Juggling time between family, work, friends and other commitments can leave little leftover for fishing trips. Not an ideal basis for targeting specimen fish, but I’ve worked 6-day weeks since I left school and I remain a mad-keen angler. Two years ago I bought my first house with my girlfriend and her daughter, which has further constricted my fishing time, but I have plenty of experience in squeezing short sessions into what little time I have left.
Rivers are my favourite venues and during the first four months of the season I mainly target barbel, after work during short evening sessions. To get the best out of these sessions you have to be prepared, efficient and have your tactics ready to employ quickly and confidently. I shall explain how I do this, which should give you a basis of knowledge to help you get the best from your local rivers.
River & Swim Selection
First you need a venue within easy driving distance of work/home. I finish work at 6pm, so for evening sessions I set myself a limit of 45 minutes driving time each way. Research which local angling clubs offer you the best river fishing to suit your budget. I rarely fish past midnight, but most clubs consider fishing beyond sunset to be night fishing, so a club that allows fishing after-dark is a must to get maximum post-work fishing time. Many clubs which don’t allow night fishing on their standard ticket offer an additional night permit.
Once you have a club book it is essential to get to know the river as intimately as you can. Walk the stretch before you intend to fish; try to pick a day when the river is low and clear and take polarising sunglasses with you. This will enable you to spot features and swims which are otherwise hidden and such knowledge will provide you with a valuable edge when it comes to actually fishing. The closed season is a perfect time to do this, though one downside is that there will be no anglers to speak to, who can also provide you beneficial nuggets of information on productive areas, baits & tactics. However, don’t be afraid to try areas where no-one else seems to fish. This is usually down to laziness rather than a lack of good swims. Once you know a bit about the river, fish as many swims as possible in your first few sessions and keep notes of where and when you’ve seen fish activity. Over time you’ll get an idea where fishes best in different conditions; essential knowledge for when fishing is difficult. Find a variety of swim types which all hold fish and you’re onto a winner.
I have a golden three types of barbel swim that I like to have at my disposal, so on any given stretch I’ll try to find at least a couple of deep swims which are fishable close-in during flood conditions, a couple of shallow gravel runs with plenty of streamer weed, and also a couple of snag pegs. This gives me plenty of options, allowing me to fish to the weather & river conditions I‘m faced with, even when grabbing a couple of hours’ fishing at short notice:
Generally my most productive swims for warm weather & low water levels are the gravel runs, especially the highly oxygenated runs below rapids, broken water and weirpools. Streamer weed provides both cover and a natural larder for species such as barbel, so baiting & casting to the gaps between can be a killer warm-weather tactic; especially in areas where there are clean patches visible on the gravel, betraying spots where barbel have recently fed. A rigid-framed landing net and thigh waders will help you land more fish from such swims, in the event that a barbel lodges itself in a weedbed.
If the river is running high & dirty I’ll head first towards known deep holes and undercut banks which allow me to fish with confidence in the near margin or towards the nearest crease, where there is less chance of the line picking up flotsam and debris brought down in the high water. Although barbel will still feed in the faster, shallower spots in such conditions, having to repeatedly reel in and recast will quickly drive you to the edge of sanity and a bait can only catch you fish whilst it’s in the water, so time spent picking rubbish off your line is time wasted.
Snag swims, such as fallen trees, can produce fish in all conditions and I keep these as my “fall-back” option when things aren’t working elsewhere or if my first-choice swims are taken. My ideal barbel snag would be over a gravel bottom, downstream of some broken water and just slightly off the main flow, so any resident fish have everything they require in terms of cover, oxygen and a regular food source. Though productive, snag swims pose obvious problems, especially as barbel possess such explosive acceleration. Thought must always be given to the terminal tackle used when fishing near snags, to make rigs as “fish-friendly” as possible and lessen the risk of leaving a fish tethered. By applying some careful baiting, barbel can often be drawn upstream away from snags, especially quickly after dark, from where you’ll stand a far better chance of landing a barbel once it’s hooked.
Tackle & rigs
If I only have a few hours on the bank, I need a method that’s dependable, which will work in most conditions and be easy to use in the dark. So I usually fish static with a large, heavy feeder and hair-rigged hookbait; very little messing, ticks all the above boxes and – most importantly – it works. Trotting, stalking and rolling meat are all more enjoyable ways to fish for barbel, but these work best in daylight, which is often in short supply by the time I start to fish.
If you have a rig or bait in the water that you have no confidence in, it will cost you fish, so I keep my rigs simple. Barbel don’t require anything too technical, keep it strong, sharp & pinned down and you won’t go far wrong. Many successful barbel anglers advocate the use of back-leads to minimise fish spooking off the mainline, as I used to, until I began using very long hooklinks of four feet-plus. These can be used in conjunction with back-leads, but I find this combination unwieldy and difficult to cast, so for the past few seasons I have stuck to only using long hooklinks which has actually improved my catch rates. I do pin them down though, with the very convenient Korda tungsten sinkers, using at least three on each hooklink, with a loading bias towards the hook.
