Tales of the Riverbank.

The start of the river season passed me by this year perhaps for the first time in my angling life.  In all the years that I can remember I have always fished on the glorious 16th with many seasons starting at the stroke of midnight with ceremonial casts made into pond, river, or lake.  Now days of course the 16th is limited to the rivers closed season as it’s possible to fish still waters and canals almost right throughout the year.  Personally I think the relaxation of the closed season took an element of magic away from the coarse angler if only from a personal nostalgic point of view.  I actually miss the build-up to a new season akin to the old days when plans were carefully laid to outwit the new seasons tench or carp.  And there really is nothing quite like being at the water’s edge at dawn on the 16th watching those tench bubbles fizz along the side of lily pads whilst you tackle up.

 They say that time spent angling is not deducted from one’s life span.    Sadly this is not the case as the extent to ones mortality depends on two things, family genes or just being a lucky fellow!!!  It’s a very nice notion though to assume that all the dreamy hours spent in watery places will extend one’s life because if it did, I would live to be a thousand years old!!   If nothing else it has certainly extended my enjoyment of life amid watery places.  I’m really blessed by the fact of having witnessed so many sunrises and sunsets whilst  fishing beneath more starry nights than I care to remember.  No, that’s not quite true because I CAN remember them all and what a magnificent experience it has been so far.

There were various reasons behind my abstinence from fishing this season.  Building a business takes time and effort so this was always going to mean I would have to forego my addiction for angling temporarily.  Then there are my many other interests such as gardening, water colour painting, photography, wildlife, eating out, weekends away and just spending time enjoying life.  Also there was the exceptional summer we have just experienced.  I’m not a dyed in the wool summer angler once the weather begins to grow very hot.  The hotter it gets the less the fish feed so I have always thought it was a waste of time spending hour after hour trying to temp fish to bite that just weren’t interested in feeding in the sweltering heat.   And in truth, I feel far more comfortable fishing in the autumn and winter than I ever did in the summer.  Plus an added bonus to my seasonal preference is the fact that fish are mostly larger and in better condition later on in the season.

The Addiction Returns.

The weather vane high on the roof of my house swung around.  Times were  changing as the tin angler’s rod pointed towards the South West heralding the arrival of the south westerly’s and the prospect of rain. Leaves that are changing colour to golden yellow have begun their migration to the four winds once again as an Indian summer grips the countryside with pleasingly warm days and chilled clear starry nights.  Near perfect fishing conditions begin to swirl on the distant horizons.  It won’t be long now before the huge skeins of geese begin to arrive from their breeding grounds in the north to over winter here in the UK.  The harvest is over with all the crops weighed and counted.  This is a time of plenty when natures storehouse is full, but it is also a time for taking stock and planning for the colder months ahead.  Soon the north winds will begin to blow bringing with them the chill of winter.

Willow branches shake and shiver as the westerly wind blows along the Trent valley sending swathes of ripples up river.  Change has come to the valley.   Wild creatures, seeking to build up their winter fat reserves begin to eat ravenously.  Down on the river bed fish are busy doing the same.  Huge shoals of roach sift through the invertebrate home amongst the pebbles and stones, their ruby red tails wafting above the clouds of silt.   Shadowy figures merge against the gravel floor as sunlight illuminates their golden scaled bodies.  Their large pink coloured pectoral fins and torpedo shaped bodies identify the barbel to the trained eye.  Barbel are the Cheetahs of the river world capable of tremendous bursts of speed and power especially when caught.   Sleek and muscular,  the barbel never fail to disappoint once hooked.  It is for these attributes that UK river coarse angler seek them out perhaps above all other fish.

Tales of the Riverbank.  The Barbel Fishing Stories.


River Trent levels at Colwick.


