Five Easy Pieces

I’m having the most fantastic season. It’s still only August and I’ve caught 500 barbel already! And it’s all because I use Fred Bloggs’ boilies with his special dip, only £19.99 on eBay.

Actually that’s a lie. A great big whopper in fact. But a few would have been impressed, I’m sure. A few more might even have believed me.

I’ve not even caught 50 barbel and do you know what? I don’t care. I’m having the most fantastic season, not because of what I’ve caught numbers-wise (though I could if I wanted to have caught a load more) but because of the way I have caught my fish. The season is more than two months old and I’ve only fished the Trent 7 times. One session was for chub (a spectacular day), another was for roach on the stick (not so good, although I did catch a few barbel!), so really I’ve only targeted barbel on 5 occasions and each time my approach has been totally different.

Part Of Chub Catch

The longest session, on opening day, saw me start at daybreak but was home for tea. The other sessions have been around 5 or six hours, each in daylight and all using one rod, held in the hand. It’s the kind of fishing where you are constantly thinking, working and doing your utmost to make things happen. No-one’s likely to accuse me of being lazy or a time bandit.

Of course, I could have caught a lot more barbel had I wanted to using multiple rods, by creating frenzied feeding activity with beds of hemp, micro pellets, glugs, hair rigs, bolt rigs, fishing into dark and using all the other simplistic tools. You surely know the score, after all it ain’t rocket science, is it? And whilst I will do this now and again should the mood take me or the circumstances dictate (as they will later in the year) I really struggle to find that sense of achievement in mugging a string of mug fish using crude tactics. My threshold of boredom is lower than most it would seem. If I was forced to do it every time I went fishing then it would feel like a punishment.

But I’m guilty of doing it in the past and like I say, will no doubt do it occasionally in the future. It’s a valid tactic, but totally one-dimensional.

Ninety per cent of those reading this will think I’ve lost my marbles. There’s more chance of getting a 14-year-old boy to stop masturbating than to get your average barbel angler to put away the multiple rods, the scaffolding, bivvy, bed chair and bite alarms. It’s practically a ritual of the modern scene. 50 shades of carbelling. As for walking to a peg… forget it!

Consider this. Does a barbel angler after 20 years of carbelling have 20 years experience? Or at best does he have just one years experience repeated 20 times over. Different swims, sometimes. Using identical methods and a fixed mind set, definitely. Perhaps crediting him with a whole year’s experience is being generous. Surely there has to be more to it?

Let me throw a little more clarity in your direction. Come and join me on my first five sessions of the season and then perhaps ask yourself, could there possibly be a life beyond carbelling that might tempt you to expand your approach?

1. Guess I’m Pretty Crap At Carping

Brian and I had met Alfie Naylor at the Northern Angling Show in Manchester back in the spring and he’d whetted Brian’s appetite with tales of Trent carp. Having had them to 30lbs myself I can take river carp or leave them but Brian was practically frothing at the mouth. He’d never had a Trent carp before and Alfie assured him he knew a few spots that could deliver the goods.

The next step was a recce to stomping grounds I’d not visited in decades, sussing out where we might open the season and catch Brian a carp. Ironic that it took me back to the very first place I fished the Trent with my late stepfather more than 50 years earlier. Bit of deja vu going on there for me, I can tell you!

We picked our swims, agreed on a pre-baiting plan – enough to entice carp but not to attract too many bream – informed the local club of our plans and gained permission to carry them out and then prayed the river level would remain stable. It did and we were straining at the leash when daybreak arrived on the glorious day.

Alfie was the first to catch a carp, then Brian had one. Me? I could not have cared less. Indeed I had a rod out trying to catch bream! But eventually my boilie rod was away and guess what? It was a very chunky barbel. Not a bad way to start the season.

Bob 12-0

I then had another, identical in size. Rested it, unhooked it, prepared the camera gear and then somehow allowed to escape back into the river when I lifted the net. Harry Houdini would have been proud. I swear it was in the folds of the net but as the net lifted it was somehow underneath and bolted off. How I could have landed it and unhooked it underneath the net is a complete mystery, but hey-ho, these things happen.

So there you are. We can call it a barbel session if you like but it was a bit of a cheat, really. Carbeltastic!

2. It’s Not The Meat, It’s The Motion

Session two. Brian and Alfie had gone back to the carp swims. I didn’t fancy it and decided on a few hours rolling meat around. The technique could hardly be more simple. Rod, reel, braided main line and a hook. This can be wrapped in lead wire and/ or you can pinch a shot on the line. Easy peasy. The secret is to get the meat to roll along the bottom as naturally as possible. I chose to avoid the shallows where the action might be fast and furious (the old numbers thing again) and headed for a few areas where I knew there were deeper gullies and the likelihood of a bigger specimen increases.

