By John Costello - 2006

Sometimes I wonder if I spend too long analysing why I have had a good day, or equally, why a poor day in apparently ideal conditions. There are so many variables to consider that much of the time we can only speculate. Obviously there are times when the reasons why you caught or not are obvious- cat ice in the margins or leaving your bait at home doesn’t improve anyone’s chances. Questions of location or bait choice/presentation are often overriding. Get this wrong and your chances of success are virtually non-existent. But assuming that we are reasonably certain that there are fish where we have been fishing; that we are using a bait they like, and that we haven’t frightened them, then what about all the other reasons as to why one day is good and another bad?

Thank goodness fishing is not a science whereby we can predict a specific outcome as a result of previous experiences. However, our fishing experiences, combined with our ability to learn from these experiences, give us an increasing amount of knowledge that allows us to make some value judgements about future outcomes and past exploits. But how accurate or how scientific can we be in these value judgments? Sharing our experiences with others gives us a greater range and number of samples. From this we can increase the information available which will improve the statistical chances that our predictions and guidelines to success are not wildly inaccurate. In plain language this means we all know not to go barbel fishing in the middle of a freeze-up because most of us have tried it once and know it’s a waste of time. However when it starts to warm up then we all know to get out there as it is highly likely that there will be fish feeding.

As we learn from our experiences we continue to make predictions about future outcomes using the guidelines past experiences has given us. Whilst it would be unwise to preface any conclusions about future outcomes with the words, ‘never’ or ‘always’, in practice there are degrees of certainty from the ‘highly likely’ to the ‘could be possible’. Our experiences lend weight to our conclusions which in turns gives us confidence to make predictions and guidelines as to how and when success will occur and we embark on a learning curve. But how far can we ride this learning curve and what can we mark down as reasonable conclusions given the weight of evidence?

The danger is in making these guidelines into some sort of quasi-scientific theory and basing all our future actions on this theory. But equally we cannot fail to draw some conclusions from previous experiences. There is a very blurred line varying from the ‘highly likely’ to ‘could be possible’. At one extreme we have theories which we are fairly certain about most of the time and these can almost become rules which govern how we fish. ‘Barbel like coloured water and feed more confidently’ or ‘barbel like trout pellets’ are conclusions that I think all of us would agree with…..most of the time! But what about those theories or conclusions further down the line of uncertainty? Some are probabilities, which merge into possibilities, others gut feelings, whilst some may not even be in our consciousness. Maybe that is where instinct comes in. How much weight can we attach to the feeling that, say, ‘it is the biggest barbel that respond first to a change in conditions’ or that ‘a fish is unlikely to stay in the same swim once it has been caught a couple of times’. It is inevitable that we will have an opinion that is based upon our experiences and it can be questioned how much weight we attach to this. But at the end of the day it is our own choice whether we do so and whether we put an experience down as an unrepeatable one-off or part of a series of interconnected events. My own feeling is that there are very few pure coincidences in fishing. I suspect that nature is too brutally efficient to allow too much to be left to chance. At the same time however I think that in practice there are so many variables that the chances of an exact set of circumstances being repeated are at best uncommon. But that doesn’t stop me from forming my own half-baked sets of opinions.

Anyway, enough of the pure conjecture and onto the idle speculation. What follows may not be true but the irony is that it as likely to be true as not. Starting with my earlier example of the bigger fish responding first to a change in conditions I would like to take a not quite serious look at some of those ‘possibly true’ aspects of fish behaviour.