3/10/2013 is 1.10 mtrs (low for the time of year but rain fell yesterday with more forecast later on today and overnight.  Check levels later.  Good chance of river rising enough to put colour in the river making the chances of fishing better.  With rain petering out overnight through Thursday/Friday and little rain forecast for the next few days the optimum time to fish will be Friday/Saturday)


Opening the pages of my fishing diary and blowing off the dust, I made that entry above several weeks or so ago.  The diary had been collecting dust for many months with more dust sitting on my rods perfectly lined up like sleeping sentries in their rack on the tackle room wall.  A fishing book with its pages still open lay on my desk reminding me of the time I took it down from the book shelf to read one rainy day last spring.  All of my angling goods and chattels were there where I’d left them, patiently waiting for their master to return so we could embark on our adventures once again.   Like a fast rising river the compulsion to go fishing had returned.  So like the sorcerer’s apprentice, wide eyed and full of expectation, I opened up tackle boxes and began to weave my fish catching spells.

As always, methods and tactics would be simple but effective and my fishing rigs would mirror this simplistic route.  I would start off with hair rigged 15mm fish meal boilees in my own Belacan bait soak with a Belacan (Fermented shrimp) paste wrap and funnel web PVA bag of pellets cast out on the hook.  The hooks were to be size 6 boilee hooks with long 4-5ft hook lengths due to the clear river conditions.  Semi fixed 2 or 3oz leads on a lead core short leader completed the rig.   I would introduce a few 8mm Skretting pellets as ground bait then fish the rig on top of that.  Nice and simple just the way I like things.  My plan is to fish unpopular areas as opposed to the busy barbel fishing venues.  I don’t like crowds at the best of times but there is a certain amount of logic behind my strategy.  For one, the popular areas have been fished to death so if there “were” any monster sized barbel present in these locations they would have been caught by now so would be miles away?  Yes there are indeed some very big fish in these areas but monsters?  Another basis for my locational strategy relies on simple mathematics.  If I’m the only specialist angler fishing for barbel at my chosen locations then the chances of me catching any monster barbel that “might” be present are increased simply because I’m the only one there.   Actually getting these monster fish to come to the contest relies on my power to cast spells.  Or put another way the amount of my own experience I can conjure up so the overall plan works!  Of course as in everything with angling, lady luck will also have to smile down on me from the heavens as well.

First Casts.

The alarm went off at 4.30am but I’d been awake an hour before that restless with the thought of big fish on my mind.  We’ve all been there.  Fully grown men looking after our families, making all the grown up decisions until it’s time to go fishing when we turn into ten year olds again.  So there I was at 3.30 in the morning, wide awake turning over and over kidding myself I’d got an hour of sleep left.  58 years of age and I had not progressed inside my head one week since I had quietly lifted the gate latch before peddling off at dawn down the lane  to go fishing as a ten year old.  All the same sounds and smells greeted me as I loaded the car up to go fishing.  Years had passed but I still feel exactly the same way as I did back then.  The thought of going fishing and catching fish still grips me perhaps even more than it ever did.

It was still dark when I arrived at the river.  Getting out my car I could hear the tawny owls calling to each other in the wood on the far bank.  The lane was quiet and it would be some time before the commuters rose to face another working day.  I really like the quiet of the night or the prelude to a new day.  There is something almost celestial within the quiet and freshness of it all.   We anglers are so lucky to be inflicted with the passion because we see so much when so many others see so little.   If God himself were to ever visit the earth in human form then surely dawn at the river’s edge with rolling mist all around would set the scene perfectly.

Made up folded rods were lifted over the five bar gate and leant to one side whilst my chair and bait bucket were gingerly lowered down to rest upon the ground.  With my rucksack on my back I climbed over the gate into the dewy covered field.  Heading off towards the river the resting cattle never stirred as I walked through them.  I could see the calm river shimmering glass like in the distance whilst over on the distant horizon the first signs of light were beginning to creep up into the morning sky.   In the dim light I could see that flocks of black headed gulls were already on the move flying up river quarrelling amongst themselves as they flew.  Their heads were not yet black at all as that colouration comes later on in the winter and even then it’s not strictly black but a deep brown colour.