IYCF Barbel

Of course I took my time getting to the swim that was calling me, catching a fish here and there along the way, but that’s the beauty of rolling meat, it’s so tactile, you are in direct contact with the hook and ultimately the fish. There’s no great heavy lump of lead spoiling the fight. It’s just you and the fish. Perfect.

And what do you know, I went home early, a very happy bunny thanks to this little beauty.

3. We’re Talking Stalking

I joined Brian for a social day. I really wanted him to catch rather than me. This was his first experience of trundling so I spent much of my time on the camera. As a bonus I promised to show him something special. 

We get few opportunitiies to watch fish on the Trent but I knew a swim where a bush spread its branches over some pacey water at the bottom of a 7-foot high bank. Fish find the cover attractive and hang about just below, drifting in and out. Its a bit like peering into an aquarium.

Three big chub were in residence. It was hard to guestimate how big they might be but Brian was pretty sure he’d never seen bigger. And then we caught sight of a coral pink pectoral just a little further out. It’s funny how your eyes adjust. Annoyingly I’d left my polarising specs in the car but Brian was wearing his and could soon make out a few more well-camouflaged shapes.

Barbel crop

The barbel appeared relaxed, just lazing around close to cover with a good flow funneling under the trailing branches and over their gills. There was no point in trying to loose feed anything as it would never reach the bottom. If we were to try and catch one of these it would be with a single hookbait.

Brian suggested I had a go and I wasn’t going to turn the offer down. With lead wire wrapped around the hook shank and an SSG a foot above, I mounted a whole meatball using a baiting needle to pull the hook through. Now came the tricky part, getting the bait on the deck ahead of the fish and not being swept away. The answer was to drape the braid over a twigg so the meatball swung upstream into position.’

That’s perfect!’ Confirmed Brian.

‘Hmmm,’ thought I. ‘That’s the easy bit. I now had to work out the next step. What if I hooked a fish? Simple. I would leap off the cliff into the river some 7 feet below! If I hooked a chub (snag monster) that would be a problem, but 9 times out of ten a barbel will run out into open water and that was what I was gambling on.

One of the barbel was obviously aware of the meatball. Brian could see it clearly and described what was happening, from initially growing aggitated, gills flaring and then slowly approaching the bait. Several times it nudged it before dropping back. Sooner or later it was certain to make a mistake providing one of the big chub didn’t nip in and spoil the party. The tension in the air was palpable.

‘This time…’ Predicted Brian. 

Sure enough, she moved forwards with purpose. I couldn’t quite make out the fish but I could see the meatball. And then it disappeared like like the moon passing across the sun during an eclipse.

‘It’s over your bait,’ Said Brian, ‘But I can’t tell if it’s picked it up,’

Tense seconds passed and my attention switched to the line where it entered the water, willing it to move, and then it slowly lifted. ‘Strike, Bob!’

The next few seconds are a bit of a blur. Strike, jump, rod under water, splashdown, stagger, try to balance, hang on tight to the rod, Zzzzz….. goes the drag!

…and relax…

The fish, a barbel, obviously, has shot straight out into the river and the rest is history. Game over. You’re mine.


The fish was netted, rested, photographed and returned without ever going onto the bank. No need to weigh it or measure it. I’ll stick to measuring my catches in smiles.

4. Whatever Floats Your Boat

What is it with float fishing for barbel? Why are so many folk seemingly afraid of trying it? For every angler you see trotting a float you’ll see scores with twin tips aloft.

Dig deeper and you’ll find many of the splodgers are just killing time, waiting for the sun to go down because their magic ‘best boilies for barbel on the planet’ don’t seem half as effective during daylight as a humble maggot or caster.

Making my first visit of the season to a favourite day ticket stretch I arrived at lunchtime and picked out a nice 12 foot deep glide close to the car park. First task was to set about creating a ‘killing zone’ with a bait dropper between 5 and 10 yards down the peg at the bottom of the near shelf.

Eight droppers of maggors and 4 of hemp was just the aperitif whilst I set up a float rod. From here on I’d be topping up with 3 more droppers every 5 minutes.

Float-Caught Barbel

It came as no surprise to be into a fish within 15 minutes. It was to be the first of 10 over the next 5 hours, by which time I’d run out of bait and was forced to call it a day.

Imagine if I’d been able to fish on until dusk. Boy would my arm have ached because the fish would have kept on coming. My trickle of maggots and hemp would have acted like a conveyor belt, drawing fish from well downstream. Folk really don’t know what they are missing out on.

