Catching barbel is fun no matter what their size, but catching big ones is more fun. With half a dozen modest fish under my belt already this week it was time for an away day. Not knowing what the river would be like I called in for some maggots en route. As soon as I saw the brown water I knew they were surplus to requirements.
Two other anglers were chatting in the car park by the riverside and one of them was a tench fishing acquaintance I hadn't seen since I bumped into him on this length of river last winter. It turned out that he was suffering a barbel famine and was off chubbing. I'm not sure why he was moaning about the lack of barbel after his golden summer of 24 doubles though! I hadn't planned on fishing the Alley, but it looked good, and there were just the two other anglers on, plus a roving chubber.
First of all I'd walk upstream, well past the Alley, to fish a a spot that looks like it's mid way between access points on the map and so I had usually approached from the other end. It turns out to be a much shorter walk going upstream. D'oh!
I spent an hour with a lump of meat fishing a slack behind a bush. A spot I hadn't tried before but looked the part. Tucked down the bank the wind was going over my head and I felt the full benefit of the warm air. The sky was bright but cloudy. Another grand day to be on the river bank. With the water coloured, up a foot or so and over eight degrees I was brim full of barbel confidence.
The first move involved fighting my way under a big old fallen, and chopped up, willow. Under this was the remains of a barbed wire fence and a stile. Over the fence and there was ditch to negotiate - with tree trunks for stepping stones. Going back in the dark might be fun! Now I was in familiar territory. I dropped in below a run of willow bushes, the meat going on their edge and a single 8mm pellet (crab, naturally) being dropped in downstream just in front of some overhanging grass. I sat back and relaxed.
The fieldfares are still around, although it won't be long before they head north again. A noisy flock of twenty or so flew into the top branches of a tall willow on the far bank before flying off to roost. Watching swans grazing in a distant field is a peculiar experience. What's more surprising, when you know what a performance they make of landing on water, is how easily they do it on dry land. Luckily the majority of them stayed where they were and didn't become a flotilla of white annoyance going up and down the river all night.
I have little faith in luncheon meat. It was changed to a couple of S-Pellets by half four. Originally I'd intended to move before dark. However, the swim gave me confidence and I sat there until seven. The only action being a slow chub pull to the S-Pellets. I packed the gear and braved the fallen willow. I thought that carrying all my gear over the 'stepping logs' would be more troublesome than it was. The fence proved to be the sticking point. Literally! Once through all I had to do was avoid falling off the path that follows the crumbling bank edge.
The swim I had in mind to fish next was occupied. Not a big deal there are plenty to chose from, and I chose the Gate swim that I have caught from before. By the time I reached it I'd worked up quite a sweat. The baits were positioned as before, the S-Pellet upstream to a crease, the crab pellet down to trailing branches. At eight there was a tap or two to the S-Pellets. This then developed into what looked like the tip action you get when a chub has hooked itself and isn't swimming off. I pulled into the fish. Or I would have done had there been one there. Instead the hook flew into the grass at the water's edge and refused to pull free. I slid down the bank, flashing the light from my Petzl everywhere and making a bit of a commotion to free it.
A fresh bag of pellets was applied to the hook and the bait recast. I'd give it half an hour on the off chance I hadn't scared any fish in the swim off then move again. Time to make up some more pellet bags. That done the pellet bucket was put back in the carry-all and I relaxed again. Hardly five minutes had passed when the isotope on the downstream rod became a blurry shooting star describing an arc towards the water. The baitrunner whirred into life and I grabbed the rod, stopping the spool with a finger before knocking off the baitrunner.
The fish wasn't moving. I thought I felt the line pinging off something. Maybe it was snagged? I kept the pressure on and then the fish thrashed on the surface. Now it was coming upstream. Relief! It felt like a decent one too. The first time it came to the net it looked a scraper double. The net was wrapped over itself and I had to flip it free. The fish powered off again, and again. When I slid it over the net I had to slide it further than I'd anticipated. Looking down as it rolled on its back in the mesh it was deep flanked, broad shouldered, solid and immaculate.
The net was staked out while I got the mat, sling and camera sorted. Then the fish was lifted ashore in the net, unhooked, weighed and four quick photos taken. It's a shame we don't have long to look at fish when they are landed. Some of them are worthy of admiration. But that's why we photograph them I suppose. Back in the water as soon as her tail was free of the folds of the sling she powered out into the river. Is that the best part of catching a big fish?
I needed a rest after all that! An hour later I was on the move again. It was a quiet night. Not much traffic along the lane. While still mild it was turning cooler. The moon was high and hazy behind the clouds. The flask was all but empty. The fish weren't biting. Quarter to eleven and I packed up making plans for the final two day assault.