I don’t think there’s a more iconic and revered coarse fish than the barbel. A bold statement perhaps when you consider the hold that carp have over the fishing fraternity but you could argue that the sheer over exposure and ubiquitous nature of carp angling in the UK has diluted the enigma and mystery of the carp itself. I don’t think that’s the case with the barbel as yet, although there are nowadays many anglers involved in their pursuit. It may be that the barbel will be spared the decline into mundanity simply because of its habitat. Whereas many carp are stocked into manicured, man-made, tackle-shop-on-site, bacon-butty-delivered-to-your-swim fishing fun-parks, barbel inhabit fast-flowing wild rivers with gravel runs, streamer weed, razor-edged rocks to slice through you mainline and swims so precipitous you need a degree in mountaineering to even consider tackling them. Such was the case with the peg I’d chosen to fish on the river Wye near Hereford, during a recent trip there with my kayaking wife Cath and mountain goat of a dog Indy.
This was my very first trip to the Wye and I have to tell you that it’s as impressive a river as I’ve ever seen, truly magnificent. Cutting its way through wooded, high-sided valleys and gently rolling farmland it’s a river that shouts barbel in every snaking meander, eddying slack and bubbling gravel run. Or so I thought. That first evening’s fishing produced four chub to 4lb on feeder-fished 8mm pellets. I was perched on a muddy ledge with barely enough room for my bony arse and a rod-rest. My landing net had to be fully extended to even touch the water. At the top of the back on a sun-kissed, grassy plateau sat my wife and dog, enjoying a picnic and totally indifferent to my precarious teetering. I had to sit to cast and to land fish as I darn’t move too much. Maybe it was just as well I didn’t hook a barbel as it probably would have pulled me in.
Nonetheless, four wide-mouthed, brassy-backed chub were a treat to behold and one of them pulled so hard I thought it was a barbel!
That afternoon I’d bought a day ticket for some local stretches of the Wye from the famous Woody’s Tackle Shop in Hereford and Woody himself told me that a second spawning period had made the barbel lay-low over recent days. Not the news I wanted to hear. This was verified by the numerous anglers I met in and around the caravan park we were staying in. They’d been catching lots of chub, very few barbel. “Bollocks! I thought, trust me to book a fishing holiday during bonking barbel week.” Saying that, the odd one or two had been showing so I wasn’t too downhearted, and the Wye is so spectacular it was enough just to sit by it and marvel.
One early morning, while my wife kayaked her way up and down a mist shrouded river, I settled myself on a rocky spit built for salmon anglers. Here, the river raced over a shallow gravel run flanked on the near side by a deeper, slower “crease” that was crying out for a cast. On the way down to the peg, I slipped the last six foot on my arse, nearly snapping my rod tip in the process. Indy my sure-footed dog just sat and watched me floundering around, offering no help whatsoever.
Eventually, and after some baiting up, I made my first cast, sat back and waited…and waited. I continued to trickle pellets in to try and draw the fish up but nothing happened until the sun had burnt the mist away and dog walkers began to appear on the footpath above me. Two pristine chub to 4lb in quick succession, then mild sun stroke. By late morning the sun was strong enough to make the stony spit hot to touch and the dog seek refuge in the cool, shady shallows. Time to adjourn to the caravan for a cold one.
That evening, after paying the wife off with the promise of a slap-up restaurant meal, I’d coaxed my way into another likely looking swim that boasted a small, pebbly beach and a gently sloping bank that didn’t require crampons to tackle.
The opposite bank was replete with a wall of huge willows that cascaded over the river. At some point, a massive limb had crashed into the water creating a gently eddying pool that looked promising. There was also one of those hospitable creases closer to the near bank that was also worth investigating, so I had a couple of options. For the first twenty minutes or so I fed both swims with 12mm and 8mm pellets. Then I sent a feeder over to the far bank. Despite fish showing with reckless abandon, the far bank produced not a single twitch. So I tried the near bank crease and straight away caught a small chub, followed by a bigger fish of about 3.5lb, then nothing for an hour as dark descended and pellet supply dwindled.
What followed was one of those events that never happens to you but happens a lot to other anglers you read about. The classic “one last cast” and “I’d packed everything away apart from the rod and landing net” scenario. Because that’s how it played out as the sun set fiery-red behind the willows. I engaged the bait runner and got up to delve around in my rucksack for a head torch. Like a woman’s handbag, finding anything in there is a major operation. Cursing softly as I delved fruitlessly around, I noticed a sudden movement out the corner of my eye and turned to witness my 1.75lb test curve rod bent double and twitching furiously. Then the rasping whizz as line tore from the bait runner. I couldn’t take it in for a second, an actual wrap-around bite, that mythical phenomenon so synonymous with barbel. I grabbed the rod and immediately the fish thundered downstream, ably assisted by the strong current. Its power was breathtaking and it took line in shuddering jolts and surges for a heart-stopping spell, but eventually I began to gain line and soon had a golden torpedo resting in the net. It wasn’t a big fish, maybe five or six pounds but my God what a fight! I took a quick, poor quality photo and had it back in the river resting again until it kicked away, back out into the now dark-silvered, rippling Wye, a river that had delivered my first barbel for over a decade, and a river that I will return to, because once fished, never forgotten.