I rig up with strong, short-shank, micro-barbed hooks such as Drennan Super Specialist Barbel. The sizes I use range between 14 and 8, depending on bait size, but in most situations with pellets or boilies, an 11 or 12 is perfect and with luncheon meat, a 10 or an 8. Since adding ready-made line aligners over my hooks, my hookup ratio has improved. They’re easier than shrink tubing and work very well for barbel, pricking most fish in the bottom lip.
I prefer using clear mono hooklinks. This is contrary to many big fish anglers, but I find the additional stretch in mono is a vital shock absorber in my rig. I previously suffered frequent hooklink breakages within the first few seconds of fights, using both braid and fluorocarbon hooklinks. Eventually I realised that the lack of stretch in both materials resulted in insufficient tensile strength to absorb the sudden pressure of a barbel take. I switched to a standard clear mono and I’ve never looked back. I’ve found Ultima Power Steel in 12lb breaking strain to be extremely reliable in everything from abrasion resistance to knot strength. It’s a clear copolymer monofilament with low stretch. It’s no longer marketed as a coarse or carp fishing line (which it used to be), but as a sea line! Regardless of its current label, Ultima Power Steel is phenominally good, and I highly recommend it as both a mainline and hooklink material.
The remainder of my rig is simple, a safety lead clip and tail rubber fished bolt-style holds my swimfeeder in place. I use a quick-change swivel for easy hooklink changes and an anti-tangle sleeve fits over this swivel to boom the hooklink safely away from the feeder.
Time spent unnecessarily rigging up rods on the bank is time wasted, when you could be baiting up or actually fishing instead. From June onwards I keep my pair of barbel rods rigged-up, stored in a triple rod sleeve which also carries my tripod & banksticks. Neoprene tip & butt protectors hold the rod sections together and help keep them in good condition during transit.
I will often tie up new hooklinks on the bank whilst waiting for bites, but I never go fishing without a few ready in reserve, stored on a Greys Prodigy Advanced rig board, which holds hooklinks several feet long without damaging them and comes in its own protective case.
Using long hooklinks can make it difficult to keep rods rigged-up, but I have a couple of methods to overcome this. The first and most simple is to add a Daiwa Pole Hook Keeper to the rod handle, as close to the butt as possible. This simple and cheap device gives a handy metal loop to hook into, so a 12 foot rod can be stored with a hooklink of almost six feet, left in situ, and it saves your rod handle from hook holes. For hooklinks longer than six feet I simply unhook them from the quick-change swivel and store on the rig board, then fasten my lead clip onto the hook keeper. If I target a different species for a session and remove my barbel terminal tackle, feeders & bait from my rucksack, they are all stored together in a box so that I can quickly grab everything when my next barbel session comes around.
Another device of convenience that I use is the Prologic quick-release connector. My barbel tripod, bite alarms, banksticks and rod rest heads are each fitted with medium-sized connectors and I even fit large ones to my landing net & handle. This not only makes it quick to setup, it comes in handy once a fish is landed when the net can be quickly disconnected to carry a fish to the unhooking mat.
It doesn’t take many sessions before I can set up everything and be ready to cast within little more than a couple of minutes. By September/October, I’m well enough practised to set up completely in the dark; only turning my headlamp on to bait the hook. If you keep your tackle organised you’ll quickly find a routine and this will buy you more fishing time.
Angling in the dark hasn’t been the same since I purchased a good LED headlamp. For the angler fishing for the odd hour into darkness, many cheap but functional headlamps are available these days. However, if like me you’re likely to be fishing after dark most sessions, you will notice a huge difference if you invest in a better headlamp. A few years ago I bought a mid-range Petzl Tactikka XP and for fishing I can’t fault it. It’s lighter than most cheaper lamps yet it’s very robust and water resistant, but the key feature is the coloured filter that slides over the lens. I use the red filter which enhances night vision, but creates a much more low-key light than a bright white LED; essential in a tight swim on a clear river after dark. I keep my headlamp use to an absolute minimum when fishing anyway, and wherever possible I turn away from the river when I turn it on. A moment’s thoughtlessness with a headlamp can quickly wreck a swim.
One of the appeals of barbel is that they’re easy to fish for and feed well into dark, which extends available fishing time considerably after the middle of August. Whether you have dedicated barbel rods, quivertips or carp rods, the simple addition of isotopes and/or bite alarms will allow you to fish effectively after dark. I use the Enterprise Tackle night light adaptors with betalights, which are always reliable. A baitrunner-type reel isn’t essential, but the ferocity of a barbel bite can easily lift rods from rests so you must remain especially vigilant if you’re not using one.
