Book Extract: Barbel Tales from the Barbel Society
I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed reading Barbel Tales. It’s one of those dipping books that would grace any angler’s book shelf and one you’re likely to pick up regularly if you’re sat by the fireside on a cold winter’s night and there’s precious little of interest on the telly but any realistic chance of catching a barbel is pretty slim. One way or another it’ll give you that fix you’re looking for.
One chapter in particular stood out as a favourite for me. Terry Baxter’s tale would bring a tear to a glass eye so I specifically asked if I might share it here. The Society did better than that and sent me 3 chapters. Each is very different in its own way and will give a feel for the breadth of writing contained within the book. Barbel Tales is a production that any serious barbel enthusiast will enjoy and the quality of its reproduction is a credit to the Barbel Society and all those who worked on it. A job well done.
Details of where and how you can obtain a copy can be found at the bottom of the page.
Family Double Act – by Dr Terry Baxter
Where to begin? Like all barbel fishermen, I know exactly the date, time and place I became addicted to catching barbel, and like many faithful to the cause, it was a lost fish that was responsible. That was when this epic saga began; however, it would be most unfair to try and compress eleven years into one article and terribly wearisome for the reader. The pain, dramas, highs and lows; we’ve all been there and tasted what it is that makes this sport so spectacularly special. What I will say, for the record, is that during those one hundred and thirty two months, I lost four very big fish; and each one is etched clearly in my memory, forever. They help make what happened yesterday that much sweeter; as sweet as homemade apple-pie.
I’d been praying for rain all spring. During last year’s drought the Swale was as low as I’ve ever seen it and I took a serious beating. I put it down to trying new baits and methods, and missing out on rolling meat, because there was no flow. Well, the rain came in bucket-loads this summer, incessantly, but I didn’t roll much meat. I was into pellets in a big way, and with good reason. My first Swale nine for many a month came within a fortnight of the start of the season, to a Hinders Elips. It was a stonking, fit fish of 9lb 12oz and worthy of a photo. So I called over veteran barbel angler ‘Barbel Bob’, and with due care for the fish’s well-being, he snapped off five quick pics on my new digital camera. As I slipped the fish back, I boasted that I could now show Bob his handiwork on the camera’s LCD display. You guessed it. There wasn’t one single image; the shutter hadn’t triggered, presumably because Bob’s hands are like shovels and the compact’s buttons very, piddling little.
‘Ah don’t know what to say, Terry.’
‘Never mind Bob; there’s always next time.’
‘Yer’ll no’ be asking me then, will thee? Ah’m ivver so sorry, lad.’
To say he was distraught is putting it mildly. However, as I drove home late that evening, I was swathed in tranquillity and promise. Surely, I could do it again? It was just a matter of time; and by then, many of the nines would be nearer ten. The fields along the A19 were carpeted with small pockets of milk-white mist, diaphanous like spun silk, and I mused, this would have made a fine backdrop to a Yorkshire double; if only it could have been that night. Just a matter of time; how often I had muttered those words in recent years to bolster my ‘unenviable’ record. I’d pulled nineteen nines out of the Swale, to 9lb 15oz, but had failed to breach the magic ten pound barrier. Even I was beginning to seriously wonder now if I would ever do it, in this lifetime.
There was another, much greater and more significant barrier I’d been aiming to breach these past two seasons, if I could. Joe, our youngest son, who was born with a serious handicap four years ago, wanted to go and catch a barbel for himself. He was adamant about it. However, his constitution has been brittle, to say the least, and his physique is simply not up to the rigours of holding a rod or walking the bank. Nevertheless, what he lacks in stamina he makes up for with courage and wilfulness; he knows his mind, and once made-up, there’s no turning him.
‘I’m coming with you, dad. I want to catch a barbel, all by myself.’
‘One day son; you will, I promise.’
Joe understands a promise and he never forgets anything. I could not, in all conscience, sneak off many more times and leave him wondering why his dad had left him behind, yet again. It was beginning to tell on both of us. When I rang from the river on my mobile, late July, he refused point blank to speak to me, and moped disconsolately around the house all the rest of the day, until my return; at which point, he gave me something of a rollicking. The time had surely come.
On July 31st 2004 we set out for the Swale. The plan was simple; lunch at that last bastion of reasonably-priced great cuisine in Yorkshire, the Crab and Lobster at Asenby, then down to the river to a swim full of barbel. I reckoned we’d have maybe an hour before Joe lost it, and asked to go home. Becky, my second eldest, came with me to help carry the stuff and look after Joe. As I made our first cast, I mused who
would claim the prize if we hooked a big fish; this swim had thrown out many a double over the years. I had to smile at the prospect. The rod walloped over ten minutes later and Joe was into his first barbel, doing its best to dive into a snag under some willows, on the far side. Becky sat behind Joe and did the donkey work, and Joe clung on to the butt for dear life, trying hard to wind the handle. The barbel did him proud. It pulled valiantly all the way to the net and made the sanctuary of a stand of rushes to our left just once, which made us sweat. When I unhooked the six pound fish, Joe stood admiringly by, and after the photo-call, said:
‘Put it back, dad. Let’s catch another one!’
It was good to see him entering into the spirit of things. I was chuffed to stacks, after all that he’d been through; so was Joe. I was right about the hour as well. We managed one more fish before we had to go home, at Joe’s behest. I couldn’t wring another minute out of him.
I wasn’t looking forward to September the 4th. Kath and the rest of the family were leaving to attend a wedding in Brighton; Joe and I were left to hold the fort, alone.
‘I’ll take him fishing; after we’ve been to the Crab and Lobster again, of course. We’ll be alright love. Don’t worry.’
‘Yes! I can see you will.’
‘Missing you already, darling.’
