Small River Barbel Fishing - Normal River Levels
It can be easy to disregard smaller venues as having little or no potential for larger fish, however this is a misconception which could see you miss out on some fantastic fishing, for some of the largest barbel in the country.
Barbel are a fascinating fish that inhabit the smallest streams to the largest rivers. One of my favourite things about barbel, much like perch is that they do not require a huge river to grow to impressive sizes, in fact, our smaller rivers often throw up specimens. Take my local river for example, the River Medway in Kent, the best barbel stretches are the upper reaches, where you could almost jump across, yet it has produced very large fish. Indeed, back in 1994 it held the British record with a fish of 16lb 2oz.
Being based in the south east of England, where there are not a great deal of barbel rivers, my options for barbel fishing locally are somewhat confined to smaller rivers, which suits me to a tea!
But how do you tackle smaller waters, where you are unlikely to have the numbers of fish present that you might find in some of our better-known larger rivers?
Although by no means an expert, I have amassed a wealth of experience fishing smaller rivers for Barbel with my brother Andrew over the past decade and we have both caught some very special fish. The pinnacle to date being an absolute giant of a barbel which weighed 17lb 14oz and was caught from a tiny southern river on the tactics explained in this article. This fish has since gone on to grow even further and in the winter of 2019 set a new British record at 21lb 2oz.
This article aims to share some of our successful tactics for smaller rivers that have been refined over the years and could help you catch that fish of a lifetime.
The first thing to note when targeting smaller rivers is that the fish will often behave very differently when the river is in flood to when it is at its normal level and therefore your approach must be altered accordingly. Whilst this is true of larger rivers as well, it is especially true of smaller rivers where the river will often be carrying an additional 2 metres or more of water, increasing the depth and flow to three or four times its normal level. This article will focus on fishing rivers when they are at their normal level, or thereabout. Floodwater fishing and other tactics I use on certain occasions are for another article.
The first and most important thing to note about our approach to small water barbel fishing is that we like to be mobile and expect to catch fish quickly. If I am fishing a swim on a small river, and there are barbel in it, they will find my bait and eat it quickly, of this I am certain. Very rarely have I had a bite from a swim after being in it for more than 40 minutes, but I have lost count of the number of times I have stayed put in a swim thinking a bite will come only to leave empty handed. So much so that I will not wait any more 40 minutes for a bite, in fact I will rarely wait more than half an hour, preferring instead to cut my losses and move on if bites are not forthcoming.
With this in mind, I travel as lightly as I can, a mat, one rod, a rod rest, net and a backpack is all I will take. This allows me to move quickly and easily and avoids the temptation of settling down in a swim properly that can arise when you are laden with tackle and sitting comfortably in a chair.
Furthermore, I want to do all I can to ensure that the swim is primed, ready and the barbel are feeding before I make a cast so that I can avoid the need to sit for hours waiting for the tip to pull. It takes a surprisingly short time to set those sensitive barbules twitching and get barbel grubbing around for food, particularly if you can feed accurately and with a good quality bait that the barbel are going to home in on.
Perhaps the thing I am most sure of, having spent a lot of time barbel fishing is that they absolutely love a fishy pellet. As such, I tend to fish with pellet for 90% of my barbel fishing. Upon arriving at the river the first thing I will do is grab a bait tub, fill it with a mix of pellet and a few broken boilies, dampen it down and go for a walk.
The mix both I and my brother use consists of a variety of CC Moore pellet, mainly very small pellet with the odd larger pellet mixed in. I have a constant supply of mixed pellet at home, comprising approximately 40% mini halibut pellets (2mm), 20% 4mm Betaine HNV Pellets, 20% 4mm trout pellets, 10% 6mm Betaine HNV Pellets and a very small scattering of larger 8 and 14mm Betaine HNV pellets. I will also often add a few broken, glugged Oddessey XXX boilies into the mix for added attraction.
The reason for using a mix of such small pelted is that I want to get scent in the water and get the fish grubbing around, but when I may only have one or two fish in a swim I don’t want to give them a lot of bigger food samples to fill them up, even just for a little while. My whole approach depends on the fish actively looking for food when I drop my rig in, the theory being that they home in on my pellet within minutes of it hitting the water.