A couple of items I use which, though not essential, I wouldn’t like to fish without on short summer sessions are a barbel tripod and thigh waders. I don’t always use a tripod, but in larger, gravelly or uneven swims, tripods offer vastly superior stability over single rod banksticks and they can actually be setup in a variety of positions, not just “rod tips pointing to Jupiter”-style. This stability and security can be priceless, especially during a vicious take and on gravel banks where the sound of inserting banksticks can spook fish. Thigh waders have many benefits, from keeping your legs dry during a Summer shower to allowing you to cross a river to access different pegs. Several times each season I’m glad I’ve worn them when I can position loosefeed and rigs more accurately, or enter the river to return a fish or extract one from a snag. Of course, care must always be taken when wading and especially so after dark.
For short sessions you need a baiting regime that will have an instant impact, drawing as many fish to your rigs as possible. My own approach would take a whole article to fully explain, but I like both my groundbait and hookbait to stand out from the crowd, to contain known barbel attractors but not be the same as what 95% of other anglers are using. This is why I favour cocktail baits, with a mixture of different scents to create a unique draw which barbel won’t approach with undue caution. I vary my groundbait mixes throughout the summer and into autumn, to “evolve” with the changing conditions and capitalise on providing what I think the barbel will want. My whole groundbait concept revolves around a varying mixture of spicy, fishy and meaty flavours, plus that timeless barbel exciter, hemp.
From the start of the season through to late July, when spawn, fry and invertebrates are in abundance, I put an emphasis on fishy aromas. More than half my mix is made up of fishmeals, shrimp and krill, with the rest a mixture of crushed hemp, a meaty groundbait and something with a little spice such as “The Source”. As the summer wears on, I gradually phase-in more spicy flavours, which will outweigh the fishy ingredients from early September onwards because I’ve seen a better response to spicy flavours in cooler water. I’m not affiliated with any bait brands, so I pick & mix a bit at the tackle shop. There are, however, a few groundbaits which I have faith in as great barbel attractors – especially when mixed with each other – and these include: ‘The Source’ & ‘Marine Halibut’ by Dynamite Baits, Marukyu’s ‘SFA 400 Krill’, ‘Spicy Meaty Method Mix’ & ‘Hemp & Hali Crush’ by Sonubaits and Bait-Tech’s ‘N-Tice Meaty Mix’, ‘Voodoo’ & ‘Halibut Marine Method Mix’.
Hookbaits are very much a personal preference and again I have a better response to cocktail baits than single-flavour ones. Early on in the season when the fish have had a lay-off from introduced feed, I might use a single, smaller hookbait, but later I step up to a double bait such as a squid boilie alongside the Source, or maybe a halibut pellet with a spicy sausage pellet. It’s worth experimenting with baits, which is how I ended up using cocktail hookbaits in the first place and I’ve seen my results improve ever since. I’ve recently started using boilies & pellets from The Hook Bait Company and so far I’ve been very impressed with the results. I’m looking forward to using them over the colder months and next summer, to really get a feel for their effectiveness.
One of the most consistent barbel catchers in all seasons continues to be luncheon meat and I always have a tin in my bag, but from September onwards it’s usually my “go-to” bait. I do use it straight from the tin but usually I’ll add some flavours, again to help it stand out from what others are using. Sprinkling powdered spices and other flavours over cubed meat then shaking around in a sealer bag is an easy way to experiment with new bait-boosting combinations. For an on-the-bank solution you can’t beat injecting oil and liquid flavours directly into luncheon meat hookbaits, as you would into deadbaits for pike
If you’ve ever hair-rigged luncheon meat you’ll know the hair is prone to slice through the bait like a cheese wire. A product that works extremely well at preventing this is Fox luncheon meat stops. These consist of a silicone sleeve that slides over the hair before the bait, which increases the surface area of the hair to stop it slicing, and a large flat-faced bait stop which doesn’t pull through the meat as easily as a boilie stop. I’ve used these for years and I highly recommend them.
There are two main baiting approaches you can take; a popular approach for barbel is to bait up heavily with a bait dropper and by far the best use of one of these for short sessions is to bait several swims within easy walking distance of each other before you start fishing. Then travel light and drop in on each swim in turn. If nothing happens in twenty minutes or so, it’s time to try the next swim; likewise if one or two fish have been landed, it’s usually time to move on. If one swim has been especially productive you can always loosefeed again before you vacate it, then return later after resting it for a while. On stretches of river with very few anglers on them, this method can account for captures of multiple fish in an evening.
The second approach is to introduce as much bait as possible with a swimfeeder. I use the largest capacity open-end feeders I can find, usually Korum or Fisky’s Fantastic Feeders. I plug either end with groundbait and cram plenty of mixed-sized pellets in-between. If the swim contains a good head of barbel then I will cast the feeder every 15 or 20 minutes for the first hour or so, to get plenty of bait down from the outset. Then I’ll settle into leaving my baits out for longer as the evening progresses. Usually with this approach I’ll stick to fishing only one or two swims per session.