Suddenly the prospect of being left behind looked a whole lot rosier. So did the weather outlook. For once, it was going to be dry. I spent the evening before painting the outside of the house, a job that had been hanging over me for over a year, and one that I detest. Joe was an absolute angel and let me finish before dark. I went with Joe to bed, exhausted, but couldn’t sleep. At 4am, just as I was dropping off, Joe fell out of bed with an almighty thump and that was the end of that. He didn’t cry; he didn’t even wake up. The sleep of the innocent! At 6am, I gave in and got up. The three pints of bitter I’d imbibed the night before, ostensibly to help me sleep, had given me a throbbing headache. I felt dog-rough. I knew just the tonic.
‘We’re off to the allotment to dig potatoes.’
To my amazement, Joe received the news eagerly, after first reminding me of our prior engagement at the Crab and Lobster, and then fishing. He loves helping on the allotment; especially when strawberries are in the frame.
‘We are going to the Crab and Lobster, aren’t we?’
‘Are you nagging me?’
‘Yes, I am daddy!
Half the potatoes were spoiled by blight. As I turned them over in the soil, the stench quite as bad as rotting flesh, I thought bitterly of all the work that had gone into planting them. I was very close to giving up. When we got back home and had showered, I was so weary I decided not to take the fishing gear with us after-all. Somehow I would placate Joe with a plate of cheesecake instead. I was almost out the door when Joe piped up:
‘Don’t forget the rods, dad!’
‘Oh, Joe; alright then!’
It was all there, in the utility, ready to be loaded, but it was more than I could honestly be pestered with. Five minutes later, we were on our way, a whole half hour ahead of schedule, rods in-tow. Joe fell asleep in his car-seat. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because halfway down the A19 we hit a slow-moving tailback, five or six miles long. It took us nearly three-quarters of an hour to clear a few hundred yards of road-works. I was furious now I hadn’t booked a table. I needn’t have been. When we arrived, the pub was almost empty. It was time now to chill out. The meal, as always, was superb. Joe got stuck into his chips, whilst I tucked into char-grilled swordfish steak, garnished with summer greens and scallops. I nicked a few of his chips to dip in the sauce. The minutes seemed to pass like hours; old-time music, dating back to the early part of last century, crooned melodically in the background, and masses of memorabilia hanging from the ceilings and festooning every nook and cranny feasted the eye. Soon, the meal and the beer had found the spot. I couldn’t eat another thing.
‘Should we go, Joe?’
‘Yeah! Give the man the money. Let’s go fishing!’
The river was calling. Joe didn’t seem to mind we’d skipped his favourite dessert. I liked that.
I’d like to be able to say too, that when the bite came, I was ready for it; that the tip had twitched promisingly a couple of times and then wrenched right over. I couldn’t possibly tell. I was face-first in some bushes, doing what men are prone to do after having drunk a pint or two. I turned sluggishly to see the rod catapulting forward, like a javelin, off the front rest. Only a tight-fitting Fox butt-rest saved it from going in the drink. Halfway indecent and wet down one trouser-leg, I grabbed the flailing rod and struck hard. It was clearly a good-sized fish, for we met with solid resistance. I reckoned maybe somewhere between seven-and-a-half and eight pounds.
‘Come on, Joe; help me pull it in!’
We sat together in his chair and hauled for all we were worth; the rod hooped over in a generous and alarming arc. Joe, for his part, looked stern and very proper in his gilet, sporting a pair of shiny chrome forceps hanging from a clasp, near the top-pocket. His barbel still hadn’t left the deep gully where I’d hooked it and thrust repeatedly towards the same snag that Joe’s first fish had, five weeks earlier. Once free though, I was fairly sure it was as good as in the net. It dallied for a moment or two in the stand of rushes on the left and then boiled up on the surface twice. Seconds later it was safely in the net. I still thought it was an eight pound fish.
‘It’s not a barbel daddy.’
For one horrible moment I thought that he was right. It suddenly looked way too big. Perhaps I’d hooked a carp. I took another peek into the folds of the net, and gasped. I was pretty certain that we’d landed a Swale double. It was massive round its girth; big-bellied and broad across the shoulder.
‘Joe, it is a barbel and it’s very, very big. Let’s weigh it and see.’
We left it in the net to recover whilst we got everything ready and set it in the sling. The scales bounced beyond the ten mark and settled at just above 10lb 2oz.
‘Oh, Joe; you won’t believe it. It is a double! It’s a ten-pound barbel!’
I danced like a complete lunatic around the peg, chanting over and over again; ‘We’ve done it; we’ve done it!’ Joe looked embarrassed, and not a little nonplussed. He’d never seen his dad behave like this before.
‘We’ll put her back in the water to get her breath; and then we’ll get some photographs taken. Are you going to help me hold it?’
I knew straight away who I was going to ask to take the pictures, Barbel Bob, and shouted down the length of river as loud as I could:
‘Bob! We’ve done it! We’ve got a double! Come quickly.’
Bob kindly obliged, and though I say it myself, I think he did a fine job of capturing the moment. Thanks for that, mate.
I sat for several minutes, trying hard to take it all in. Mine may have been an epic journey lasting all of eleven years, but Joe’s battle to fish the Swale for a barbel, for himself, was much more close-fought and the stakes an awful lot higher. Even more poignantly, had he not been so strong-willed and insisted that we go fishing, I would not have my Yorkshire double today; my rods would have stayed at home.
And on Monday, Joe started infant’s school, quite the little man about town. He was different from the little boy who’d helped me pick potatoes that Saturday morning; he held himself with all the dignity, composure and poise of a dyed-in-the-wool barbel angler. Let’s just say we cried.
* * * * * * * *
Never mind the barbel, where’s the fruitcake? by Les Darlington
If the title intrigues then all well and good, if you have however begun this chapter expecting a tale of some crazed barbel angler then disappointment inevitably awaits anyone who chooses to read on. Likewise, if you think this is a how to do it, instant fix, fishing by numbers piece, you too would be misled and in any case if that’s what floats your boat then I suggest you skip this chapter altogether and find another elsewhere in this book to slake your thirst for knowledge.
