River Don Barbel

The River Don Catchment – A New Kid On The Barbel Block
The River Don doesn’t exactly leap to mind when folk start talking about ‘great’ barbel rivers or even Yorkshire barbel rivers, but it has a great deal more potential than you might imagine. Indeed the true potential has nowhere near been explored yet and mark my words over the next few years someone is going to catch an authenticated barbel from the Don that will make the angling world sit up and take notice.
If I may put that statement into some kind of perspective, back in the early 1990’s I graced the front cover of the Angling Times with a barbel weighing 12lb 7oz. At the time I caught it I’m assured that it was the third largest ever to come from the Great Ouse. Fish of that size exist in the Don.
Now bearing in mind that the Don has been one of the most polluted rivers in Europe during my lifetime, that is some kind of miracle.
It would have been dead easy to keep a lid on this river but would that have been fair on someone like Chris Firth MBE, who has devoted so much time and effort to the river’s regeneration and who has provided much of the statistical information I have? Would it be fair on the local clubs who strive to develop the fishery?
I spoke with fellow members of the Don Valley Specimen Group and asked what their feelings were. After a bit of deliberation, Matt Brown and Lee Swords agreed, let’s do it!
The River Don rises in the Penines above Sheffield. It flows in a more or less easterly direction and empties into the Yorkshire Ouse. Above Sheffield the Don is and has always been a trout river but when we reach Sheffield it flows through the remains of a once thriving industrial landscape. Steelworks and coal mines dominated the valleys of the river and its major tributaries, the Rother and the Dearne.
The lower river is perhaps the least likely barbel river you will find, averaging 30 yards wide and 15 feet deep it flows lazily. It was tamed by man long ago. In some places it flows parallel to parts of the broad South Yorkshire canal network, in others the river and the South Yorkshire Navigation are one and the same. It features many weirs and locks. The coal barges and ‘Tom Puddings’ are long gone but their legacy remains.
Below Doncaster the river is tidal and untamed. It is shallow, streamer weeds abound, the banks are overgrown and you’ll hardly ever see an angler. Yet there are barbel here for sure. Travel light, take a rope, a dog spike and a scythe and you could easily enjoy some spectacular, virgin fishing.
A Brief History
When I was growing up it was said that if you fell into the Don you wouldn’t drown, instead you would die of at least three different diseases first! How different it is today. This is perhaps not the place to go into the whole story but check out the EA website and search for Chris’s book – Doomsday to the Dawn of the New Millennium, 900 years of the Don Fishery – it’s an amazing read charting everything from the days when sturgeon and salmon were common, through the devastating decline as a result of the industrial revolution and on to the present recovery. It’s available as an EA publication or you can download it on-line for free. I defy anyone to read this and then go around asking, what do the Environment Agency ever do for us?
But let’s go back to the beginnings of the Don barbel boom. There is little doubt the river held barbel prior to the industrial revolution, as did all the other Yorkshire rivers but nothing survived it, at least nothing below Sheffield. There may have been odd pockets of barbel in the higher reaches, in the tiny side streams, but there’s no real evidence of this that I am aware of. No, the modern roots began in 1990 when an EA site at Aldwarke, near Rotherham, closed. It had been used to experiment with coarse fish propagation and, in parallel with Calverton, chub, dace, bream and barbel were bred.
Fifty to 60 barbel were removed from a holding pool and half went into the upper reaches of the Don between Oxspring and Penistone. The other half went into the River Dearne at Darfield.
Speculation that a number of pollution incidents on the Dearne flushed these fish into the Don may or may not be true but there is a thriving, if limited population of barbel in the lower Dearne near Harlington today.
In 1992 some 2,000 small barbel were introduced below Sprotborough Weir and in Doncaster, both above and below Crimpsall Sluice. The excersize was repeated in 1993.
Latterly another stocking took place. Matt seems to recall it was in February 2002, Chris Firth suspects it might have been a little earlier, either way 1,000 barbel were introduced at Sprotborough, Eden Grove and above the Salmon Run in Doncaster. A further 200 went into the tidal river below Crimpsall Sluice.
These are facts and indicate there is a strong barbel population in the river, particularly in the lower reaches.
In addition to this, barbel have successfully spawned in the past two seasons and plenty of fish in the 8oz to 1lb bracket are showing. To date we have yet to see evidence of successful spawning in the tidal reaches but do not rule it out.
