A Barbel Summer
This summer the fishing in the pools was proving about as slow as it could get but those fishing for them had been landing the odd nice fish. The fishery record, had been knocked up a notch by Steve Allen, taking a fish of 9lb 9oz from the top pool in June and according to Burt the Bailiff, a new member had landed a fish of over l0lbs. in early July Obviously our barbel were now growing into substantial specimens.
Being seriously engaged in tench fishing at Bawburgh, I hadn't really given our barbel much thought this season until 22nd July, when Mick Rouse of Angling Times came to take some photographs for an article they were doing on our habitat improvement work at Lyng and of course he wanted a fish or two to grace the lens. I hadn't really expected it to be that difficult to catch a barbel or two, so resolved to fish the pools while EA. Fisheries Officer Simon Johnson and John Nunn wandered off downstream after chub. Arriving an hour or so after dawn on what promised to be a damp and dreary day, I waded out into the bottom millpool, but by ten o'clock it had become obvious that things were definitely not going my way. I'd stuck it out in the rain and been soaked for a handful of roach and a perch on maggot feeder. Then came the best bit, somehow I managed to knock my bait bucket, including its contents of four pints of maggots into the drink. Luckily the lid was on but it was upside down and was rapidly floating off down the shallow back-eddy before I noticed it and then in the ensuing chase, I managed to fall up to my occasional golden nuggets into the river.
By 11 o'clock, having tipped the water out of my waders and riddled the maggots off into some dry breadcrumb, I squelched my way up to the top pool and set up in the far bank swim. By 2 o'clock Mick Rouse and reporter Dave Woodmansey turned up, by which time I'd feeder fed 3 pints of maggots, a percentage of which had turned into floaters due to getting wet and apart from one roach, three dace and two gudgeon, I still had nothing to show for my efforts. They wandered off down river to find Simon and John, leaving me desperate to catch a barbel for the camera.
By 3.30 it was obvious I was very unlikely to catch on the feeder, indeed by then I doubted that any barbel were present in the millpools, if they were, they certainly did not seem to be feeding. Out of desperation, however, I stripped off the feeder rig and set up a running lead to try searching the pool with a big lump of meat. After casting it to the bottom of thepool well away from the usual hot spot, I sat back to await the ribbing which I was certainly going to get when Mick got back. Within twenty seconds, however, the rod tip unexpectedly lurched around and after a short frantic tussle, the world's most appreciated 6lb barbel graced my net. I punched the air in jubilation. No sooner had I slipped it into the barbel tube, when Mick came back and the sun came out for the first time that day. As it turned out Simon and John had blanked apart from a small chub, so my hard won barbel really had saved the day. A second fish of around 3lb give Mick the opportunity of taking a few action shots and a good centre page feature was in the bag.
Trip two to the millpools was purely a social session, an opportunity to take Bawburgh bailiff Tony Bidwell in an attempt to catch his first ever barbel. My first cast, again on meat, provided a small fish of around three pounds, after which apart from a baby of around 12oz, neither of us had another touch before we departed an hour after dark. To catch a baby barbel, however, was an interesting event. Being too small to be one of our stock fish, it begged the question, had our barbel spawned or had it dropped downstream from a recent stocking by Dereham AC. at Swanton Morley? More recently, numerous sightings of little barbel as small as 4 inches long in the mill-stream is surely proof that they have been spawning successfully.
In August I received an excited phone call from Graham Waite who had just spent two days fishing the pools as a guest. Graham had taken four fish including a personal best of 10lb 4oz. He also lost another fish which he considered to be a similar size. Obviously the time had come for me to start taking our barbel fishing a little more seriously. My best Sayer's fish was only a little over 7lb and the chance of catching a double was simply too much to resist, so a week later with a free afternoon to spare, I popped down to the top pool.
I thought it might pay off to try a new approach. Up to now, I had mostly fished for them using a maggot feeder but I reasoned that it might pay to feed with hemp. The problem was how to lay a bed down in the middle of the pool in the fast, deep water. A trip to Tom Boulton's gave me a few ideas and I decided on using a largish plastic grip mesh feeder combined with an aromatic, explosive feeder groundbait which contains a high content of ground hemp. On the bank, I added 3 pints of hemp and mixed the groundbait into a stiff consistency, which I hoped would get to the bottom of the pool before breaking up. A couple of trials in the margins suggested that it would work a treat and so it proved.
Using big chunks of meat on a size six hook tied to 8lb line, I repeated several casts to get a good bed of hemp down. At first a series of rattling bites, suggested I had at least attracted a number of small chub or dace, then I missed a good strong pull, which came before I really expected it. Twenty minutes later the rod tip pulled over again and I quickly hassled in a small barbel of around two pounds, probably one from our last stocking. For a hour or two after that, the swim went dead and I began to doubt the effectiveness of my approach. Even the small fish seemed to have lost interest, often though, this can be a sign that barbel are active in the swim and so it proved when the rod tip once again pulled round.
This time my strike met with a different sort of resistance, no sudden rush typical of smaller barbel but a solid, almost sullen pull as whatever I had hooked moved upstream into the mill race. From my fishing position, it is easy to lose fish in the thick cabbage beds growing down the marginal drop-off. In order to avoid the potential problem of pulling the fish into them, I waded out far enough to get the rod top above the cabbages. For a while the barbel swam around hugging the bottom in the deepest part of the pool, then, quite unexpectedly, it allowed itself to be pulled into midwater. Suddenly, there it was in full view in the crystal clear water, head shaking, peach fins bristling, a superb golden barbel and obviously a double. With a twist of its body and a lash of the tail, it powered down to get into the cabbages and as it got its head down under them, I piled on full pressure and managed to drag it out and up to the surface. Once there, in a plume of spray, it took off on a very angry arm wrenching run back to the middle of the pool. This, however, only served to sap its strength, after which it offered only token resistance, allowing itself to be led to the waiting net where, as if seeking sanctuary, it dived straight into the open mesh.