Don’t get me wrong, I have been there, buying, begging, though drawing the line at stealing copies of any barbel publication going in the hope that it would make me a better angler. It’s a phase I am sure we all go through by some degree or another and for some it’s not a phase but it remains as the way they choose to fish. After all it is our individual choice and that’s absolutely fine, indeed the beauty of angling is that we each have choices and we should count our blessings that we have so many wonderful and accessible places to fish here on our fair isle. Having satiated our desire for knowledge through the written word and perhaps even visited websites and forums along the way, each one dutifully dedicated and earnest in respect of their subject matter, we quickly find that our foray in to the world of the barbel angler only serves to create a deeper craving for knowledge. This thirst is so great that at times we wander the rivers like vampires, sucking up information about this river, that bait, new rigs, old rigs, latest rod, some, if not all endorsed by a series of acclaimed or self acclaimed experts. And the whole lot is skilfully packaged by the wiles of marketing men and women determined to lose the change from our pockets.
My story is perhaps no different to others, the theory lessons were completed after many weeks of reading and I went out and caught two barbel on my first trip to the river Teme at Lindridge, toward the back end of 2006. From that point on I was well and truly hooked, the theory put into practice, location, bait, rig, I felt like a barbel angler. They were both small fish by current standards but nothing prepares you for the thrill of hooking a fish that seems determined to pull your arms out of their sockets. It took me two years to get my first double, a fish of eleven pounds from the Teme at Cotheridge and that served to fire my enthusiasm to new heights.
I joined The Barbel Society the same year and a whole new world was opened up to me. At my first conference I found myself standing on the shoulders of giants, figures from the specialist world of barbel fishing, up until that point they were names in a series of books but in fact they were real people who had the grace to stop and talk to a budding barbel angler who was perhaps a little overawed by their status. Within its ranks though was to come something much more than the knowledge I thought I was looking for namely how to catch more and bigger barbel. As it turned out more importantly, at least to me that is, it generated a deeper understanding of the brotherhood of the angle, so described by our founding father Isaak Walton.
Let’s face it, we are no longer driven to fish through a need to survive, our basic need for warmth, food and shelter have long been met. It is not a life and death situation though some elements of the angling media would have us believe otherwise. How could we possibly survive unless we have the latest high-tec equipment and cover ourselves from head to foot in camouflage gear befitting jungle warfare? And, heaven forbid, what bait we should be seen using, because we all know that pellets are so last year?
For me the `Be quiet and go a angling` philosophy of one of our much loved angling writers `BB` is something that has added to my pleasure of catching fishes, or not as the case may be. And that in some way is the point, by eliminating the pressure to catch at any cost and thinking a little more about the simple pleasure of angling a wider more enjoyable world was revealed to me.
Fishing is, or at least it should be a pleasure, though looking at the demeanour of some of my fellow anglers hauling excessive amounts of gear from one swim to another, it looks much harder work than I could ever endure.
Whilst I often carry more than I need, the more I fish the less I try to take with me. Simplicity is the key – if you are using a simple approach then unsurprisingly you need much less tackle. I probably take more food for myself than I do for the fish I endeavour to catch and the great thing is that all of that weight has gone from my rucksack on the return trek. I have an expanding waistline to prove it.
A good friend has also introduced me to the simple delight of bamboo fishing rods and centrepin reels; his quiet enthusiasm serving to increasingly pique my interest. I am not talking about a zealous denial of all things modern but more a respect for tradition and the slower pace, etiquette and good manners of a time gone by. Apart from the fact that in my, as yet limited, experience you have to adjust your approach to respect the materials being used – attempting to chuck heavy lumps of lead in to a swollen river with a split cane rod is simply asking for disaster. The use of traditional tackle not only begs you to refine your approach; its very nature somehow demands it. I have been pleasantly surprised at the level of interest the use of traditional tackle provokes, especially from the older generation. I have had more anglers stop and chat when I am using such tackle then I have ever had using modern gear. Everyone to a man has had or seen a rod or reel like it, either because they used them as a boy or because they saw their father, grandfather or uncles use them. Its use has certainly enriched my angling life by widening my perspective and introducing me to a group of anglers rich in character. More importantly they are anglers who live by the traditional values of gentlemanly conduct and respect their brother angler and their quarry in equal measures.
I know that I am not the first and neither will I be the last angler to be quizzed by a non angling friend who fails to see the point of why we fish. Don’t you get bored? What do you think about? The answers `no` and `nothing very much`, do little to reassure them of my mental state. I quietly know though that it is their loss, their lack of understanding that keeps them away from the wonder and fascination of the waterside.
What strikes me is that even when our landing nets are dry there is still so much to see and hear just by being still. The high-pitched whistle followed by the electric blue flash of a kingfisher as it flies past with astonishing speed and agility, or the haunting, mewling cries of buzzards over the Teme valley as they soar effortlessly on the thermals during those balmy days of summer. The distant drumming of a woodpecker on dead wood, amorous courtship wing slapping of wood pigeon in the trees and the drone of millions of insects mingling with nature`s soundtrack of many different birds. When I was working, and the day was more stressful than normal, I only had to close my eyes briefly to be able to recall those sights and sounds and, in doing so, a valuable perspective on the day was gained. The old saying that a bad days fishing is always better then a good day at work is a little misleading because, lets be honest there really is no such thing as a bad days fishing – again it is a matter of perspective.
