Once autumn has begun and the trees have started changing colour, many anglers will set out looking for barbel – a worthy opponent that can provide a fantastic day by the water.
Barbel (Barbus barbus)
In the UK, an average barbel grows to 20-35 inches (0.5-0.9m) in length and weighs between 6-10 lbs (2.6-4.5kg).
Also known as
Whiskers, Barbs and River Prince
LC – Least Concern
The barbel is a slim, elegant fish which is surprisingly powerful, it is found almost exclusively in rivers and a member of the carp family. It has a grey coloured back with bronze flanks and a pearl coloured lower half. It is easy to identify from the four barbels on its face – one in each corner of its mouth and two on the snout. These barbels are designed to feel and smell food before taking it as the barbel forages in the river bed. The barbel is a bottom feeder and so has the typical mouth with a downward curve, to help with this function.
It has a broad head which tapers sharply into its rounded snout, when viewed from above the barbel has a wedge-like shape, providing another way to identify it. Its underbelly is cream-white in colour and very flat. The barbel likes to lie on the bottom and face the current, its aerodynamic shape formed by its snout and head pushes water over its body, allowing it to stay in the same position. The fins are pale pink/grey in colour and are somewhat rounded in shape, the exception to this are the tail and dorsal fins which are much sharper and darker in colour.
The barbel is a hard fighter and won’t give up until it is completely drained. Once landed, unhook it as quickly as possible as often as it will often need to be held in the water to revive before it can be released. Gently lower the barbel into the water facing upstream and support it. When ready, it will power out of your hands with a kick of its tail.
Should you want to weigh or photograph a barbel, let it rest within the landing net in the water until you have everything ready. If the fish is showing signs of being in distress, wait until it has recovered before lifting it out of the water, and rest it again prior to release.
So how do we catch one?
The barbel’s natural diet is mainly made up of crustaceans, insect larvae and molluscs, which they unearth from the riverbed. They are carnivorous and are known to feed on minnows, frogs, crayfish, fish fry and snails. Their teeth are able to easily deal with snails and crayfish, the shells of which are then ejected afterwards.
Effective baits include luncheon meat, maggots and sausage. Barbel often lurk in holes during the day, calling for fine tackle with small baits in order to tempt them out. Worms are generally considered the best bait for barbel.
Ideal times to find active barbel are early in the morning and a couple of hours before or after dusk. Barbel require water temperatures of at least 7°C to feed properly and are caught throughout summer and autumn.
Whilst barbel are stocked by some still water fisheries, they are almost exclusively a river fish, being found in many river systems across the UK. Barbel thrive in fast flowing, clean rivers with hard beds and are susceptible to pollution. They are bottom feeders, searching the layers of silt and mud at the bottom for food. They often live in areas of thick vegetation, feeding on the plant life and organisms that hide within.
Favourite Feeding Places
Barbel tend to feed in fast gravely runs, where they use their strong snouts to forage for food along the river bed, feeding on pretty much anything that they can find there.
An ideal spot for barbel
Because the barbel feed on the bottom, it follows that ledgering a bait on the bottom is the most successful technique for catching them. This is certainly the case on large rivers, such as the Severn, which is known for its barbel population. Ledgering is also great in small rivers, but in some cases, float fishing will provide better sport.
Barbel fishing requires strong tackle, go for a rod with a test curve between 1.5-2.75 lbs for both float fishing and ledgering. A fixed spool will do the job, and the higher retrieve rate can be an advantage compared to centrepin reels which are favoured by many dedicated barbel anglers.
A main line with a breaking strain of at least 6 lb (2.75 kg) is advised to battle these powerful beasts. Include a strong forged wire hook tied directly to the main line or to a hook length of slightly lower breaking strain.
Barbel are surprisingly powerful and even relatively small specimens can apply an incredible amount of pressure on your tackle, check all knots carefully to ensure there are no weak links.
A few years ago, a common practice was to introduce a bed of hempseed into the swim and fish over it using luncheon meat. Another popular technique was to feed a mix of hemp and casters with two or three casters on the hook. Either way, a lot of hempseed was used to attract barbel and keep them in the swim, searching for small bits of food.
In recent years, pellets have become far more popular, with halibut pellets being the prefered choice by many barbel anglers. Nevertheless, the principle is the same, introduce large quantities of small particles in order to hold barbel in the swim.
Whilst out by the water, regularly introduce loose pieces of bait. If the flow is not too strong you can do so by hand, but if the current is strong use a swimfeeder. A block end feeder or an open ended feeder will do the job and use a stiff groundbait mix as a carrier for the hempseed or pellets.
Groundbait should mainly consist of brown crumb, if hempseed is the loose feed then use some of the water which was used to boil the hemp, to wet the ground bait. If pellets are the loose feed, include some crushed pellets to the dry base mix prior to adding water.
The scent and flavour of the loose feed, whichever you choose to use, will draw fish up into the swim in search of food. Once it’s been mixed to a stiff consistency, add the hempseed or pellets into the groundbait and mix thoroughly. Even a small amount of groundbait will carry a large number of particles after it’s been packed into a swimfeeder.
When ledgering, go for a link ledger rig, include either a swimfeeder or leger weight that is just about heavy enough to hold the bottom. The size of hook to use is dictated by the size of hook bait, a size 14 will work for two or three casters, a size 12 for banded pellet and a size 8 is suited for luncheon meat.
Luncheon meat is a tricky bait to cast any distance so use a short hair rig instead, this rig will prevent the meat coming off the hook whilst casting.
Barbel bites are often very powerful, keep the rod close to hand so you can react as quickly as possible. Barbel have been known to pull rods off rests with their first run, so be warned if using a rest.
Whilst legering is the most effective technique for most barbel waters, float fishing is more appropriate for some swims. These swims are generally rather shallow from the bank to about three quarters of the way across the river and have deeper undercut channel under trees along the far quarter of the river, by the far bank.
This form of fishing is particularly active and requires constant casting and feeding as the fast current will carry the float to the end of the swim very quickly. If, however, barbel are present in the swim then excellent catches are possible.
Because the flow in these swims is generally very strong, a float which can carry a lot of shot, such as a balsa or chubber float (shown below), with the shot positioned close to the hook, will work to get the bait down quickly and moving close to the bottom.
Balsa float (left) and chubber float (right)
In order to cast accurately and control the float down the swim, you will need to wade to the mid-river point and fish standing up. Begin by introducing a handful of loose feed, a little upstream from the line you intend to fish, next, swing the tackle into the swim so that it follows the path of the loose feed closely. If bites aren’t coming, try slowing the float down a little as it travels through the swim.
Striking is usually not required, simply tighten the line when the float goes under the surface. The barbel will reply with a strong pull as it tries to escape by lurching towards tree roots and other snags on the far bank.
Don’t let the barbel get to these snags on the far bank, hold on tight and draw the fish into clearer water, where the task becomes much simpler. The combination of the barbel’s power and the strong flow of the river will provide you with a fantastic fight, even with a barbel of just a few pounds.
Once hooked, a barbel will try to stay on the bottom for as long as possible, whilst this is happening the angler needs to be careful not to put too much pressure on, or the fish will ‘stay put’. Instead, give the fish a little slack line in the early stages of the fight to try and trick it into thinking it is free. Once it’s moved off the bottom, tighten up and keep it away from the bottom.
Ensure that the groundbait you use is made to a fairly stiff consistency, in order to get it to the bottom quickly and include a liberal sample of your hook bait with it too. If it is presented as a cloud, it will be carried out of the swim before it has had the chance to sink even a few inches into the water. Something to definitely avoid.