After a walk of nearly half a mile I settled in the pitch I was heading for.   Most people would pass this pitch by as it doesn’t appear to have any of the traditional features that barbel anglers look for.  The first feature in this pitch, indeed the whole stretch is you won’t find any other barbel anglers there as I’m the only one who fishes for barbel at this location to my knowledge.  It’s just another stretch along the Trent that no one fishes because it’s a fairly long walk from the car.  The pace of the river is not that quick seeing as the location sits within a long glide.  Nor are there any overhanging trees or visible features that denote it would hold good populations of barbel.   In fact, most average Trent anglers would assume this particular stretch would be more likely to hold large numbers of bream and they’d be right because huge shoals of bream do actually live there.  So why would a barbel angler like myself be so drawn to the area?  It’s because I’ve done my homework and know for certain there are hidden features below the rivers surface that scream Trent barbel to me.

One of the major features is the huge snag that lays in deep water mid river.  This was once a large bough from a tree growing up river that fell into the river one stormy night which then flowed downstream in a flood to become stuck fast in the deep trough situated midstream.  I had found this deeper trough a few years ago but it is only fairly recently, three years ago in fact, that this large bough ended up stuck in 12 feet of water.   The passage of time has decorated this bough with other branches, plastic debris, grass and weed which has become festooned on the sunken bough’s stark branches which in effect have created a feature loved by all fish, especially barbel.  The river here is full of cabbages and is also very rich in natural food so is capable of supporting large numbers of fish.  With fish recruitment being very high along this part of the river there is always an abundance of fry and fish fry is a food source that many anglers over look when considering the location of big fish.  Reliance on whispered grape vine locations is never enough if the river specialist angler wants to catch bigger fish and there is absolutely no substitution for finding  locations and features like this yourself.

The pedigree of this particular stretch is remarkable because it’s one of those river Trent locations where big fish appear to “move into” once they achieve a certain size.   I hold the belief that most larger Trent barbel settle in certain areas where good cover is available and food is easy to find.  Those are the two major things I look for when searching out new areas to fish for barbel.   Why do I constantly look for new areas?  Because a big river like the Trent is a dynamic force of moving water where the topography of the river bed can change completely in a few short hours.  And once these changes occur whole swathes of fish react to these changes which can very often cause the fish to move area completely.  This is why the angler seeking to catch big barbel consistently looks for these changes occurring.  There will be more on this in an article later on.

First Casts. It Begins Again.

The sun had not yet risen but the light generated by its forthcoming appearance ran on before banishing shadows so I could begin to make out the surrounding countryside.  The dawn chorus is muted now being limited to the shouts and calls from individual voices and not that of the whole choir in the case of the summer cacophony when all birds burst into dawn song at the same time.  The harsher calls from the jackdaw and crow replace the sweet song of the warbler, thrush and blackbird as we enter the autumn period.  The river was low and running clear so special tactics would be required to match such conditions if I was going to catch fish.  In clear water, long hook lengths are required in order to keep the lead and mainline as far away from the hook bait as possible.  Fish have binocular vision so presentation is of prime importance in clear conditions.  How long is long?  Four or five feet is my norm in such conditions.  Like all of my rigs I keep things very simple.  A 2 ounce running/semi fixed lead runs via attachment with a quick release clip to a big eyed swivel.  A big eyed swivel has a larger eye and normal sized eye.  A number 8 rolling swivel separates the mainline from the hook length with a rubber bead above the swivel on the main line to protect the knot from the running lead.  The hook is a number 6 boilee hook by Drennan with a hair via a knotless knot then a 15mm boilee attached.  I then apply a paste wrap and attach a small bag of funnel web pellets to the hook every cast to ensure I have a cluster of bait directly around my hook bait.  If I were fishing fast water where the predominant species would be barbel my choice of bait would be worms but seeing as there is a big population of bream and roach in this location worm would attract too many of the fish species I don’t want to catch in this session.  Having said that, an 8 ounce roach is fully capable of picking up a 15mm boilee so there is never any perfect safeguards against catching smaller fish when seeking to catch their larger cousins.

