhaps still rising with water flowing out into the fields or into adjacent villages and riverside roads, the current slows and the river takes on a calmer appearance.  The reason for this is that the river and its tributaries have become so full the sheer volume of water is unable to disperse into the sea quick enough so the whole system begins to back up forcing the river to slow down.  It will also become noticeable that the river begins to lose some of its dirty brown colour and that debris and rubbish has slowed down as well.  In this stage the barbel will move out of their floodwater sanctuaries and begin to feed out in the main river for a while.  Feeding intensity will be less simply because the slowing river has also slowed down the amount of natural food being washed through.  Having said that, the sport will still remain very good.

The Run-Off River.

After a few hours the river will begin to run once again as the sea and its tides start to swallow up the fresh water entering it.  The barbel will return to their floodwater stations to ride out the rest of the storm and begin feeding again.  Much will depend on the weather and how much rain continues to fall.  If the rain stops completely the river will run off fairly quickly but if rain continues to fall heavily throughout the catchment system the river will remain in flood for as long as the heavy rain continues.

Eventually the rain will stop and the river will come back within its banks.  The river will begin to lose the dirty brown colour it has held for so long during the flood.  At this stage I cease fishing for barbel because the sport becomes very slow as the fish themselves cease feeding for a while as they begin their return journeys to their normal haunts.  Any fish caught now will be fat as barrels the end result of many days binge feeding.

Mind you, with the river beginning to lose its colour there are other fish just starting to feed ravenously.  Chub for instance have been in hiding right throughout the tempest so are very hungry so if you know any locations which contain huge chub now is the time to fish for them!

Floodwater Safety.

Make no mistake about it, floodwater kills.  Every year people are drowned in floods and the vast majority of these people are not anglers so given that anglers frequent watery places more than none anglers it makes sense to be prepared for the environment that the floodwater angler is to be fishing in.

A river completely changes it appearance during a flood, the higher the flood the bigger the changes.  River banks disappear as fields become flooded so it’s hard to tell exactly where the edge of the river is and more specifically where the shallower water in the fields meets the much deeper water of the main river.  Therefore it remains especially important that the angler acquaints him/herself with the river in normal conditions so as to establish certain safe perimeters during a flood.  High banks should be studied during normal river levels and any areas where the bank is undercut should be avoided once the river becomes flooded.  Get to know the adjacent fields and meadows intimately so you can determine where the deeper water is.  NEVER wade or attempt to wade in any river during a flood.  Just one foot of main flow flood water is deep enough to sweep an angler off his/her feet to run the very serious risk of being carried away into deeper water with dire consequences.  Always tell someone where you are going fishing and what time you intend returning.  If you can, fish with a friend.

Whilst floodwater fishing if you feel any situation or practise is dangerous then DON’T DO IT because it probably is!  As with any outdoor pursuit which involves an element of risk there is always danger.  The way to minimise the danger and possible risk is to apply common sense whilst doing your homework prior to going fishing in a flood.  Walk the area in normal conditions and study the river banks and adjacent fields.  Make notes and take photographs so you know the particular area intimately.  This will not only help you catch more fish, it will help keep you safe as well.  No amount of fishing is worth dying for.  Stay safe.

In Conclusion.

The river Trent is a large river and locating big barbel consistently is no easy task.  Indeed when the river is at its normal level it is nigh on impossible.  Barbel in smaller rivers tend to be more localised so are fairly easy to find but with a big river such as the Trent, the barbel live a very nomadic life so the big fish tend to wander a fair bit over a territory that covers many miles.

However, I have found big barbel are far easier to locate during a flood because they tend to congregate in specific locations often in great numbers.  Time and again I have found this to be true so much so that I can confidentially predict double figure fish are definitely on the cards when I take anglers on their first floodwater adventures along the river Trent.