On one occasion fishing the river Teme some way below the landmark Powick chimney I sat tucked away amongst the Himalayan balsam half a rod length up and back from the rivers edge when a heron attempted to land at the waters edge in front of me. I don’t know who was more surprised at the unexpected encounter, the heron or me, but not even David Attenborough’s film crew could have gotten themselves into a better position to take a photograph. So close was it I could feel the updraft from its wings as they beat a slow motion ‘brakes hard on’ reverse thrust. In those moments I could make out every marking of its fabulous plumage and fully appreciate the size of its outstretched wings and formidable spear-like beak. Don’t ever think this is a dull grey bird the next time you see one flap by in the distance, with its head tucked in and its long legs trailing, close up they are as striking in appearance as a jay. Sadly my camera wasn’t to hand, and even if it was the heron’s appearance was so unexpected that surprise would have slowed my reflexes. Instead the image is burned into my memory, each and every slow motion frame of the moment, though I would prefer not to have such a vivid recall of the involuntary evacuation of its waste food in surprise! The reader will no doubt be delighted to know that I at least managed to maintain my dignity.
What chance would I have had of that encounter if I had not been still and quiet? I can tell you what chance, no chance! I have on many occasions walked the banks of the Teme during the close season with determined stealth whilst in the process of barbel spotting and any herons I have chanced upon along the way have seen me and flown off well before I have had the opportunity to observe them in any detail.
Likewise, I have seen otters close up, perhaps on more occasions than many of my brothers of the angle would prefer, but they are engaging creatures and I for one don’t mind sharing the river with them. Yes I hear the cries of derision and I don’t for one moment dispute the impact they have had on certain rivers where they have been reintroduced, but I would take an otter any day against a mink who no more deserve to be present in our countryside than the grey squirrel does. By coincidence, I was sitting in the exact same swim in which I had my earlier encounter with the heron. On this occasion the water clarity was good and barbel and chub were visibly active in the water below my rod top, both species feeding vigorously on the free offerings. As I sat quietly I noticed that the trailing willow branches on the opposite bank were moving in the opposite direction to the flow and in the same moment that my mind registered this, a small bow wave and then movement appeared beneath the dappled light of the trailing branches. I immediately assumed it was mink, after all it was broad daylight and I couldn’t think what else it could be. Then the movement materialised into a living form as the slick outline of an otter clambered on to the bank. I held my breath and remained as still as a stone for fear of disturbing it and watched as it sniffed the bank and then the air before slipping back in to the water with barely a ripple. I didn’t see it again that day but I did continue to catch and indeed I had a chub of about two pounds within five minutes of the otter departing from my swim.
If you are beginning to get the idea that my only pleasure is fishing alone then you could not be further from the truth. Whilst I am comfortable with my own company, the company of a good friend or friends at the waterside only adds to the joy of a day`s fishing. Keeping quiet is less easy but not impossible and only last year as I sat by the river Kennet waiting for the rod tip to twitch I became aware of movement in my peripheral vision and on turning my head came face to face with a grass snake – in case you are wondering and to give the reader some perspective I was sat down at the time. The snake had no doubt been drawn by the scent of the luncheon meat I was using for bait and had come to investigate. In doing so it had reared its head, much like a cobra, to get a better view inside the bait tub. Perhaps if I had not turned my head quite so swiftly and eyeballed the creature – in a parody of Disney’s Jungle Book scene when the boy Mowgli encounters Kaa the Indian python – I am sure our encounter would have lasted a little longer. As it was, in one fluid movement it lowered its head, turned and slithered silently into the undergrowth. I carried on fishing, richer for the experience – as for the snake, well it never did get to taste the luncheon meat and blooming grateful it should be too.
Whilst that was a unique and probably never to be repeated encounter, I have on the other hand been fortunate to repeat many enjoyable days in the company of my brothers of the angle, a completely different angling experience. A chance to catch up, share news, laugh, solve the wrongs of the angling world and delight at the pleasure of catching and of having someone else to share in that. A good mate is one who, without asking, is there to help with landing a good fish, taking photos of that special capture and ensuring of course that the scales are set up properly if and when the fish warrants weighing. The banter that follows is always great fun and I note that when I catch a fish it’s inevitably down to skill but for some reason my friends are just plain lucky! Or is it the other way around?
In the company of friends I find myself more often than not spending less time fishing and more time firing up the Kelly Kettle ready for a brew, having tea and most importantly enjoying a slice of my wife’s homemade fruitcake – an important ritual in my days fishing. The cake has become somewhat famous amongst my angling friends and I am a little suspicious that invitations to fish are more to do with my good lady’s fruitcake than my skills as an angler or raconteur. Still, I am happy to play second fiddle to my wife’s baking prowess, I just hope she doesn’t take up fishing as my own invitations to fish would surely dry up – so never mind the barbel, where’s the fruitcake?
* * * * * * * *
Loddon Quest by Neill Stephen
It’s cold. I splash down through the ruts and potholes of Carters Hill, and pull my car up at the end of the farm lane next to the holly bush. Stepping out into a muddy puddle, I take in the wet, drizzly February evening and the nearby roar of the M4. I note the other cars, each unwelcome competition, and load up my tired shoulders with damp, smelly kit. I haul myself over the gate, and begin the long lumber across that drainingly familiar field, each heavy squelching step bringing me closer and closer to the infernal motorway. Another gate, another muddy wet field, and I am finally at the stile that marks the entrance to the river. I could throw a stone onto the motorway from here. It is deafeningly loud without the summer vegetation. I stand in darkness on the stile, and stare down at the water: silent, oily swirls briefly illuminated by orange lights from the bridge. I am back for the first time in two months, having taken a forced hiatus due to the arctic conditions of December and January. I contemplate the complete failure of the winter before, three months of fishing for one barbel, and the total of twenty five consecutive blanks so far this winter. I think about the mile of nearly identical river to my right, the mile of identical river to my left, and the seeming impossibility of locating one of a small number of barbel that might be anywhere in either direction. I brace myself for the next half mile of walking, and the slippery banks that await me, covered in soft glutinous flood spill sediment: a substance that has coated my rods, my bags, my car, and my clothes. I take a deep breath, gather my strength, and swear obscenely at the river.