I am not alone in thinking that the bigger fish in a river (or lake for that matter, and of any species) have become the biggest by being the most efficient users of the available resources. ‘Survival of the fittest’ has become ‘the most efficient and successful shall prosper’. The pikelet who manages to swallow one of her brothers or sisters before herself being swallowed by a sibling already has a head start. In a natural ecosystem there are limited resources and common sense tells me that those fish which are first in the queue get the best share. However a fish’s instinct to survive plays a part in limiting how completely an individual can utilise a resource. In the case of the pikelet, it’s no good gorging on clouds of minnows etc if you don’t see that aunt with the crocodile smile lurking in the reeds with her fins quivering. It has been well documented that whilst the bigger barbel are the most cautious they quickly become the most greedy once their natural caution is allayed. They have become the bigger fish by eating more than their brethren and like children at school, once you are one of the seniors there are always going to be smaller ones to push out of the way which simply serves to emphasise their ascendant position. In a barbel fishing context this translates into the well documented benefit that is obtained from building up their confidence by feeding and resting a swim. But surely this dominant and successful utilising of resources goes through all aspects of their behaviour. For example in a cold snap barbel activity will all but cease but come a warm spell will it be the bigger fish that respond most positively? I can’t be certain but it seems feasible that the bigger fish, being larger, need more to maintain condition and therefore tend to respond first. Because they are, by virtue of their size, successful at exploiting their environment perhaps also they are more attuned to sensing positive changes than smaller less experienced brethren. So their greater need to feed to maintain condition is further driven by their ability to detect improving conditions. Well I did say it was idle speculation, I’ve no evidence to back it up. Conversely is there a situation at the start of a cold snap where again there is a short period when the bigger fish respond to deteriorating conditions? It was, I think, Rod Hutchinson who first mooted this possibility when winter carp fishing in the early 80’s. Is this an underlying reason why the autumn has traditionally been looked on as a prime time for the bigger barbel. In other words the bigger barbel are responding positively to the gradual drop in water temperatures which is not what fish, as cold blooded creatures, are supposed to do. Again it’s unwise to generalise and what happens on one water may not occur on another. However one of my favourite times to fish the Lower Severn in the winter is the first frost after a warm spell. Provided there is a decent colour in the river in the morning I would be very confident of catching on a frosty morning and again a significant proportion of fish caught on such days have been good ones. But it does then go downhill quite quickly. Again is it the more successful fish that sense a change for the worse and respond to it?

It is in pike fishing that the concept of the biggest fish responding first to a change in conditions is most noticeable. Simply because when the large pike are feeding the little pike know to stay out of their way. Time and time again this has occurred on different waters and in different conditions but always with the same result, numbers of good pike and an absence of jacks. Typically on a river this would occur after a long period of coloured water whilst on a stillwater this would occur after a freeze-up. This period might last from a couple of days of dramatic feeding to a week or so of less dramatic feeding. When I have been out fishing at such times the absence of smaller pike is very noticeable. So much so that when the opposite occurs and jacks turn up all over the place you can be fairly certain that most of the bigger pike are not active. Obviously little barbel don’t need to worry about getting eaten but I am sure that rather than compete with a bigger fish they take up a secondary position when the bigger fish are actively feeding. What this means in practice is that I make a big effort to be out at those times when a change in the conditions suggests that the bigger fish may be stimulated into feeding.

Can you catch too many barbel? I have the distinct feeling that the more barbel you catch the more you reduce your chances of catching a lunker. Pretty obvious really, the disturbance must surely send out danger signals that warn the bigger fish of a dangerous situation. The trouble is I like catching lots of barbel and I invariably fish in a way that catches the most fish, typically feeders and/or particles. I wish I could sit it out with a big piece of meat or similar and avoid catching the ‘shoalies’. I haven’t done any comparisons with fellow regional members but I suspect that the average size of fish I catch on the Teme and Severn is lower than most. How I target the bigger fish, on the Severn at least, is by fishing stretches with a lower density of fish, and hopefully a higher average size. But I still fish in a way that I think will give me the most bites. On the Teme this isn’t possible and apart from one exception I am not very good at catching the bigger fish. But that is my choice as a consequence of the way I fish. What I try and do however is to establish an area where I catch the majority of fish, but at the same time I will try and leave a nearby area of the swim undisturbed. It might be an area downstream, on the far bank or under the near bank but the idea is to feed and draw as many fish into one area and lightly bait another nearby area and have the occasional cast into this part of the swim at times. The swim where I had my 12.14 from last season was a very prolific area. Over a hundred yards of river, it had everything a barbel could ask for in terms of ideal habitat, snags, overgrown and undisturbed margins, fast shallows slowing into a steady glide and terminating in a relatively deep steady pool. Because there were so many fish in the swim I started baiting the next swim up with hemp and pellets to hopefully draw the less cautious smaller fish away from a downstream area which I lightly baited and where I hoped that a bigger fish might feel comfortable feeding. What I was trying to do was con any bigger fish into thinking the only potential danger area was upstream of them where I was catching numbers of fish. I have a feeling that the bigger fish are perfectly aware of the dangers of beds of bait and they feed in such areas in a more sophisticated way than their smaller brethren. In effect what I’m suggesting is that the bigger fish may at times watch what is happening to the smaller fish and use the disturbance of the smaller fish being caught to work out where they can feed in relative safety. Well that’s how I think I caught such a big fish but there again it’s just idle speculation. I just like working out ways of catching bigger than average fish and trying to outguess them. Most of the time they win though.