As you can see here the vast majority of barbel were re-introduced to the lower reaches of the river but when carrying flood it is quite feasible that barbel can negotiate the weir at Sprotborough. They can also travel through the lock if so minded which means there is every chance of the species spreading upstream into some of the most interesting looking areas around Mexborough and Kilnhurst. This area positively screams barbel.
The EA has stocked barbel in the rapidly improving River Rother on several occasions although this is still massively at risk from chemical pollution via the Doe Lea Brook. Numbers are vague but it is assumed that fish from the Rother will drop downstream and populate the Don around Rotherham, ultimately working their way up to the streamy runs around Meadowhall and Aldwarke. How apt that the final staging post for the lower Don recolonisation will be the very spot where it all began, at Aldwarke. It won’t end there, though, as the river near Sheffield screams out for barbel, particularly in the ‘Five Weirs Walk’ area and I think we can safely say that if the fish don’t make it there of their own accord the EA might help and we cannot rule out the (strictly illegal) actions of local anglers who might speed up the spread.
The Lower River Don’s Barbel Potential – Matt Brown’s Perspective
I first barbel I heard of being caught in the Don came from the tidal reaches halfway between Doncaster and Barnby Dun. It was from a concrete overflow in the Long Sandall area. It weighed around 4lbs but I didn’t believe it at the time. (This was probably caught by Frank Mitchell, Billy Salter or John Dudley and it certainly was a genuine capture – I’ll double check, BR)
I actually caught my first River Don Barbel in 1992 above St Mary’s Bridge in Doncaster. It was a monster weighing all of 2oz.
I caught barbel regularly after that and clearly remember them reaching the 3lb mark. They were great fun to catch on the stick float and would often barge in on roach sessions. Luckily the roach could still be caught using size 14 hooks and 3.5lb hook lengths and this would just be enough for the barbel, even in the faster water. The barbel could also be caught on meat and heavier line.
I had a couple of years where I hardly did any fishing and when I came back the barbel had grown to around 4lb or 5lb so fishing for mixed bags would lead to getting bust off. I started targeting the barbel with heavier tackle (8lb line and Carp hooks) but the fish were now much spookier.
The barbel kept growing and in February 2002 I caught my first 6lb plus fish.
The following year I caught a fish weighing 6lb 13oz and although I had plenty of sixes I couldn’t catch a seven. Other anglers told me of 8lb plus Barbel but I didn’t believe them until Franco Pezullo gave me a photo of an 8lb 8oz fish. It was caught in 1998(!) and can be seen in the gallery section of the Doncaster and District Angling Association web site.
So what of the future. Can the Don produce big barbel?
Well Chris Firth is aware of a definite 10lb 2oz fish, caught from Sprotborough Weir in February 2002.  This is the fish shown in some lists as the Don record. It isn’t.
In August 2004 Adam Roberts, who is now a fellow DVSG member, told me he had caught two doubles from the river above the Salmon Run. Although I had known Adam for some time I didn’t know whether to believe him until he produced the photos. These fish weighed 11lb 4oz and 10lb 2oz. He also had a couple of 8lb fish. Adam and I then fished together regularly through that winter but only one more fish over 7lb was caught between us. At 7lb 8oz it was another river best for me.
In March 2005 a carping mate of Adam’s, Anthony Peace targeted the Don’s barbel for the first time and had no less than 24 runs landing 12 fish that included fish estimated to weigh 8lb and 9lb – they had no scales with them.  Ant’s mate Jeff had one run and landed what they guess might have been a Barbel of around 12lb.
Now you can make of these ‘guestimates’ what you will but a week earlier, Jeff had caught a Trent barbel topping 13lb. It was weighed accurately and it’s fair to say they knew exactly what a big barbel looks like.
I was with Adam when Ant called him about the catch and we were shocked, so the next night we fished with them – with scales. Ant caught another 10 barbel including fish of 9lb 3oz, 8lb 14oz and 8lb 8oz – all bigger than anything I had previously seen from the river.
Adam and I caught nothing above 7lb. We shared more trips until the season ended and Ant caught more eights. Adam and I caught more sixes. Jeff just caught bream and chub! Uncanny.