It hadn’t always been like this. My first season on Carters Hill, like the start of many a relationship, was a flourish of optimism. Arriving in October 2009, with late autumnal sunshine filling my face, I found a placid and lush river, slipping through remote farmland and old twisted wood copses, surrounded by thick abundant vegetation, cabbages blooming under the surface, and snags tumbling over themselves to reach the water. Even the motorway seemed bearable, the busy rumbling and whooshing of the traffic over my shoulder somehow heightening the contrasting serenity and loneliness of the place. As autumn became winter, it took on a mysterious and haunting atmosphere. Gone were the weeds, stripped back to reveal hard black gravel, and gone was that sedentary peaceful river, the relentless descent of floodwater to the Thames now carving a powerful and stark channel through tangled branches and collapsed alders. It began to smell of monsters, and I never failed to get butterflies in my stomach as I crossed the lonely fields and marshes towards it, particularly on those November evenings when eerie mists would settle over the valley, and skeletal trees would loom spookily across the river.
However, my enthusiasm could only survive so many blanks, and by the end of my second winter, I was feeling truly beaten. With a total tally of three fish, at 11lb10oz, 14lb 4oz, and 15lb 5oz, I couldn’t complain about the weights, but it was a dismal number of fish for the effort. To be fair, both winters had been treacherous, snow and ice rendering much of them unfishable, but despite this excuse, I felt like a failure. I had foolishly believed that my traditional tactics – roaming around with a single rod, covering miles in a night, freelining and touch legering where possible – would give me an edge over the anglers glued to their chairs. I was wrong.
The problem with Carters Hill is not only the low stock; it’s the fact that there are no real holding areas. The river often resembles one giant barbel swim, a uniformly deep and weedy push of water over gravel and under snags. Consequently, the barbel can be incredibly mobile, and caught anywhere between the weirs at the top and bottom of the stretch. Over time, I learnt that by staying in one place for as long as possible, and waiting for a barbel to swim past, you were much more likely to catch one than by trying to drop a bait on their noses. Once I began fishing this way, the few takes I received were at extremely anti-social hours in the morning, a phenomenon that led many to adopt overnight stays and bite alarms. However, once temperatures dropped, and the fish stopped moving around, even these tactics became ineffective.
It wasn’t just the blanks that got to me; I was also concerned that the stocks weren’t what they initially seemed. When I had begun, there was talk of two different nineteen pound fish, and numerous backups. However, when I methodically compared every photo I could of big Carters Hill barbel from the past three years, I could only be certain that there were two barbel over sixteen pounds in the stretch, as every single photo turned out to be one of these two fish.
The first was Steve Fantauzzi’s official Loddon record of 19lb 2oz, a fish which had actually been moved into Carters Hill from the weir pool below Sindlesham Mill three years earlier. The second was a beautiful dark sixteen pound plus fish, which had been caught to weights up to seventeen and a half pounds, but seemed to hover around the mid sixteen mark. I always associated this latter fish with Duncan Charman, as one of his atmospheric photos of it had originally inspired me to start there. Curiously, there had been another nineteen pounder in the venue, but this had seemingly moved in the floods the year before I started, and been caught from a completely different stretch, at a new unclaimed Loddon record of well over nineteen pounds. The captor was understandably very secretive about where he caught it. I could speculate, but it certainly wasn’t in Carters Hill anymore.
So, a return to the river for a third season began to resemble a campaign for one of two known fish, something I was not keen on. The occasional sightings of otters meant I couldn’t even be certain the two fish were in there anymore. The problem was, I had reached a stage that some barbel anglers go through, not the enlightened ones I might add, where I craved a really big barbel. I had set my heart on catching a sixteen pound plus fish, and there simply weren’t many around. The glory days of the Ouse were gone, the Kennet stretches inaccessible to me, the Thames too big an unknown, the Wensum ravaged by its otters, the Ivel too pressured, and the Dove too far away…so I kept coming back to Carters Hill. With a club membership of over three thousand six hundred, and a number of committed specimen anglers all wanting the same thing, the odds of catching one of these fish seemed remote, particularly as they didn’t tend to appear more than once or twice a season. I was also handicapped by living well over an hour away and only being able to fish two or three evenings a week due to a demanding job, and a relationship I did not want to lose for the sake of specimen angling. But odds like this are the price of fishing for known big fish, it comes with the territory, and as June 16th approached, I realised I had come too far to turn back.
I was determined things would be different for my third season. For a start, I began earlier. The previous summer I had enjoyed success on a different stretch of the Loddon at Dinton Pastures through August, sticking to one swim in a night, baiting heavily, and fishing as late as I could. The result was over twenty different doubles in just over a month to 14lb 9oz. It was great fishing, but the one big fish I had hoped to catch in the stretch, an eighteen pounder previously caught by Alan Stagg, just didn’t turn up, either to me or others, and the regular sighting of otters led me to the sad conclusion that it probably wasn’t there anymore. However, I had seen how well the river fished in these warmer months.
At the end of July, my girlfriend Rachela, who I was due to marry later in August, went on holiday with her parents for ten days. It meant I could get to the river every evening and try a new technique – regular pre-baiting. Using hemp and pellet to keep the cost down, I carried as much as I could over the fields and deposited it in a little swim under a big oak tree, near some big snags in the weedy middle section of the venue. I also raked a small patch to ensure presentation would be perfect. After three nights of this, after which I fished for eels on a nearby lake, I began to worry that I had overdone it. The next evening, after a very hot day with temperatures to thirty degrees, I turned up to fish the swim for the first time. As dusk fell, I lowered my rig down into the spot, and felt it absolutely crack down. The area had been scoured. Almost immediately, the rod tip was rattling and bouncing away. It seemed like every chub and bream in the river was in the swim, and as it got darker they rolled and splashed like it was the party of the century. It didn’t take long before the tip pulled round confidently, and a beautiful golden bream of around six pounds was sliding to the net.
