By Jon Wolfe - 2005
I have just got back from this years fish-in, held on the Hampshire Avon, the spiritual home of barbel angling. It really is a special place, and although the rivers’ low stock density amongst other things makes the fishing difficult, there is definitely something about the Avon that sets it apart from other rivers. If you could only fish one river for the rest of your life, I bet some of us would plump for this one.
Despite its gin clear waters, which hide nothing from the eye, but plenty from the imagination, it still retains an air of mystery. Who knows what hides under its luxuriant weed growth, or in its deep boulder strewn holes? Other rivers might have surpassed it in terms of pounds and ounces but is that a unit to be used when measuring the desirability of a river? I have yet to fall asleep whilst dreaming about the tidal Trent!
Anyway, advanced tactics. What does that mean to you? Does it refer to the tackle that we use? Rods, reels, line and hooks. Or can it refer more generally to how we go about preparing for a days fishing, not just mentally, i.e. thinking and formulating a plan, but by our own physical actions on the day as well. These three subjects - tackle, mental approach and physical actions, could all come under the general heading - Advanced Tactics. During the course of this article, these are the three subjects that I’d like to talk about.
I had a fantastic weekend on the Avon. Great surroundings, great company and a big fish to cap it off. What more could you ask for? Well was I lucky? I’ll tell the tale and then let you decide. Luck certainly played a part, as it does in any capture, but other factors were, in my opinion, more prominent than luck. Like our (Martin and I) mental approach to the weekend,not just in terms of what we hoped to achieve and what we needed to do to achieve those aims,but the physical actions as well. Walking the banks, studying the water, baiting the swims and observing the fish. Each is as important as the other. If you walk far enough, you should find a fish. If you study that fish for long enough, you will work out how to catch it. And, if you are patient enough, you will eventually succeed. Be it today, tomorrow, next week or next year. So although luck does play a part, it is a combination of many other things, all coming together on the day, that determines the outcome.
On the Avon weekend how much did you want to catch a fish? If you plonked down, in the nearest barbely looking swim, and you didn’t have to walk far to find one, expecting a fish or two to materialise from under the weed, then you were in for a long and ultimately unsuccessful day. If, on the other hand you spent all day walking the banks and baiting up and by dusk you still hadn’t seen a fish, or cast in, then I take my hat off to you. You couldn’t have done any more. On the Friday Martin and I walked at least two miles of river. The sun was out; visibility was excellent, yet we didn’t see a single fish. On the Saturday we covered a similar distance. Martin ended up walking down to the bottom limit and then back up again for his gear because he had found a few fish. It was raining and we were wet, but needs must. I eventually found three fish in a deep near bank hole, leaving just enough time to catch one of them at dusk, which went 9.7. It would have been so easy to sit under the brolly and stay dry, but we kept at it. Martin blanked. I’m not sure if he even cast in. But, in terms of water covered and effort expended, he couldn’t have done more.
Walking the bank, looking for a fish, is the best way to approach a river like the Avon. If you don’t know the river and you have no background information in relation to the best swims, then it is probably the only way. There is a lot of empty water on this river, but the rewards are there if you are prepared to put in the effort. The more water you cover, the more chance you have of seeing a fish. To begin fishing before visual contact has been made is at best foolhardy. Once we have found a fish we can begin fishing. The correct mental approach has given us a chance, but from this point, it is now more likely to be our actual physical actions, combined with sensible use of tackle that will determine the outcome. These two subjects overlap so much that it is impossible to write about one of them without mentioning the other.
PHYSICAL ACTIONS AND TACKLE
If, like me, the only time you had ever seen a barbel it was upside down in the bottom of your landing net, then the prospect of pitting your wits against a big clearly visible fish is a daunting one to say the least. If you are quite happy, standing there and watching, without wetting a line, then fair enough, maybe the fish isn’t big enough, or you plan to come back tomorrow. But if you would like to catch that fish, then at some stage you have to do something. You have to start the sequence of events, which will ultimately lead, to success or failure. Some of these barbel are fished for on a regular basis, like the ones at Adams Mill, or those in Ringwood. Yet some of the big ones only get caught occasionally or even rarely in some cases. If your fishing time is limited, say a day or a weekend at best, then you need to get it right. It has been said before that stalking a big barbel is like playing chess. The grand master is thinking a dozen moves ahead, that is how you must think. If you couldn’t have been bothered to go through the procedure that we did on the Sunday, then so be it. But if you can’t fish after dark, or you can’t wait till the river is up and coloured, then to me it is standard procedure for stalking a clearly visible fish.
Before going on to describe how the days events unfolded, I need to explain the arrangement that Martin and I had come to. During our bank walking exploits of the previous days, two adjacent swims were earmarked for attention. In the event of one of them being occupied, which it was, then we would share the remaining swim. Martin getting first chance as I had caught the day previously.
SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
For about two hours up to midday we simply watched. Good glasses are a must for this type of fishing. To start with, the whole area in general was very quiet. After a while we began to notice the odd chub, then eventually a barbel. It was a big swim, with a large weed bed stretching from bank to bank as the central focal point. At the back of the weed was deeper water and clean gravel. Upstream of the weed bed the water was a bit thinner and numerous channels opened out into bare gravel patches or areas, some scoured clean by feeding fish
There were numerous places within the confines of the swim where a fish might be caught from, but there is no point baiting a specific spot if later on in the day it proves impossible to fish over that spot effectively. Be wary of having to fish too far out. As the sun moves across the sky, a spot that was clearly visible in the morning might be impossible to see by late afternoon. The same goes for a very narrow run between weed beds. These can be very difficult to cast into if the light is not perfect. By the same token, you could tip a lorry load of bait into certain areas very close to the bank, without attracting a fish. If they fed in such areas, catching them would be easy. Compromise is the key. Far enough out to tempt a fish but not too far out to hamper fishing effectively. Barbel seem much happier with a weed bed or some form of cover between them and the near bank. Bare that in mind when selecting your spot. Also watch which runs or channels through the weed the barbel use to reach the baited area. A bait presented in the favoured run might result in a take. It might also enable you to be selective, size wise, as some fish have preferred travel routes through the weed beds. Remember though, that once you have put bait in, you can’t take it out, the damage has been done.