Adam and I persevered with the Don through the summer of 2005. Adam didn’t catch anything over 7lb whereas I was fortunate to catch three more sevens and a new River Don PB of 8lb 5oz.  I also lost what I thought was a much bigger fish. Meanwhile Ant put in loads of time and caught more eights, nines and in July managed a cracking fish of 10lb 8oz (photo to follow).
The average Don barbel is between three and 7lb and their growth rate appears to have slowed a little but that might be perception. Electro-fishing last winter by the EA (Chris and his posse) found barbel to 7lb in Sprotborough Weir and 8lb in Doncaster.  He stressed that the electro-fishing missed many fish because of the flow.
The latest lot of stockies have packed on weight and are already pushing the 2lb mark.
Rumours abound of several truly big fish – we’re talking of fish to 13lb plus – coming from various stretches including the slow deep water well downstream of Sprotborough.
Both Chris Firth and I believe the monster fish that have eluded me so far are the ones that came from the fish farm at Aldwarke and there’s not many of them around.
The Potential Above Rotherham – A view from Lee Swords
There are many areas of the river Don above Rotherham, through to where I would say it becomes outright game water in the Stocksbridge area, that scream out to be fished. The only real problem being access to the waters edge.
The Sheffield end of the Don flows through a heavily industrialized valley. Its waters were harnessed by man to run everything from paper mills to steel crucibles. Today it is a maze of factory and industrial units and, of course, shopping malls.
Two Centuries of industrial devastation left nothing more than a highly toxic industrial soup, devoid of any life whatsoever so what has emerged in the past 25 years is nothing short of a miracle. Today you’ll see kingfishers and wildlife in abundance, a corridor of tranquility amidst a sea of commerce.
Where would I expect to go and catch a barbel today? The first place that springs to mind is Meadowhall, right next door to one of the biggest shopping malls in Europe. There are several very good looking sections here which throw up numerous 30-50lb bags of chub and barbel during the summer months. The only down side being that it is a very, very busy area and anglers have in the past suffered from the attentions of hooligans and vandals.
A little further upstream is Salmon Pastures slap bang in the middle of Attercliffe. The name says it all, once this section teemed with silver tourists hell bent on spawning on the rich gravels.
I have a bottle of finest single malt Scotch whisky ear marked for their imminent return, which will be a great day indeed. Salmon have been seen and caught at Sprotborough weir and so it is only a matter of time before they return to take up their rightful place in their ancestral home.
The Salmon Pastures area is the section of Don where I do most of my fishing with it being on my doorstep so to speak.
The next section I would suggest is the Norfolk Bridge weir and then the Wicker area. Unfortunately the Wicker is in central Sheffield and a somewhat dangerous place to fish. Access to the waters edge is terrible but this is soon to change when the final section of the five weirs walk is completed.
Upstream you’ll find Neepsend which is the home of several rumoured good bags of barbel and then the Hillsborough area. The section of river behind the Sheffield Wednesday football stadium screams fish. The river then begins its accent into game fishing territory with the climb up to Outibridge and Stocksbridge. There are barbel up there, but the grayling and trout fishing is better.
A Tale Of Two Tributaries – Bob Roberts
I picked up the news in a club match report, submitted to a competition I run each year for club anglers. A devastating pollution had swept through the Rother killing thousands of fish. It was late autumn 2005. Years of hard work ruined in a flash, or just another set-back?
It seems it was the latter. I hope so. But such is the fragile nature of the Don catchment it will take no more than a single act of ecological vandalism to undo three decades of effort. Local anglers have to keep the faith and present a threat to anyone who would risk polluting their rightful inheritance.
The Rother’s comeback is still in its infancy. The Dearne’s is well underway. I was making astonishing catches within sight of my own house back in the mid-eighties. It was unbelievable.
Three years ago I was on TV and in the paper battling to prevent an open cast mining threat that would have required the river to be diverted and canalized. Thirty years ago no one would have battered an eyelid. Today it matters. We have created an oasis in a wilderness.
Strangely I seldom fish there now, reserving my visits for occasional short summer evening sessions. It was on one of these two years ago that I crept down into a tiny swim, barely two feet deep and a couple of rod lengths wide, introduced a few pellets and sat back to wait. Half an hour or so later I made my first cast. Five minutes later I was netting a five-pound barbel. Ten minutes later I had his twin. Then another and finally a fish I didn’t really believe existed. It was a barbel topping 8lb and caught on my own doorstep.