With low clear water conditions I decided to fish two rods to maximise my chances.  One was fished fairly close in at around three rod lengths out over a small bed of bait (two-three pouches of pellets) with the other fished mid river with only the bagged pellets on the hook for extra attraction.  I was cast out and settled in no time at all so with a hot cup of tea in hand my attention turned towards the wildlife and watching the sun rise in the distant horizon.

Cock pheasants were coming down out of their night time roosts like they always do, noisily alerting every predator for miles around as they chuck chucked their way to the ground in a frenzy of beating wings.  Skeins of Canada geese were air born flying up river low and determined heading out towards favoured feeding grounds earning the local farmers displeasure no doubt.  The shrill pip-pip from the kingfisher is the signal he is about before a whirring blur of cobalt blue is seen dashing past at the foot of marginal reed mace.  Male kingfishers have beaks that are completely black whilst the females have an orange lower mandible to their beaks.  The geese were not the only birds flying up river in skein formation.  Cormorants were also on route to their preferred feeding grounds flying in skein formation which is not a common sight along the Trent as they normally fly and hunt as solitary individuals. These birds were probably heading towards the weir pools where pickings are easier.   With a breeze starting to blow in from the south west causing fresh ripples to form on the previously calm rivers surface, I had my first fish.

The rod tip nodded ever so slightly in what could only be described as a series of very light pulls.  I rose to my feet knowing that this was not a big fish as it was clearly struggling to move the 2 ounce lead.  It was a roach of perhaps 8 ounces in perfect condition. Quality roach always gladdens the angler’s heart as they are a truly pretty fish and highly prized by specialist anglers who are hoping to catch fish in the 2lb plus bracket.  Once the little fish was released the rod was re-baited and cast back out.  It had only been out perhaps ten minutes when the unmistakable sign of a barbel attack was registered on the rod tip.  Pulling down violently the rod developed a severe bend half its length whilst the bait runner reel screamed as the fish took line from the spool.  This was definitely a barbel and as I set the hook with a sweeping backwards movement of the rod I knew it felt like a good fish.

Now barbel can be notoriously hard to size when the angler first hooks one because they are so powerful even a three pounder can fight like a tiger giving the impression it’s a lot bigger than it really is when it first surges away.  However, the experienced barbel angler will gauge the fish’s size by the type of run and how the fish holds the bottom during the fight.  The bigger the fish the more it will hold bottom using its massive pectoral fins to aid its submerged status.  Try and get the fish up too quickly and the angler will more often than not lose the fish to a break in the tackle.  Barbel need to be allowed to run first otherwise even the stoutest tackle will be broken by these run a way trains.  Make no mistake; pound for pound these are probably the hardest fighting freshwater river fish there is.  And with ten pound line singing in the rings of my rod that was bent over double, I knew that this was a good fish.  The fight was typical for the species being a series of deeply made powerful runs before the fish finally tired coming up into the surface layers of the river.  I have a purpose made landing net for Trent barbel which consists of a telescopic pole with spreader block and specimen sized landing net with 36 inch arms.  The size of the net is required for the size of the barbel in the Trent and for the occasional accidental capture of some of the huge carp that are resident in the river.  The telescopic pole is an adaption for flood water when a really long reach with the net can be a definite advantage when bringing in big fish during flood water conditions.  I keep the pole closed via a cord attached to the bottom of the net that goes into a quick release clip attached to a cord on the handle.  When I need to net a fish I simply press the release clip with my free hand and whip out the pole so it extends fully.

