Getting Out of the Rut

Getting Out of the Rut

Over the closed season, I readied myself for the impending re-opening of the rivers by reading various books and magazine articles by very successful Barbel anglers. My main focus was Summer river tactics, because this is the time of year that sees me make most of my Barbel sessions; short after-work ones mainly. This has an added advantage of taking me to some fantastic, natural places. The type of habitats barbel frequent are some of the most breathtakingly beautiful swims imaginable (Tidal Trent excepted!) and there is no better time to appreciate rivers as when they’re in full bloom, in the height of Summer.

Many of the articles I read took what I’d regard as a “romantic” angle on Barbel fishing. They talked of shallow, clear, weedy, fast, intimate rivers (which I’m lucky enough to regularly fish two of, in the Dove and Derwent); with each writer discussing a slightly different approach to the same sort of conditions. I get taken in by these angling “romance writers”, just as I do when I watch A Passion For Angling. I suppose this is how, in an ideal world, I’d love all fishing to be; solitary man pitting his wits against nature, in the most untouched watery wilderness, relying on instinct alone to catch huge fish. In reality though, I’m as quick as anyone to sit behind the bite alarms at a swim I know should produce!

Whilst reading these pieces, and sorting through the tackle I’d need for the beginning of the season, I began to realise something; as a result of trying to refine my barbel techniques for so long (since I caught my first barbel, 7 years ago), I’ve become extremely stuck in my ways. I thought back to when river fishing was a completely new, exciting, daunting experience to me; when I would skip towards the river with my tackle, feeling like I was arriving at Shangri-La.

My techniques were taken from the text-book, rather than from experience; my tackle seemed strong at the time, but nowadays (fun as it would be) I wouldn’t even contemplate fishing for barbel with 6lb hooklength and an ordinary quivertip rod! With each fish caught I would learn something; with each fish lost I would learn even more! The fact that I tried various approaches with tackle, method, feeding and baits – and managed to catch on a variety of them – hadn’t really occurred to me because I was hungry; eager to keep experimenting to find that impossible “magic formula” that caught me more and bigger barbel than anything else. I experimented with various approaches to baiting and, looking back, my most successful approach in my first three, formative years of barbel fishing was to bait a few swims at the start of the session, then fish each one for short periods in turn, until I found – and hopefully caught – some fish. This worked a treat, and I remember numerous sessions where I caught a barbel from three different swims in one evening, which was great sport.

Somehow over time, I lost sight of just how enjoyable this kind of fishing was, because my three years of growing success on a productive stretch of the Dove gave me immense confidence with Barbel fishing. I became fixated with trying to catch bigger and bigger fish and the logical next step was “bigger river = bigger barbel”, so I began to fish the Trent. Yes, I’ve fished some lovely parts of the Trent and yes, I’ve caught bigger fish from the Trent than I have from any other river; but I’ve found that because it’s a larger river, I have gradually worked myself into a tactical rut. In hindsight, virtually the only tactic I have employed over the past three seasons is finding a feature peg, then “bait, sit and wait”. My only variance on this seemed to be a change of bait, or maybe switching from a lead & PVA bag to a large groundbait swimfeeder! Hardly revolutionary.

With the last two Summers’ excessive rainfall and some strange blanket-weed type blooms affecting the middle-Trent, I was trying in vain to make my tactics fit to the conditions, blaming anything I could to explain my lack of success; but looking back, I should have been more open-minded in my approach and used more of the instinct I spoke of earlier, rather than taking the lazy option and casting out whatever rigs (which were always the same!) I’d left on the rods from the last outing.

Yes, there are times when staying-put in one peg over a bed of bait will work well, and on plenty of sessions I’m sure I’ll be doing exactly that, but I want to break my own bad habits that have made me adopt this approach as the norm. This season, I will do things differently. I’m determined to go with any gut feelings and I’m not going to be lazy with rig choice; if I think something else will work better, I’ll change things straight away. I’m also going to (angler : peg ratio permitting) revert back to baiting a few swims and then roving between them. In a four-hour session doing this, I really have nothing to lose compared to sitting in one swim and waiting; even if I pull the bait from under the nose of a barbel to move swim, I may well drop it right on the nose of another in the next swim!

Barbel fishing swimfeeder with boilies
My first barbel of the new season. Weighing 8lb 4oz, this fish fell to what – until recently – had become my only barbel tactics

My revitalised outlook on Barbel tactics already seems to be paying off; a combination of factors have attributed to my best start to a season for a number of years. Yes, I do believe that the more settled, seasonal, less-extreme weather we’ve had since last Autumn has somewhat settled our flora and fauna back to its “normal” cycle, which has made river fish more predictable and easy to find. But also – having caught barbel on three different methods in four evening sessions – I believe that being more flexible with methods has paid dividends too.

For instance, I tried rolling meat for the first time in five years; despite having caught a barbel on the method the last time I used it! Sure enough, I tried it again in a stretch which just begged to have a bait moved through it, and I landed a fish within half an hour. I covered loads of water and missed a couple more bites too. My legered baits did eventually even the score, but not until after dark when the fish were moving more confidently through the swim.

I’ve also used a block-end feeder to good effect, in conjunction with casters and hemp. This is a traditional “match” style barbel and chub method, which I haven’t seen used by too many specimen barbel hunters. So far it seems a worthy alternative to groundbait feeders or PVA bags and leads, especially in shallow or narrow swims, because it doesn’t seem to cause such a huge splash or disturbance. In fact, my second barbel of the season came from such a swim and took luncheon meat virtually on-the-drop, fished below a hemp & caster block-end feeder.

On my latest session, I had enjoyed rolling meat so much that I set out for the evening with just one rod and fished several shallow, fast-paced swims. Unfortunately, the only bite I got was on a retrieve, when a pike decided to relieve me of my luncheon meat and barbless hook! As darkness approached I was staring a blank session in the face, so I began to think of alternative uses for my simple set-up, which would be effective after dark.

There was a small slack beneath a tree, from where I’d caught barbel before, and into this slack I swung a large chunk of luncheon meat with maybe half-an-ounce of plasticene as weight. I sat with the rod in my hand and felt for bites. After missing a couple of pulls and retrieving a bait-less hook (probably caused by chub), I made what I had already decided would be my last cast. After only a minute or so, a gentle pluck on the rod tip was followed by a forceful pull, and after a few minutes of good scrapping, I netted a quality barbel to send me home with a smile on my face!

Barbel fishing tactics summer barbel freelined luncheon meat touch-legering
A lovely Barbel I caught last-cast on the simplest of methods; touch-legering luncheon meat under a near-bank tree

Further information about the history, life cycle and biology of Barbus barbus – the Barbel – can be found on Wikipedia here: Barbel Wiki
And on Fishbase here: Barbel fish on

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