As I basked in a warm glow my reverie was interrupted by a gang of loud-mouthed youths in an inflatable boat. “Oh, sorry mate, didn’t see you tucked into those rushes!”
It didn’t matter. I was done anyway. Life doesn’t get much better.
I’ve only been back a couple of times, even though rumours persist of double figure fish being caught there.
The fishing’s free, it gets hammered and the litter is disgraceful at times. I’ve seen the best of it, nay, had the best of it, yet if I wander a mile upstream I can have the river to myself.
One day I’ll find the time…
Controlling Clubs
Details of who owns what on the Don are sketchy to say the least, especially when you approach Rotherham and then work upstream through the industrial corridor but these will get you started. None will set you back more than a few pounds and at the present time, the best option is probably to get a Doncaster book from one of the local tackle shops and seek information about other stretches while you are there.
Doncaster And District Angling Association. Martin Warne, 59 Broughton Avenue, Bentley, Doncaster. DN5 9QS tel: 07771986849
Books cost £17 and run from April. It covers the entire right hand bank downstream of Sprotborough Weir to Crimpsall Sluice plus all the other fishable stretches of the opposite bank below the weir pool.
Rotherham and District Limited Anglers’ Federation
H Howarth, 4 Scarborough Road, Wickersley, Rotherham, Yorkshire
A few hundred yards of the left hand bank below Sprotborough Weir, then upstream through the Nature Reserve, Earth Centre and Denaby reaches.
Ferry Boat Farm AC, Old Denaby
Bradford No1 have recently acquired a 250 yard stretch near Mexborough. It’ll cost you something like £50 to join and full details can be found on their web site: http://www.bradfordno1.com/
Kilnhurst and District AC
It’s mostly free fishing on the Don below the Salmon Run but access is severely limited and the banks can be pretty daunting. As for the Dearne, again, much of it is uncontrolled but the stretch immediately above the Don confluence is run by Denaby Miners Welfare AC, check out their web site: http://www.dmwac.co.uk/ for more details.
Tackle Shops
One thing the Don Valley is not short of is fishing tackle shops. Here are just a few to get you started:
Bentley Angling Centre, Askern Rd Bentley, Nr Doncaster. 01302 822293
Billy Clarke Fishing Tackle, 77-81 Alderson  Road, Sheffield. 0114 258 7575
Climax Fishing Tackle Ltd. 2 Stubley Hollow, Dronfield. 01246 290863
Doncaster Angling Centre, 207 Carr House Rd., Doncaster. 01302 363629
Goldthorpe Angling Centre, 53 High St., Goldthorpe. 01709 893489
Handsworth Angling Centre, 7 Hendon St., Handsworth, Sheffield. 0114 269 6065
Killamarsh Angling Centre 36 Bridge Street, Killamarsh, Sheffield. 0114 248 2648
Pete`s Fishing Tackle, 65 Main St., Mexborough. 01709 581715
Pezzulo Fishing Tackle, 148 High Street, Bentley, Nr Doncaster. 01302 874888
Parkgate Angling Centre, 19, Broad St., Parkgate, Rotherham. 01709 527297
Pauls Tackle Centre, Doncaster Rd., Denaby Main. 01709 862558
R&R Sports, 40 High St., Bawtry, 01302 711130
Swale Angling Centre, 738 Attercliffe Road, Sheffield. 0114 2436218
Tight Lines Tackle, Glenshiel Birley, Moor Rd ., Sheffield. 0114 265 8178
Woodlands Angling Supplies, 232 Great North Rd., Woodlands. Nr Doncaster. 01302 728876
Yorkshire Pole Centre 34-38 Wicker, Sheffield. 0114 2722817
Better known nationally as a match venue, the Don is fast gaining a reputation as a barbel fishery. It’s a personal opinion, and laugh if you like, but I genuinely believe that the Don will soon become Yorkshire’s premier barbel river both in terms of the size of fish and the numbers it produces. That barbel are already breeding successfully in areas you would hardly describe as typically suited to barbel show they’ve adapted to the environment. When they spread out and populate the middle to higher river we are in for a rare treat.
Indeed it’s only a matter of time before we see the dreaded ‘Syndicate Members Only’ signs going up. Mark my words, it will happen.
(Special thanks to Chris Firth MBE for the background he provided us with on the stocking programme. Matt Brown, Lee Swords and Adam Roberts (no relation) of the Don Valley Specimen Group for their assistance and input)

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