The really exciting thing about catching big fish are those first glimpses when the fish rises up in the water enough so you can see its shape and size.  This was certainly a good fish and I estimated its size from those first glimpses as being a double.  This means it was over ten pounds qualifying for a bench mark standard in barbel fishing terms where all fish over ten pounds hold the esteemed title of being a “double”.  Eventually the fish tired and I was able to draw it towards my landing net.  On the bank it was weighed 11lbs 8 ozs and I was made up!  My first trip fishing for barbel this season and the first fish is a double.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  The weigh sling I use also doubles up as a retention sack so I retained the fish in the water whilst I set up my camera to take a couple of catch shots.  Later on in another article I will be writing a little bit about basic catch shot photography going over a little bit about cameras and how to take photographs on your own using a few attachments for the camera that can fit in your pocket.  So with my fish photographed it was time to return her back to her watery home.

Barbel like I said are an extremely hard fighting fish, but they can become exhausted as they put everything into their sporting performance.  Therefore it is essential that this magnificent fish be treated with care once caught so they can be returned back into the river in good health to fight another day.   I have my own tried and tested methods of handling barbel once caught which is based upon a life time’s experience of catching them.  The novice barbel angler might like to go here and read the Barbel Societies Handling Code which has become the standard that all barbel specialist anglers adhere to.  As well as the Code itself there is an article written by Jon Berry on how to handle barbel plus a video you can watch on this important subject as well.

“The wild life of today is not ours to dispose of as we please. We have it in trust and must account for it to those who come after.” 
–King George VI of England 

Barbel Society Handling Code.

It wasn’t long before I caught another fish.  Not a barbel this time but a passing bream that was one of the many thousands of bream that live along the river Trent.  I have known days and nights whilst out barbel fishing when I caught well in excess of 100lbs of bream there were so many.   Whilst I really don’t want to be catching bream when barbel fishing, that’s the price I sometimes have to pay simply because big Trent barbel live alongside bream shoals most of the time.  Especially so along the stretches that I fish.

The day wore on with the weather a mix of overcast clouds with bright sunny periods in between.  Over on the far side of the river four buzzards were circling whilst attracting the attention of several crows that began to mob them.  Crows are capable of inflicting severe damage to buzzards but mostly the buzzards take these threats in their stride by out manoeuvring the black bullies with superior flying skills or dropping down into the trees where the crows are loath to get too close.  Not long ago I watched a peregrine falcon that was perched on a finial high up on a local village church steeple when a crow began to mob it.  The peregrine just watched and waited appearing to be very unimpressed at the crows attempt to intimidate her.  The crow kept on making offensive dives towards the perched falcon when all of a sudden she left her perch and grabbed the crow with one of her powerful talons.  Round and round the spire she flew with the crow in her grip as the crow shouted and screamed in frightened protest.  After several flights around the steeple the peregrine let go of the crow which flew off at a rate of knots squawking as it went. That crow was probably the luckiest bird in the parish that week.  I now watch peregrines quite a lot in and around my village as they have become a familiar sight.

Nothing further happened for a while and I spent my time whilst waiting for another bite either re-baiting my rods or watching the wildlife.  When the conditions are poor I like to re-bait around every 30 minutes because I’m certain the fish are taking the free bait but are perhaps leaving the hook bait as they have sussed it out in such clear water conditions.  The tactic behind the 30 minute re-baits is to keep the bait going in but in small enough quantities as to not over feed them but regular enough so they might make a mistake and eventually pick up the hook bait.  Mostly this tactic works but it can take time so the fishing can be very slow.  Come nightfall when the fish loose a high degree of their effective vision it becomes a totally different ball game when the barbel can often appear to “blunder” into the baits as fish after fish get caught.  Having said that, my experience now a days is to fish during the daylight hours as this seems to produce the bigger fish.  One of the “disadvantages” of trying to catch big barbel in the Trent is the sheer numbers of barbel present in the river today.  With so many smaller fish all feeding ravenously during the night it becomes a lot harder wading through them to eventually get a big fish to pick up your bait.  Plus the bigger fish get more selective via experience so don’t have to compete with hoards of smaller fish that swim in big shoals feeding at night.  It’s a tactic that I’m finding works when trying to seek out the bigger fish.