Following on from this are the really big fish wary of feeders? Have some fish decided that there is a danger area within a couple of feet or so of a feeder that is simply not worth the risk of entering. Again this is not a new idea, plenty of anglers have noticed a reluctance of some fish in some situations to approach a feeder. Not withstanding this however, feeders in their various forms remain a very successful way of catching numbers of barbel. But I increasingly feel that the very big fish are reluctant to feed close to a feeder. Perhaps the one exception to this situation is when heavily feeding with maggots or casters as favoured by Pete Reading or Stef Horak. Whilst I regularly use maggots in a feeder I usually take a maximum of four pints which may not be enough to overcome the bigger fish’s caution, although enough to catch a lot of average sized fish. However, the majority of my feeder fishing has been with sweetcorn etc, and in more recent seasons, pellets. What is very noticeable from my own records, is that none of the eight biggest fish I have caught from the Severn, Teme and Bristol Avon have been caught on feeder rigs. My biggest fish on a feeder is a 12.03, and from that size downwards I can’t see any difference in effectiveness between feeders and straight legering. But the fact that my eight biggest fish have not been caught on feeder rigs, despite the fact that I use feeders more often than not can’t be pure coincidence. This does not mean that I think feeders never work for the really big fish, just that I can’t seem to catch the bigger ones on feeders. They seem to work for other anglers on other rivers, noticeably the Trent. There again and this is just idle speculation maybe that’s why none of you Trent regulars have had a fourteen plus yet???? (I’m gonna be shot down in flames with that last statement). After all Steve ‘Tex’ Withers wasn’t using a feeder when he caught his 14-11 on a BCC National Fish-in?? Any suggestions as to what to do with all my feeders will be treated with a large dose of lubricant.

By way of observation it seems to me that barbel can respond in a number of different ways to the introduction of new baits. Traditionally barbel react quite slowly to unfamiliar baits and at times seem to not recognise them as food. The barbel of the middle Hampshire Avon in the 1960’s had a reputation for being pre-occupied with natural food and as a consequence were regarded as more difficult than the barbel on the more heavily fished Royalty. Likewise I think the same was the case when anglers first started to explore the Wye. This seems to suggest that barbel in unfished water have to be weaned onto angler’s baits. But a similar response seems to occur on all sorts of waters. The barbel on the Severn grew up being fished for, their historical home grounds on the middle reaches were heavily fished before barbel were introduced. Consequently Severn barbel were exposed to angler’s baits from the off. But it is interesting to note that not withstanding this, they can still be slow to wean onto unfamiliar baits. Two examples illustrate my point. When I first used sweetcorn on the Severn in the early 80’s I could not get a bite off anything, not even roach or skimmers. This happened on several occasions and after a while I gave it up as a waste of time. My experiences were not alone, if I remember correctly Stuart Hamilton had the same result, nothing, not even a twitch. I eventually switched some barbel onto corn in a very prolific swim simply be spraying a few cans over them for a couple of evenings. I obviously don’t claim to have solely switched them onto it but within a couple of seasons the fish went from totally ignoring corn to it being the most effective bait for several seasons. A similar process has happened with pellets and to a lesser extent boilies. Stuart Wortley wrote about his baiting campaign on the middle Severn a few years ago. But I also remember Stuart trying pellets on the lower Severn a couple of seasons before they took off and failing to catch anything on them, even though by this time he was catching with pellets on the Teme. What I have noticed is that once some barbel start to pick up a new bait the whole population in a river seems to switch on very quickly. Within a season of fish starting to pick up pellets it was possible to catch anywhere on the Severn with pellets without the need to prebait. Even on stretches which are not fished at all I was able to crash into a swim which had not been fished for years and catch barbel on pellets. Maybe this winter I will have a few trips on the tidal river. If I do I would be totally confident catching on boilies or pellets even on stretches which are not fished by anyone.