Incredibly, about an hour after dark, all the activity stopped. It seemed the chub and bream had eaten all the bait, and cleared off. The next night followed the same pattern. It wasn’t until the third night of fishing that I caught a barbel, a rather sorry looking nine pounder which had clearly only recently spawned. The bite came late at night, three hours after the chub and bream activity had stopped, and I was fairly sure the fish had arrived to a single hook bait. It was an important lesson – no amount of pre-baiting was going to alter the inherently nomadic nature of the barbel. Despite the rumours about baiting campaigns and their negative results on the stretch, I wondered how much bait the barbel ever got to see.
I carried on fishing the swim for one more unproductive night, before deciding time might be better spent preparing for the autumn when the fish were more likely to be in the stretch, and weighing more after their late spawn-out. Early on the sunny Sunday morning I did something I had been thinking about for a while, and took my little canoe for a trip down the river, armed only with a notebook and a prodding stick. I wasn’t sure if this was strictly permitted, but with the river deserted, I felt I wasn’t doing any harm. I had already spent a lot of time in previous seasons with a little marker rod, finding rare clear areas in the weeds, and documenting them precisely so I could turn up and drop baits on the spots, but by being on the river, I felt I learnt a lot more. I left with a number of interesting snags and depth variations marked for the winter, and more importantly, a feeling of connection to it. I had spent those first two winters feeling so mystified by the river, I just didn’t get it. I didn’t want that feeling of detachment; I wanted to feel like I was in tune with it, and this definitely helped.
After a wonderful wedding and honeymoon in August, I returned in early September. My plan for this autumn and winter was to focus on getting to the river during the critical windows of opportunity when temperatures were up or rising, and the fish likely to be moving. I felt I had wasted a lot of time the previous year fishing long sessions in less than ideal conditions. The best barbel angler I knew on the stretch, Pete Dawson, fished short sessions with one rod and certainly no bivvy, and he managed to out catch all the long stay anglers. Thanks to another great angler, Simon Haggis, a previous captor of the sixteen pound fish, I also had a feel for where the two big fish were caught from during the previous November. I wasn’t going to be a slave to those swims, as the barbel certainly weren’t, but it would influence where I fished during that month.
I also decided to fish single hook baits, providing all the attraction with a large lump of paste around the lead. In terms of the bait, I wanted something that was instant, something that no passing barbel would be able to ignore. The regular catching at Dinton the summer before had given me an opportunity to experiment with different boilies, and I had a good feel for what I wanted. There was nothing radical in it, just a combination of high quality milk proteins, crushed hemp, natural salmon and caviar flavours, and every single proven natural barbel attractor I could find. As there was nothing on the market like it, I made it myself, preparing it fresh into sausages which I broke into pieces for the hookbait, and keeping a good amount as paste. The number of ingredients meant it was possibly the most expensive bait known to man, but I only needed a tiny amount. When I tested it on a resident minnow shoal at Dinton Pastures, lining it up next to my two most successful barbel boilies (Quest Liver B8 and Mainline Grange), the minnows converged on the new bait in a frantic nibble fest, virtually ignoring the other two. At least I wasn’t going to blank on Carters if there were any big minnows about. Although I doubted that bait could ultimately make a dramatic difference, it was a confidence builder. On a venue this difficult, I wanted to feel like every part of my approach was right.
The first night back on the river with the new bait produced a large bream, and the next night, a very welcome 12lb 4oz barbel, which, in true Loddon style, appeared out of the blue at 2.15am. For the rest of September, for once, the barbel kept coming. By the end of the month I had managed nine fish between 8lb 8oz and 13lb1oz. Compared to the previous two years, this was unbelievable. For once everything seemed right, the weather, the tactics, and my confidence. But the one thing I wanted the most remained as elusive as ever.
I was in Wales with for a weekend at the start of October, when I received a phone call from Peter letting me know that Stuart Court had just landed the bigger of the two fish at 17lb 4oz. Now this was a great achievement – Stuart had only started on the stretch that summer – and I was glad the fish was still there, albeit down in weight, but it did mean it may not appear again that winter. With the capture of that fish, I decided to turn my attentions to the other of the two big barbel.
I believed this other fish would appear towards the top of the stretch in November, and I concentrated my efforts up there. Over the next few weeks I managed four barbel from these swims, all low double figures, and all gratefully received. However, as the evenings drew in and November approached, I knew time was running out. All I could think about was that fish. At work, I would sit for hours, staring at photos of it, wondering where it was, if it was still alive, whether it was ever possible that I might catch it. I had become obsessed, and the more I thought about it, the more remote a dream it seemed.
On the 8th of November, I was due to be driving down to Norfolk for fishing on the following day, but conditions seemed promising on the river, and I decided on a little detour. Being at least an hour in completely the opposite direction from Norfolk, it was more than a little detour, but obsession does what obsession requires, and at 7.30pm I was pulling into Carters Hill. There was only one other angler on the river that night, towards the bottom, so I made my way up to the top by the Arborleigh woods where I would be on my own. I wanted to fish a very weedy open section, above a big overhanging tree, as this was one of the last areas of the river to hold any cabbages, and therefore seemed an obvious feature. I had two rods with me that night, and planned to fish one right under the tree at my feet, and the other further out towards a channel in the thick cabbages that I found earlier in the year. The rod under the trees dropped down nicely onto gravel, but the channel proved hard to find. After two or three attempts I hadn’t got a satisfactory landing, but I was getting more confident fishing into weed, and decided to leave it to avoid more disturbance.
I settled back to absorb the atmosphere. It was mild and dry, about 17 degrees C, and a big south westerly gusted around me. The distant crack of fireworks carried across the fields on the wind, reminding me winter was close. With a new moon, the night was a black one, and my twin green isotopes burned like alien eyes against the sky, nodding gently with the unseen rhythms of the current. I was at ease with the world, just happy to be outdoors, and enjoying the drama of the big winds in the tree tops above me when, all of a sudden, I was jolted awake, as the tip on the rod cast out towards the middle of the river knocked sharply, then knocked again. I reached for the rod and, as I did, it slammed round. Blind panic! I was unprepared as ever for the sudden white knuckle violence of a barbel take coming from nowhere out of the darkness, and the rod butt leapt wildly in my arms, the baitrunner squealing urgently.