So having arrived at the river and dampened a couple of pints of pellet I will always go for a walk and trickle in 2 or 3 small balls of bait into 3 or 4 likely looking swims before unloading the tackle from the car. Another benefit of using a selection of small pellets is that when dampened slightly they will squeeze into a nice tight ball that can be thrown into the river, accounting for the flow of course, and will settle on the bottom where the flow will break it up leaving a scattering of bait on the bottom. This way swims can be prepped with the minimum of disturbance and will be ready to fish within 30 mins or so. It can sometimes pay to wait longer, but by baiting 3 or 4 swims at a time, which you intend to move between, by the time you reach the last swim the fish may have had 2 or 3 hours to move over the bait and clean it up.
I would not suggest waiting about for long periods before casting though as often the fish will move in and clean the bait up in no time. I certainly aim to cast into my first swim within an hour of putting some bait in. This usually gives me time to walk the stretch, baiting any likely looking spots then grab my tackle, set up, maybe have a cup of coffee from my flask and cast out in the spot I baited first.
This is where I should touch upon my set up. In terms of rigs I don’t use anything sophisticated, as with all of my fishing I like to keep things simple, so I will use a coated braid hooklength of about 10 inches, with a knotless knot to a size 8 or 9 drennan specimen barbel hook and a drilled pellet on the hair. I do like to strip off the final 2 inches of coating by the hook and add a split shot surrounded by a blob of heavy metal a couple of inches from the hook as I think this helps just prick the fish on the take.
Behind this I will have a bead and a lead, usually 1-2oz (depending on flow). This is where my approach differs to what you may usually see, and I am afraid that I cannot claim any credit for the idea whatsoever. The first time I came across it was at the River Kennett when my brother suggested applying a second lead further up the line to act as a backlead, having watched barbel in the crystal clear water knock our lines and spook off the spot numerous times. However, I have since read that Martin Bowler has been using the approach for years, long before I had even caught a barbel, and so at very least two other anglers can claim credit for this tactic and I am truly thankful as it is a game changer.
Behind the first lead simply attached a float stop, a small bead and a slightly lighter lead, usually 1oz or so. When we first applied this on the crystal clear water of the Kennett the barbel began feeding around the bait without hesitation, which soon translated into confident bites.
This second lead acts as a backlead and pins the line to the bottom immediately around the bait and helps to dramatically reduce liners and I am sure results in more bites and fish feeding more confidently in the swim. The distance between the two leads can be adjusted by simply moving the float stop depending on how tight the swim is and how far you need to cast. As a rule I like to have about 2ft between the leads, therefore ensuring that any fish within a couple of feet of my bait won’t catch my line giving me false indications and spooking the fish. This is especially important if the fish are grubbing around on the bottom cleaning up the small pellets you put in a short while ago.
With this method, 9/10 bites will simply hoop the rod over. I am not sure if this is due to them hooking themselves or the fact that you are not getting plucks and pulls from fish hitting the line but be sure to sit close to the rod, even chub will often register incredibly violent bites.
Whilst I like to use a rod with a soft glass quivertip (2oz), I am not convinced this is necessary the majority of the time, but in my view if it catches me the odd extra fish that is being finicky for some reason it is worth doing as it may just be a monster!
I never use a lighter rod than 2lb test curve when targeting small river barbel and usually opt for my centrepin loaded with 12 -15 lb line for the simple reason that on small river you are rarely far from a snag, and often fishing tight little spots for which you need to have ultimate control in order to avoid losing fish.
The final piece of my barbel approach that I am sure helps put more fish on the bank is that I like to squeeze a small ball of the dampened pellet around my hookbait before making a cast. This way, when my bait hits the bottom it will be encased in pellet which will quickly wash off in the flow, leaving my hookbait sat above a small bed of pellet, exactly the same as the free offerings I have put in, without a big bulky feeder giving the game away.
When expecting quick bites this may seem an odd thing to do, but trust me, the pellet will fall away in no time. In fact if you have primed the swim well it is not uncommon for the bait to be taken within a couple of minutes and often just after the rod is put on the rests. I am always amazed the hook point is not still covered with the pellet but it clearly isn’t, or if it is, the pellets must fall away on the take, leaving that hook to hit home.
In terms of swim choice on smaller rivers in low / normal water conditions, you will find barbel almost anywhere, from slow deep pools to fast shallow glides and everywhere in-between. I do however find that barbel love to be close by to some form of cover, be that weed, rafts, submerged snags or overhanging trees. So the best advice I can offer in regards to swim choice is to bait all sorts of spots, particularly those overgrown spots that are not usually fished and see where the barbel turn up, remembering not to linger too long waiting for a bite because if the barbel are there they will be quick. And remember, always be prepared for an instant take, if the swim is primed properly it is surprising how often this happens.