5. I’m All Of A Quiver

The current fashion in barbel angling is for 12 foot rods. Ever stop to wonder why? Why not 11 foot, or 12 foot nine inches? Or 8 feet?

I have a theory. About 15 years ago I came up with a design for a dedicated barbel rod which went into production as the Daiwa Infinity Barbel Special. It was a winner and everyone copied it, some making a better fist of their attempts than others. Very flattering.

It would be a reasonable assertion to say that barbel fishing has laterly morphed into a sub-species of carping – bivvy tramps, boilies, bolt rigs, hairs, sweat pants, spodding, ridge monkeys, mobile homes, syndicates, drinking, exotic cigarettes, the whole 9 yards. And, of course, how long is the average carp rod?

I have landed barbel, by design, on rods as short as 7 feet and it doesn’t present a problem in playing terms though casting heavy feeders to the horizon and keeping line off the water is out of the question. So, 12 feet is somewhere near the optimum, until you encounter marginal rocks, the like of which line much of the Trent. 

Recently I lost a couple of barbel to cut-offs whilst float fishing over rocks. Float rods, being lighter, bend further down the blank and reduce the effective length of the rod. Indeed the experience prompted me to order a powerful 14 foot float rod in order to try and remedy the problem.

Which brings me round to quivertipping and the average rod length of 11 feet. Of course, there were always shorter ‘picker’ rods but the advent of tightly pegged commercials has resulted in there being many much shorter rods around. And longer, as long distance fishing has developed into quite a specialised field of its own, but river rods are invariably 11 to 12 feet long.

This is fine and dandy in most circumstances but one of my favourite (twice a year) swims is rock infested. It’s also very fast and keeping your line high when you hook a fish is vital if you don’t want to lose it. And that’s where the new Daiwa Powermesh 13′ 6″ feeder rod comes into play. It’s a beast of a rod compared with its lighter companions. This is designed for big fish, can handle 10lbs line and comes with three plug in tips, my choice, the heaviest being 4ozs. Perfect.

FB Lump

I went in with a big maggot feeder, lots of bait and a great deal of anticipation. It took a while to get some fish feeding and the bites were quite subtle, even from the bigger barbel, but what a tool. It had the backbone to set the hook, boss the fish comfortably and keep the line well clear of any snags. Every fish I hooked was landed, which was a first in this swim.

Five hours later I was heading home for tea. Five barbel and five chub was more than enough to keep me happy. The magic maggots had done their job brilliantly.

To Sum Up

So there you have it. Five thoroughly enjoyable but very different sessions during which I caught some respectable fish and was actively involved with the whole process. My mind was on the job in hand from start to finish each time, reading the signs, reacting to instincts, chopping, changing and tweaking presentations. No brewing cuppas, frying bacon, drinking Stellas, or being woken from deep slumber by a wailing alarm. I’ve caught fish in satisfying numbers in 5 completely different situations without ever over-pressurising one spot which means others can fish there afterwards without that dreaded feeling of walking in dead man’s shoes. I’ve used my brain, looked at problems, deliberated about the best solutions and ultimately put theory into practise. All the time my knowledge and experience deeper for the experience.

On the other hand I could have fished Peg 1A five times and had 200 barbel using exactly the same rigs cast to exactly the same spots and simply hauled them in. And what would I have learned? Err, there are a load of barbel to be caught on Peg 1A. Oh hang on, I already knew that.

Ultimately it’s each to his or her own.

I understand fully the draw of catching a load of easy fish. We are all guilty of it to some extent and it’s not the biggest sin in the world to do it occasionally, but if we are going to bleat on about fish handling, unhooking mats, codes of practise, unwritten rules, predation, fish being taken for the table and so on, then shouldn’t we be a little more caring about hammering prolific swims relentlessly when that could be at the long term expense of the whole river?

The Barbel Society has recently written to the Angling Trust expressing their concerns over the dwindling stocks of barbel in what were once prolific rivers. Whether that will change anything or is merely a cry for help is debatable but the plain fact is we barbel anglers can actually do something ourselves. Hammering out big catches may be fun but you could be hammering a nail in the coffin of your future sport. Instead of getting all hot under the collar about these comments, stop and think about what I’m saying in this and the companion Fist Full Of Barbel article.

Let’s not beat about the bush, until we reach a time when HOW we catch is respected as much as or indeed more than HOW MANY we catch then the gradual cycle of destruction will slowly keep on spinning in ever decreasing circles.

And if just one angler sits up and takes notice, the time spent writing this article will have been worthwhile. Tight lines…