I engaged the clutch, applied the brakes, and the fish immediately hit the top of the water mid river. I heard a gigantic ‘wallop’ on the surface out there in the dark, sending chills down my spine. There followed a moment of surging power as the fish went on a determined run downstream. Every sense racing, I put as much pressure as I dared, sinking the rod tip right beneath the water, hoping it would send the fish up in the water, above the cabbages. As the pressure mounted, the fish wallowed audibly on the surface, somewhere near the tree, and I prayed it had not got as far as the sunken branches. The rod was bent round in an alarming battle curve, but still the fish held its position and doggedly refused to come in, repeatedly thumping the tip round. My heart sank as I feared it might be snagged. As the pins and needles of adrenaline prickled down my arms, I slowly realised with relief that it was gradually moving towards me. Another couple of short dives, and it was almost close enough to net. Then, it was right under the rod tip, trying to turn on a short line, and from the hefty noises I could hear, I knew it was a good fish. I breathlessly bundled it into the net.
The adrenaline slowly subsided, and I crouched there on my knees letting the fish recover. I had no idea what I had landed, but experience had taught me to not get my hopes up. Every fish from Carters Hill was to be treated as a bonus, and I wasn’t thinking which one it might be. I lifted the net out onto the mat, as I did, felt the weight of the fish creaking on the handle. Dare I hope? I turned the head torch on, and peeled back the mesh. The harsh white light dramatically illuminated a set of huge golden scales, and a deep muscled flank. The fish’s fins bristled up in defiance at the intrusion, and I noticed immediately that it was long. I took in the vaguely familiar dolphin like shape, the high curve of the back, the enormous tail, the bulk of it, and slowly realised what I must have in the net. Could it be? It had to be? I checked for the distinctive string of scales along its gills. Yes, yes, it was!
I felt a rush of emotion. I had started fishing this river for what I thought would be a simple target, but it had taken me on such a journey, a journey that had demanded so much from me. I thought of the effort of leaving the house on all those cold dark nights to head out into the rain, the hundreds of hours along the M4, the endless miles across sodden fields, and those miserable journeys back with nothing to show for it. I had begun to feel like a gambler, throwing ever more at decreasing odds, but here was my reprieve, proof that you just need to believe, hope and persevere. The river had finally offered up one of its giants, and with it, finally unlocked the spell it held over me.
I weighed her at 16lb 2oz, yet to fill out after late spawning, but looking stunning and healthy. I considered finding the other angler to take a photo, but he was half a mile away and I didn’t feel like sharing the moment, so I set up a self-take. I then gently lowered her back, and watched her begin to swim against the mesh. I lowered the rim, and with a single turn she was gone, back to her world.
As I sat there on my haunches in the darkness, looking at the spot where she had vanished, amongst the feelings of euphoria and relief, I felt something else, a strange unsettling feeling that I found hard to pin down. While I was pursuing this fish, it had seemed like such an adversary, evading me, outwitting me, a step ahead. Now I had finally caught her, I had realised that this was all in my head. She was not pitching herself against me, she was not aware of my existence; she was just a magnificent fish, living out her life, getting on with being a fish. With the sudden release of the capture, along with the jubilation, I was left with an unexpected feeling of emptiness, and I wondered what, if anything, her final capture had proved? Was it any more than an eventual coincidence of bait and hunger?
I sat back on the bank, processing things, wondering why I felt this way. I realised it was a reminder of the danger of becoming too obsessed with a target. I had come close to not enjoying my fishing here, forgetting why I was a fisherman, forgetting it’s about much more than catching a fish. I remembered Chris Yates’s words about the capture of the Bishop from Redmire, ‘I hadn’t been trying to catch a record carp, and there is a lesson there’. I vowed to never become that obsessed again.
Two days later, while I was still glowing from the capture, there was a dramatic change in weather, and a cold front moved in. Rain fell incessantly, and freezing floodwater filled the rivers. Water temperatures plummeted by almost eight degrees in twenty four hours. Going by previous winters, I thought that was it for the barbel fishing. I was happy to call it a day there; after all I had achieved my ambition. However, as I watched the rain falling, I couldn’t help thinking about Carters Hill. Much as it had tormented me, it had also cast its spell over me, and I wasn’t sure that I could leave it there. Another, naughty, greedy little thought also entered my head. I just knew this cold, high water would be the kick that would push that other, bigger fish out from its summer habitat in the weeds upstream, down into the security of the deep stretch above the motorway bridge. It was just a thought, right?
That night I went to bed to a cold clear night outside, but woke up to a plummeting barometer and a brand new warm South Westerly. Checking the forecast, daytime temperatures of eleven or twelve degrees were due that day, together with more rain. I realised there and then that if I ever wanted to catch that other barbel, this was probably my final opportunity. I knew where the cold weather would have sent her, and I knew this sudden temperature rise might mean she should feed. Could I resist?
I took the afternoon off work on short notice, and hurried down the river as quickly as I could after lunch. Arriving at around 1.30pm I was relieved, and a bit amazed, to see no other cars there. The motorway double swim is usually the first swim to go, so I knew if someone was here they were likely to be in the spot I wanted. The strange absence of barbel anglers in such perfect conditions gave the afternoon a peaceful feel, and I walked across the fields in the daylight to an empty river, just me and the barn owl fluttering like a ghostly moth over the bleached grasses. Things felt different, I wasn’t going to let the obsession return, and already I was enjoying myself again.