Although not at their largest at this time of year, barbel can produce exciting and consistent sport right through the summer & autumn and even very short sessions can produce multiple good fish. Rivers small and large throughout the country are now regularly producing barbel of previously unthinkable proportions and they fight incredibly well. So a concerted effort to get to know your local stretch could pay off with some truly memorable quick-fire summer action.
I was lucky enough to enjoy some memorable evenings this summer and managed to improve my personal best barbel weight by a couple of pounds. Of the relatively few hours I had on the bank, I landed a good number of barbel, the vast majority of which were 8lb+ in weight and included a new personal best fish of over 13lb. Needless to say, I feel that I’ve had a great season so far and I put this down to being able to apply the above, along with the knowledge of the river that I’ve built up over the past few seasons.
One session I was to be reminded of the need to fish until the very last minute, keep thinking and keep concentrating until the last bait is removed from the water. I was having a fairly slow session but we’d had some rain, so I had a feeling that one of my deep swims would produce a barbel or two, so I stuck with it. Eventually my faith was justified when a 6lb barbel made an appearance, late on in the session and the pressure was off. It was almost midnight and I was only planning on fishing for another few minutes but no sooner had I sat down when the same rod tore off again and I connected with a good fish. There were some obstacles close-in and the high water was making landing this fish difficult, so – given that this would be my last cast and that I’d be leaving soon – I broke one of my own golden rules and turned on my headlamp and shone it into the water. This did the trick and I soon slid a mint 9lb 9oz over the net rim. I weighed and photographed the fish and was releasing it when the alarm on my other rod sounded. This one was only dropped under the rod tip, just feet away from where I’d just been shining my headlamp! This was a complete shock; I had written-off my chances of any more fish, but now I was battling with another heavy fish. I fluked the fish into the net before it really knew it was hooked and my second 9lb+ fish in less than 10 minutes was on the bank, what a brace!
The session which yielded my PB was my second trip to a distant – and thus very rarely fished – 200 metre-long gravel run which I’d spotted when chub fishing at the end of last season. I’d earmarked this spot for a summer visit and when August came around my little pioneering trip was done with my friend Craig. Before I’d setup Craig landed a 9lb fish, which had probably not seen a bait previously this season. It proved my hunch that this spot would be worth a hike and I went on to land four barbel to 9lb and lost another two during the short session. The barbel were there in big numbers and to know we were the only ones fishing for them was too much of an incentive to resist another shot at them, so we returned the following week. Having worked out the most productive area on the previous trip, I confidently put out some free offerings and cast out a loaded swimfeeder in anticipation of some instant action.
Nothing happened for the first hour, which had me wondering if the barbel had moved elsewhere and we were in the right place at the right time, the previous week. As the light began to drop the fish switched on; again Craig landed the first fish from a little downstream of me. A short while later I had the most gentle take but when I struck the fish had a burst of speed and took the rig under a bed of streamer weed and through the other side! A few tense moments followed as I slowly coaxed the fish back into open water. Each time the line twitched as the feeder worked back through the weed, I expected it to fall slack, but progressively I gained line and drew the fish out of its sanctuary. The struggle had tired the fish considerably but it was now that I gained an appreciation of the size of the fish I was connected to. Despite bringing it to the surface, I could hardly bring the barbel towards me in the fast water. It hardly twitched a fin yet held its ground against as much pressure as I dared exert. My other bait was dropped slightly out of the flow a little downstream, right in the margin and although I didn’t want to wreck this swim, I decided this was my only chance and thankfully it paid off.
I moved downstream slightly to where the flow was less intense and netted the fish first time. I knew it was a double, but it was only when I went to lift the net from the water that I realised it was a PB. I had never felt a barbel like this before! I weighed it three times, zeroing the scales each time, to make sure I wasn’t fooling myself because the scales were reading well over 14lb. Each time they read the same though and with the net taken off, the fish weighed 13lb 1oz, which for the Derwent is one of a few proper heavyweights. I was beside myself; only 3 seasons prior had I finally broken the 10lb mark after many years of trying. Since then doubles have come fairly frequently but this fish added almost 2lb to my PB.
I went on to land a fish of just under 9lb and then had a double hook-up and managed to land both! Although these were much smaller samples of around 4lb each, like peas in a pod. That night it seemed like I could do no wrong; on another night I might have lost the first fish in the weedbed without ever realising its size or significance, so I’m still savouring that evening all these months on.
A version of this article was published in a “Rivers Special” issue of Coarse Angling Today magazine (RIP). If you’d like to download a PDF copy click the image above or the following link: Download a PDF copy of this article.