On a river like the Avon the flow is generally too strong to loose feed. I prefer the small Thamesly droppers but with an extra couple of ounces of lead moulded round the original. You want them to sink like a stone, not flutter down in any direction. Once we had decided where to bait up, Martin set to work with the dropper, after making sure the barbel were not disturbed in the process. Once this had been done it was back to observing. Patience is the key. The longer a fish is left in peace, the better our chances are of catching it. Generally speaking, barbel do not suddenly start feeding. Just like us they have a set procedure. They drift into the swim and then out again, seemingly unaware of the bait. After a while, they may return and they may investigate the bait, but more likely than not, these are the half-hearted actions of a fish that is far from settled and confident. At any point this fish might disappear for good. If we don’t scare it by say sudden movement, or by breaking the skyline, or letting it see the dropper, then after a while it should begin to settle. This confidence will betray itself in a number of ways. The fish will begin to spend longer periods of time within the confines of the swim. If it does drop out it will return much sooner and it will spend less time drifting around apparently aimlessly, and more time with its head down searching for food. This aimless drifting around is actually anything but aimless from the barbel's point of view, and had we already cast in at this stage in the proceedings, a blank would most definitely be on the cards. The barbel is looking for your line. At some point in the proceedings you will have to cast in and the barbel will be aware that something is amiss. How he reacts or behaves is all down to how confident he is at that stage. If he bolts and is never seen again, then you have cocked up big time, but if he carries on feeding with head down and tail waving in the flow, then you should catch him. Even if he appears to be aware that something is amiss, he might be too far down the road that leads to a full belly for him to turn back. Especially if we can hide that line or nail it to the bottom.
At 4pm, some six hours after starting, Martin cast in. Observations told him straight away that things were not right. Minor adjustments were made. He tried again. Perfect. The trap had been set. We sat back well away from the waters edge to await events. At this point neither of us were certain what would happen though Martin had a feeling that things might not work out in his favour. There were only two barbel in the swim. A third had been seen earlier in the day but it had vanished. Both fish looked a decent size but one was definitely bigger than the other and at almost any given time it shadowed the smaller one, even feeding directly in line behind it. Both fish still looked a bit spooky and I wasn’t confident that we would catch either of them, but time was pressing on. Had we done enough to fool them ?
Line coming up off the bottom is without doubt, the biggest giveaway of our presence to a barbel. Long hook lengths go some way to lessening the problem, but they are notoriously difficult to cast into a tight spot. Anything longer than about 12” will invariably get caught up in the weed. In addition to this problem, a wary fish can easily blow out any bait fished on a long hook length. A bait fished on a short hook length, combined with a heavy lead is in comparison, very difficult to eject and is much more likely to lead to a hooked fish. But only if you can tempt it to pick up your bait in the first place. The key to overcoming this problem when fishing in daylight is back leading. If you are not convinced that there is a need to resort to such tactics, then that is up to you. I have caught more barbel this season than in any other year, the vast majority of them caught without a back lead. Certainly when fishing after dark or in coloured water for instance, I would be quite happy without one. But when the evidence is right there in front of your eyes, and you can actually see how the barbel are reacting, then I suggest you would be unwise to ignore it. Of the seven fish caught that weekend on the Avon by Catchers members, five were caught on a rig that incorporated a back lead. If that doesn’t convince you of its effectiveness in clear water, then I don’t know what will.
After a very short wait Martins rod pulled round, a fish was on. Once out in open water, it became apparent that he had hooked the smaller of the two, just as he had feared, though it would have taken a very brave man to forsake his choice of fishing first. At 8lb 15oz the fish was still a belter. We took some pictures with the water meadow in the background, the setting sun illuminating the barbel's golden flanks. Was the other fish still there or had it been spooked by the disturbance? The fading light made spotting difficult but we had at least an hour or more to try for the bigger one.
Two droppers of pellets were lowered into the channel and a cast was made before the fish could settle on the feed. I had carried two rods all weekend. One to fish with and the second to be used for dropping. Once you are fishing in the right spot, one rod can be left cast in and the second rod can be used to feed the swim. I had used a tethered back lead the day before which clipped onto the line and dropped off the rod end into the margins, a take pulling the line out of the clip. That set up couldn’t be fished in this swim due to marginal weed and the shallow water in the edge. My set up now consisted of a fixed 2oz lead with a small 1/2oz lead free running on the main line, this gets left behind on the cast. My first cast hit the mark and barely ten minutes later the rod pulled round as the clutch on the Cardinal 55 yielded a few yards of line to a bolting barbel. Because of the compact length of the fish, I wasn’t convinced that I’d hooked the big one, but Martin reassured me that it was. After a short but spirited fight, it was safely in the net. 12lb 9oz of gleaming olive backed, white bellied Avon barbel. The fish had picked up a medium ellips pellet, drilled and hair rigged to a size 10 Raptor hook fished on 10lb big game, with a PVA bag of scalded pellets of various sizes nicked to the hook. Nothing fancy there then I’m sure you’ll agree. The key to success was not just in finding the swim. It was in preparing it before fishing and by being patient, and confident that the fish would respond to what we were doing. We only had a line in the water for twenty minutes, but that was long enough to catch both fish because the preparation was spot on.
Think chess, think a dozen moves ahead.