I found the river a light brown colour, up about a foot and a half, and looking perfect. The water temperature felt cold on my hand, but I knew it would be rising dramatically. I set up one rod only, planning to fish across to the far bank, as past captures in this swim illustrated that the barbel seemed to move up this bank, as if they had defined patrol routes up and down the river. Given the high water and late autumnal debris, I threaded a good sized coffin backlead on above the leader, and a watch lead on a clip below it. I elected to use 20lb braid above the coffin lead, which offers much less resistance to the current, as I wanted to leave the bait in place for as long as I could. I moulded a big lump of paste to the lead, attached a stringer to the hook, and swung the lot out. I got the cast wrong first time, and felt it land in marginal weed up the shelf. The next cast was spot on, settling firmly at the bottom the marginal shelf slightly upstream from where I was, in about ten feet of water. I paid out line until there was a decent bow, and sat back, feeling I had done everything I could.
The rod had been out about thirty minutes when there was a sharp bang on the tip. I couldn’t figure out if this was a fish or some debris hitting the line, but nothing else happened, so I left it. The debris was becoming more and more of a problem, and after an hour the baitrunner began to tick as the clumps of weeds, branches and leaves gathered above the line. It didn’t feel right to recast, so I just tightened the clutch down, letting the whole rod bend round with the resistance. I was still fairly confident the backlead was doing the job, holding bottom and keeping the debris away from the hookbait.
The afternoon progressed, and the occasional shower of mild rain blew across the floodplains, the water surface whipped and ruffled by the gusts. I felt a calm assurance that I was fishing in the right spot, with the right tactics, at the right time. The rest was up to fate.
Just over two hours since I cast out, from nowhere, the rod tip suddenly sprung back. I was on my feet. Bizarrely, the line had gone slack. It looked like something had picked up the bait and was moving towards me. I picked up the rod. As I did, I could see the line skating out across the surface. Whatever it was had changed its mind, and was heading downstream in the heavy flow. I wound down and lifted the rod into a solid resistance, followed by a couple of violent, stomach churning thumps. I held the rod high, wondering what was on the other end. For a minute we were in a stalemate, the fish holding bottom in the deep water in the middle of the river, sullen and heavy, shaking its head, but not going anywhere. Slowly, I began to make some ground. At this stage, if it was a barbel, I expected it to come up in the water, but this fish was staying resolutely glued to the bottom. I gradually worked it towards me until it was about ten feet from the bank and almost underneath the rod tip. It had been a strange fight, and I was not quite sure what I had hooked. I was desperate to get it up in the water so I could have a look, but despite all the pressure I was applying, it still sulked at the bottom of the marginal shelf. Getting impatient, I gave it an enormous heave. In response, the fish suddenly woke up, and went berserk, charging back out into the river, taking fifteen yards of line on a downstream run, and then dramatically changing direction upstream, ripping line of the clutch yet again, even against the heavy flow. Still I couldn’t move it off the bottom. This was getting ridiculous! I got some line back, but the rod wrenched round terrifyingly, and off it went again. By now I was thinking it had to be a carp, and a big one at that. As it came in towards me for the third time, finally, I felt it rise in the water. There you go, keep coming, that’s it….now, let me have a look at you ….. the fish swirled at last, and as I reached for the net, in the chocolate brown water, I could see it was a barbel. After another couple of swirls, a pair of big white lips slid towards the net, and it was in.
What a ruck! I was a wreck, my legs shaking and my heart racing. I raised the net in the water, and could see a good barbel, thinking, ’well that’s got to be a fifteen’. I lowered it back to recover. After a minute or so, I brought the net into the shallow water of the marginal reeds to take a better look. As I got my hand round the fish I noticed the immense width across her back. Turning her over in the net, I saw her depth. Still I didn’t get it. Getting my hand underneath the fish I lifted it to see the other side, and there, clear as day, was the distinctive mark on her side…. it was her….the queen of the river!
I was in a daze. After all that time on the river, two bites in two weeks had produced both the fish of my dreams. I quickly lowered the net into deeper water, and secured it in place with a bank stick. I picked up my phone, put it down, rearranged a piece of tackle for no reason, sat up, got up, and realised I was in a total state of shock. Calm down, get a grip, I told myself!
As I was the only one on the river, I knew it had to be a self take, so I hurried to set that up while it was still light. I quickly weighed her at 17lb14oz, a low weight for this time of year, but more than enough for me! I lifted the great fish up for the camera, and there she was: the hulking goliath that had so haunted my thoughts on the long dark cold nights of my first year, a beast of a fish with an enormous head and shoulders. I carefully held her there, in awe. I had never seen a barbel this big; she was simply in a different league.
After taking the photos, I gently placed her back in the margins. Despite the fight she had just given, I could see she was immediately raring to go. I pointed her nose towards freedom, and with a sudden vigorous tail slap, she left me with a face full of muddy Loddon water. Touche!
I slowly packed up my kit, and for the very last time, climbed over that stile. Feeling as light as a feather, I walked out into the wide fields, towards the lonely single oak, towards the distant lights of the farm, the wind howling around my ears.
I looked back over my shoulder at the river, the river that had asked so much of me, the river that had, in the end, given so much back, and I cracked into a big smile. It’s these moments that we live for as anglers. Nature has its way of tormenting and testing us, of teasing us and dealing the cruellest of blows, but sometimes, just sometimes, for that magical moment, it wraps its arms around us.
* * * * * * * *
Barbel Tales contains 290 pages of barbel fishing stories, advice on baits, rigs and tactics plus a mine of information on a range of barbel fisheries. The 38 chapters are liberally and beautifully illustrated include guest contributions from Peter Wheat, Fred Crouch, Steve Pope, Pete Reading, John Wilson, Neill Stephen, Dean Macey, Phil Smith, Phil Buckingham, Len Arbery, Bob Buteux, Rob Swindells, Dave Steuart, Ade Kiddell, Simon Asbury, Jon Berry and many others.
The limited edition leather copies have all gone but it is still available in hardback format direct from the Barbel Society web site at £36.50 including P&P and Paypal transaction fee. Alternatively you can send a cheque for £35 to : Martin Howell: 7 ABBOTTS CLOSE, PURBROOK, HAMPSHIRE, PO7 5ET.