Again it is interesting to note how baits blow quicker on some rivers than others. I have a vague feeling that the quicker that barbel switch onto a bait then the quicker it loses it's effectiveness. Whereas on the Severn, corn, for example, was a very effective bait for four or five years it would spook the fish on the Teme a few weeks into the start of a season. I seemed to manage one or maybe two good catches out of a specific swim and then it would go downhill very quickly. The fish would go from accepting two or three grains on a size six to a single grain on a size twelve within a couple of trips. A similar thing seems to be happening with pellets and I would anticipate pellets being more effective on the Severn longer than they remain effective on the Teme.

Is there any substance to the assertion that you have to use the going bait on a particular water? As I understand it the Royalty barbel were at one time apparently so pre-occupied with maggots in the 60’s that they banned them. Did not the same situation arise with hemp on Throop around the same time? According to the Severn matchmen in the 70’s the middle Severn went from a maggot water to a hemp and caster water. If the local stars or tackle dealers were to be believed then if you weren’t on whatever the going bait was then you had no chance of framing. I have always found this difficult to believe and yet there is some evidence to suggest it might at times be the case. Look at how pellets have come from nowhere in the last three or four seasons to being the most successful bait members are using. But are they the most successful because they are the most used or vice-versa? Again in carp fishing fishmeals have outfished other baits in the warmer months for the last few years, but is it because everybody is using them? Do you go with the crowd or try to be different? There is no doubt in my mind that pellets have made a tremendous difference to all our catches. Barbel love them for sure but are they so effective that using other baits at the moment is a waste of time? A couple of seasons ago a friend had a fantastic season on the Teme using diced and shaved meat as a particle as described by Mick Wood. We all know they love meat but by altering the presentation he was in effect using a different bait. The other consideration with pellets is that by using a hook-out presentation then a much higher proportion of fish will prick themselves resulting in self-hooking as they surge off. The same thing occurs with maggots and other particles, but because of their cost, non selective nature and the need to prepare them, these other particles offer none of the convenience of pellets.

Most of my winter fishing used to be mobile meat fishing but my winter catches have dramatically improved in the last couple of seasons by fishing semi-mobile with a smelly pellet type mix in a feeder with a broken boilie as hookbait. Instead of spending twenty minutes rolling, dragging or bouncing a single piece of meat through a swim I spend maybe an hour in a swim, casting two or three times to what I think is the optimum area. The extra time gives a foraging barbel time to find my hookbait, whereas with meat I’m trying to put it in its mouth by moving the bait around. I believe the reason why my results have improved is not because boilies or pellets are a better bait but because the hook-out presentation ensures that any barbel that picks up my hookbait is a hooked fish. If I was able to convert every indication when using meat into fish onto the bank then the apparently greater effectiveness of boilies or pellets would not be so marked. But I do miss the simplicity of wandering around with a rod and a tub of meat. Maybe in time things will go full circle. They still like meat, ask Martin Cullen whether meat is a good bait or not, it’s just a lot easier hooking them with a bare hook rig. Having said all this though I do think barbel do in some ways become so enthusiastic about a particular foodstuff that different offerings, although attractive, do not immediately scream at the fish, 'come and eat me'. But that is not the same as pre-occupation. The clever bit is knowing when the time is ripe for a change of bait and being amongst the first to use it on your water. But I draw the line at chicken skin and other bits of offal!

There are so many potential influences on fish behaviour and their willingness to feed that sometimes I find myself disappearing up my own backside trying to make sense of it all. What I do know is that there are days when they’re having it big time and other days when you might as well chuck your bait in the field behind!