It's something I've been avoiding for over twelve months. Fishing a stretch of river that gets hammered but holds some very big barbel. I don't like having anglers on either side of me when fishing close in. I'm also not a fan of dog walkers with large, unrestrained hounds. A time or two I have set off intending to brave the stretch and bottled it. This session nearly went the same way.
Setting off after doing some work in the morning and eating a bag of chips for lunch I was in a relaxed mood as I arrived at the riverside car park. Having driven through showers, with more forecast, I thought I'd park up, check the river level then throw the thermometer in the water while I put my fishing togs on. As another shower had arrived the waterproofs were required.
The river wasn't quite as high as I'd anticipated, maybe a foot or more on. There was a touch of colour but clarity was good enough to see the leaves going downstream six to ten inches below the surface. With well over three hours before dark I had a wander along the river. I've not fished near the car park before and saw a few spots that looked like they'd be worth dropping a bait in. It was quite a temptation as little walking would be involved, but I'd set off to fish the other stretch. Back in the car and ten minutes later I was pulling up by a couple more cars. Expecting to see a few anglers in the hot swims I decided to go have a look and if they were occupied go elsewhere. To my amazement given the warm day and the state of the river, which was 7.4C by the way, the swims were empty - although well trampled, and muddied by the recent rain. I retraced my steps, grabbed my tackle and headed back to the river.
One valuable lesson that barbel fishing has taught me is to take my time picking a swim. A couple of them looked okay. One was a bit swirly for my liking, and the other had just a little too much pace. The problem of the leaves also had to be considered and after much deliberation I chose a swim that had a current deflection which I hoped would send the majority of the leaves out from the bank allowing my margin fished baits to remain in place for a decent length of time. I reckon if barbel are pressured that leaving your baits alone once cast out is a good idea.
I took my time tackling up and retied both rigs. One went a few yards upstream, the other about fifteen yards downstream. With the baits out I settled down to a brew and a bite to eat. A sparrowhawk swooped along the bank behind me, a dabchick scuttled across the river when it spotted me then worked its way slowly up the far margin, and a kingfisher zipped over the water in a streak of vivid turquoise.
By now the rain had eased off, but I left the brolly up to keep the breeze off me. Two dog walkers passed me by, their animals mercifully leaving me alone. Still no anglers arrived and it was getting dark. The baits stayed put.
After the light had gone the silhouette of a tackle laden angler headed downstream on the far bank. I was listening to the radio, taking in the world's affairs of the day and thinking to myself that fishing makes a lot more sense than worrying about collapsing economies when I heard the zuzzzz of a baitrunner. With both rods being fished horizontally on two rests, rather than beachcaster style on one, it took a second or two to realise which reel was spinning. The single 8mm pellet had been picked up after almost two hours. Whatever had picked it up felt heavy.
Some people claim that they enjoy catching five and six pound barbel more than bigger ones because they give you a better scrap. Well they do charge around the swim like fish possessed. Changing direction many times and with speed. But for me the heavy plod of a bigger fish is what gets my adrenaline flowing and induces a feeling of anxiety not knowing how big the fish might be, or if it will stay attached long enough to put it in the net. When a big barbel makes a run it does so with a steady certainty and power that a five pounder could only match if grabbed by a twenty pound pike!
This fish came grudgingly upstream, pulled a bit of line on a short run into the flow, then popped up and slid towards the net. Almost there it woke up, turning, diving and running back into the flow with a single splash of its tail. Back up on the surface, after a couple more short runs upstream, I had most of it in the net. Fishing with a bit of a drop to the water always makes netting fish tricky. I thought the fish was going to swim over the net frame, but it didn't. A lift and the whole of it's body was in the mesh. Phew!
Sticking a bankstick through the V of the spreader block the barbel could rest in the water without any chance of escape while I wetted the weighsling and readied unhooking mat and camera. The batteries in the camera were flat, so the spares were pressed into service. While I was sorting everything out I managed to step on the bulb release a couple of times and take pictures of nothing...
Eventually, after just five minutes or so, I lifted the net to the mat, popped the hook free and squeezed the fish into my sling. I managed to hold the scales steady enough without additional support from the landing net pole to read off a very satisfying figure. Another notch on the rod butt! I carried the fish in the weighsling to the next swim downstream where I could get to the water's edge to release it. As usual no nursing was required and she slid into the remains of the marginal reeds and out of sight. By now I was covered in slimy mud, sweating but satisfied.
Slowly, I sorted out the devastation in my swim, rebaited both rods and recast. It was a great night to be out. Warm, dry and quiet. Even the rats I'd expected to be disturbed by were keeping a low profile. I heard a noise behind me and turned to see an angler. He'd just turned up for an after-work session. After a chat he wandered off, came back and set up a couple of pegs upstream. A while later I saw a headtorch coming towards me from downstream. Odd, nobody else had walked past me that way. This bloke, it turned out, had used a downstream access point. He was blanking, trying to fish across the river and struggling to hold out because of the leaves. The silhouette walked back up the far bank, my flask began to grow cold. I packed up. The upstream angler hadn't had anything and we both agreed that the river was picking up a little pace.
To be honest I hadn't expected to catch on my first venture into the lion's den. While it hadn't been one of the 'lumps' that inhabit the stretch the fish has given me the confidence that my rigs will work on the stretch for the supposedly cagey barbel that live there. I'll be fishing there again, but whether I can face it when it's busy is another matter.