Unfortunately I began my barbel fishing quest just as the barbel numbers were indeed becoming decimated by those furry creatures released by some rather misunderstood people. Anglers were coming from far and wide to sample the delights of the BA, from Lacock, to Chippenham, Avoncliffe et.al. until the numbers began to decline perhaps 5-6 or so years ago.
I must admit that my first season barbel fishing was wonderful, catching some 20+ fish in a season compared to only one in my whole lifetime of fishing before this. However as the seasons progressed up until now the numbers slowly declined from 20 the first year, 11 the second then 2 or 3 each year to follow. However, this wasn't as a result of otters, more likely as a result of not fishing as often. That's what happens when you buy a house and get married... (I'm only joking if you're reading this my wonderful wife ;-)
Those that were fishing those many stretches have moved on to better stocked barbel rivers such as the Wye, Kennett and more recently the Thames tributaries. This is all well and good if it is all about catching fish. For me nothing beats getting out on the river bank. If I catch, fantastic. If I don't that's also fantastic. You guessed it, I'm not too fussed. Being on the river is always a pleasure, catching a fish is always secondary for me.
However; if I was a professional such as Martin Bowler then I wouldn't have choice but to fish pastures new as there would be a pressure to catch for articles. If I was a guide equally so to keep the punters happy. I'm neither so I will continue to put my faith in the BA.
I would estimate that there are 20% of the barbel population there were 5-6 years ago, I would also estimate there are 10% of the anglers fishing the "famous" BA stretches there were the same time ago. As a result the barbel that have been left unscathed since the otter population have seemingly moved on have grown and also become perhaps less spooked. They are also no longer pressured and over-fed by anglers as they were in years gone by. Of course the above is all just a theory but I have decided to put it to the test.
I recently visited a stretch, perhaps 15 minutes from my front door, a piece of river that went down in local folklore, producing barbel to monstrous proportions of up to 16lb (monstrous on the BA). It was consistently producing big teen barbel and as a result I understand it was always a struggle to get a swim there. I decided to make my first visit to this particular stretch and see if it was worth attempting to winkle out one of the few remaining barbel that may still inhabit it's waters.
As I arrived I was shocked by the rivers beauty; there was a weir, over-hanging trees (good holding spots for fish) wide and deep sections, shallow and weedy sections. There wasn't a sign of human life for miles so this suited me perfectly. Nothing beats arriving at a river in the middle of nowhere with the stretch to yourself. Everything looked ideal for a barbel so I went away dreaming up my first session on this once over-fished, monster producing stretch of the BA.
My new paradise
I had a chat with a few anglers in the the know who had fished in years gone by but like the majority no longer fished it. They explained to me certain areas to target, baits to try etc but that I would struggle as fish don't often come out from there anymore. I decided that I would stick with my old faithful Dyanmite pellets and have mixed pellets in a PVA bag on the hook.
Here's how the story goes on my first session on the stretch of river I have written about above.
I woke at 6am sharp, something I have been doing frequently for work reasons recently but unlike on those occasions I was up and out of bed in a flash. I washed and headed straight for the kitchen to put the kettle on. I needed a caffeine fix to wake me up before chucking the gear in the car and heading to the river that I had been dreaming about previous nights. I kept thinking whilst driving about what it had produced for many anglers several years ago, I hoped that the river still held a few forgotten about monsters that I might have the chance of crossing swords with.
I drove through the meandering lanes at quite a slow pace as it was incredibly foggy with my viewing distance only some 15-20ft in front of the car's nose. It was cold as the the little orange frost light beeped and flashed up on the dashboard so not ideal conditions for barbel fishing with the temperature dropping rather than rising. I arrived at the car parking area and grabbed all my bits. Wellies on, back pack on and rod bag slung over my shoulder; mustn't forget my net I said to myself as I nearly closed the boot with it still in the car.
I decided to walk a distance from my car, about 1 1/12 miles upstream then work my way back to the car using a roving approach. Once I arrived at my swim some 20 minutes of walking later I dropped my gear to the ground and had a swig of drink as I was fairly worn out after lugging the weight all that distance (I must be getting old)! Although my rod bag was on the floor it began to move forward, then again... Were there evil spirits about?
No these were the culprits:
A group of cows decided to take a liking to my fishing gear until I turned around. They scarpered as if I was some big scary monster, I'm not sure why they would be afraid of little old me, they were massive! The swim was enclosed with a dead tree to my right which looked a likely looking holding spot. I attached two 14mm Halibut pellets to my hair rig and attached a PVA bag containing a number of 8mm Trout pellets along with 3 Dynamite Halibut pellets to match my bait attached to the hair.
With one under arm flick of my trusty old Allcocks Aerial the bait landed in the perfect spot. I had promised myself that I would spend no more than 30 minutes in each swim before moving on to the next one. Time went by very quickly in the first swim and it was time to move to the next one. It caught my eye earlier as a likely looking spot and I was more confident at getting a bite than in the first swim.
I attached a new PVA bag but recycled the two pellets from the first swim as they were both still in unblemished condition. I flicked the bait out to the right only 5 yards from the bank and settled back down wishfully awaiting a signal from a monster. Behind me were my friends once again. Why is it that cow's always take a liking to me! Then a screaming noise came from my reel as my rod bent double.I struck into an irresistible force as the line cut through the water and whatever was attached to the end headed for the far bank. After a 5 minute tussle the fish came in and it was indeed a Barbel! My first of the season and it was already October! Both excitement and adrenaline pumped through me as I lifted the fish out of the water. It wasn't a monster but it did prove that there were fish in this often considered barbel graveyard.
It was in absolutely mint condition, slightly washed out in colour due to the recent deluge of water; stunning nonetheless! I held the barbel in the water to recover from it's battle and watched it swim away fit and healthy and ready to fight another day perhaps a few pounds bigger.
I decided to stay put for another 20 or so minutes as although the barbel had been hooked in the vicinity I felt there may be more ready to slip up on my hair rigged pellets. I was however wrong as little movement happened in front of me other than a wonderful young and graceful swan.
I picked up my gear and moved a swim closer to my car in the hope of finding another barbel willing to feed.
The mist began to rise from the ground and the river and distant landscape became clearer before my eyes. I climbed over a turnstile into the next field and found a swim that could hold me and two rods, giving me the chance to flick out two baits and perhaps double my chances of a fish? Unfortunately time would not stand still but instead seemed to move at a rate of knots giving me little time to catch another fish. I promised my wife I would be home for midday and after catching my target fish against all odds my work was done.
I headed back towards my car with a spring in my step and renewed enthusiasm for my next trip to my new favourite stretch. I have perhaps left it too long this season to have a prolonged campaign for its barbel but I'm sure that with relative success in such little time there are more to be caught.
Keep an eye on this blog for news on my next campaign.
It might well be a different species next time...