The rods eventually hooped over three more times that afternoon resulting in two barbel caught with another taking the hook length over some sharp flints causing a break.  The two barbel that I caught were decent sized fish of 6lbs 5ozs and 8lbs 12ozs.  Both of these fish were photographed on the ground simply to keep a photographical record of the various fish I catch from the stretch.  I photograph fish this way so I can catalogue them accurately.  I only take catch shots of fish holding them if they are doubles simply because I have so many photographs of fish below that weight it has become pointless photographing single figure weight fish.

So my first time out this season in really poor fishing conditions turned up three barbel with one over eleven pounds.  I am more than happy with that.

 In The Right Place

I made a return trip to the river a couple of days later.  I was very keen to see if my strategy for fishing in poor conditions was working and indeed to test my other theory that I stand a better chance of catching the bigger barbel by fishing during the day as opposed to night fishing.  Of course it might take several seasons of recording catches to be confident I could draw conclusions but the only way I will determine anything is to keep fishing!  Life can be so hard at times.

The weather was a mixed bag of meteorologist confusion being broken cloud and sunny one minute then heavy showers the next and very windy all the time.  Same bait with same tactics produced a 4lb chub early on so I was pretty confident.  My confidence was tested however when each 30 minute re-cast produced nothing and the hours drifted away.  I was starting to regret my decision for taking my standard 50 inch brolly along as the increasing strength of the wind was beginning to make a fool of its inadequate design which is fine for windless days but a mere pretender against the more robust Solace.  Note to self; Take the better shelter along for the rest of the season.  Specialist angling should never be based upon compulsion or hardship and its always far better to be able to sit out of the cold wind than in it.

I received a phone call from a friend who was fishing up river to say he’d caught nothing when I had to cut the call short as the rod hooped over around 2.45pm.  It was a good fish tearing off yards of line from the reel as it made a dash for freedom.  Rod bent double I tweaked the clutch slightly to restrict its run and take in line but the fish was having none of that.  Several times it made deep powerful runs and my arm began to ache slightly.  Could this be another double?  Two doubles perhaps in two days right at the start of my campaign would indeed be a great start.  Eventually the fish came in within reach of my net but continued its dives beneath a vortex of swirling bubbles.  A long golden flash from its flanks almost confirmed my hope that is was another double then finally on top I drew her towards my net.  Lifting up the landing net I could see it was indeed another double but how big?  She was a deep fish and felt very heavy as I carried her up the bank.  Whilst I was playing the fish an elderly couple out for a walk watched as I played the fish and were on hand to take a couple of catch shots for me.  The barbel pulled the scales down at 12lb 2oz and I was a very happy chap indeed.

I nursed the fish back in traditional manner then re cast the rod settling down for a cup of tea feeling pleased as punch.  It wasn’t long before the rod hooped over once again and this time is was a very pleasing fish, a scale perfect 8lbs 10ozs fat as butter barbel.

So here I am writing this at the very start of my season’s efforts to catch those illusive day time doubles and I have two in the bag in two sessions already.  My target is for the capture of barbel bigger than anything I have ever caught before.  I know from gut feelings and hunches they are there somewhere but where they are and will I be able to track them down remains to be seen.  This is a big river and they could be anywhere in this vast swathe of water.  I am fishing with no map and no instructions in unchartered territory as I have absolutely nothing to go on.  No reported captures and no grapevine information.  These are not the venues where anglers wait for someone to vacate a swim.  These are stretches where there are no angler’s footprints at the water’s edge.  These are the forgotten stretches where only the ghosts of anglers long gone walk the banks.  Since writing this I returned to the river when I caught another double.  A fish that pulled the scales down to 10lbs exactly.

“In the quiet of the night with a chill in the air, the reeds whisper their secrets whilst monster barbel glide quietly through ancient pools.  These are the uncaught fish, the nomads that wander where they please growing fat amongst the stones and silently passing water”.       L.R.Fletcher.

So follow me now because the adventure is only just beginning.


Tales of the Riverbank.  Into Winter.

Coming soon.