Unhooking my prize in the water, 1 rested her for five minutes in the submerged net while I sorted out my unhooking mat, scales and weighsling. For the record she was fin perfect, without a blemish on her body, 28.5 inches long with a 16 inch girth, and weighed 10lb 5oz I have no way of telling if it was the same fish as Graham's but I expect so. What mattered more to me, was that ten years after her introduction as a hand sized yearling, she was now a fully fledged specimen, a fish which will certainly have a winter weight of well over I I lb.
For me though, she was more than her vital statistics. She was the reward for daring to nurture a dream that we could create a barbel fishery in a length of river which at best, had been little more than mediocre. Thirteen years later, after all our hard work, battling with the old NRA, creating riffles and pools, planting riparian trees and of course stocking little barbel, we have created a river which is beginning to look like a barbel fishery. While huge areas of the Wensum still remain totally knackered, at Sayers, we are slowly creating a fishery of real value.
Having got my season's first big barbel under my belt, inevitably the old barbel bug had bitten me again. The problem is, when you live in Norfolk what do you do about it? You can join the throng at Costessey or Taverham Mill, which is OK. but not really what I want out of my fishing. You can chase around the country after them, which is a splendid idea, if you have the time and money, which I didn't. Alternatively, you can take the least practical route and pioneer some barbel from areas in which few anglers realise they exist. This option was appealing, apart from the fact that I didn't know of any such places, or did I? There was the River Yare. I was aware that there were a few barbel in its non-tidal reaches and had looked for them on occasions in the past and found nothing, but there were still plenty of areas I had not checked out. One or two snippets of new information had come my way, including news of the capture of a seven pounder, which was very encouraging. I still wasn't sure they would be worth the effort, but events presented unexpected opportunities and in the end it all fell together out of chance really.
It was one of those wet, cold summer mornings when you find yourself tench fishing in a swim full of nothing, thinking how nice it would be to reel in and go up the pub. Somehow, that notion seemed too much of a cop out but I put it to my fishing partner, saying that on the way, we could drop some hemp into one or two swims on the Yare that barbel had allegedly been seen in. The excuse seemed to beautifully justify our retreat to the pub. The first swim we looked at didn't look right for barbel really, there being no particularly deep pool, only moderate flow and no overhanging trees or weedrafts. The bed was mostly gravel, however, and there was a big weedbed downstream in which they could hide. Half a pint of hemp went in and within minutes two medium sized barbel were tearing up the bottom to get at it. Being ever the gentleman, 1 offered my partner first go, but the quick capture of two unexpected eels spooked the barbel out of the swim, after which we could not get them back. So it was up to the pub for a lunch time pint after all.
The itch, however, had begun. 1 was getting sucked in. Perhaps there were other barbel present in the area and perhaps one or two would be bigger. A few days later I returned and baited a few likely looking swims but all 1 could find were the same two barbel. The bigger of the two looked around seven or eight pounds, not huge, but any barbel from the Yare had to be worth catching, so as dusk set in I tackled my rod and settled in. Once again though eels beat them to the bait and even though I stayed well in to the small hours, 1 failed to get the barbel to respond.
A few evenings later I returned and again baited and watched the swim. An age passed and nothing showed but then in the failing light, a barbel suddenly emerged from under the reeds, beneath my feet. My heart jumped, this was a different fish and unless my eyes were deceiving me it was bigger, quite possibly even a double. It was then that 1 realised 1 had left my torch, beta lights, hooks and leads at home, so I rebaited the swim and departed.
Now I was really fired up, but could not get back until the weekend. It had become obvious that these barbel were not going to be a pushover and my approach would have to be executed meticulously if I was to put this new fish on the bank. The river was now running very clear with filamentous algae beginning to coat much of the bed, although there was a clear area in the middle of the swim, no doubt kept open by the barbel regularly feeding on my hemp. 1 chose to fish throughout the day, which would give me the opportunity to watch what was going on in the swim. Trouble was the day turned out to be a scorcher, with no shade in the swim, I would be unable to sit it out by my rod throughout the day as 1 had planned. Luckily there was a tree nearby, from which 1 could get out the sun and watch the swim when I needed to.
After setting up and arranging my tackle, 1 put in several handfuls of hemp and retired under the tree to watch the swim. Forty minutes past and nothing showed, other than small dace and roach browsing on the hemp. 1 was beginning to.think they had gone, when suddenly my barbel materialised over the hemp. Excitedly it rolled over on its side and flashed its flank while pushing forward along the river bed, which sent up a cloud of sediment and bubbles. It browsed on the hemp for a minute or two then turned and dropped downstream under the weedbeds. The moment had come to put my plan into action.
While the fish was absent, I carefully swung out a lump of luncheon meat to rest at the bottom end of the bed of hemp, a few inches upstream of the weedbed and then quietly introduced a few more handfuls of hemp. This was to be the approach for the day, bait the swim a little in the fish's absence and wait for its return, only moving the hookbait if an eel or smaller fish was about to pick it up. Nothing should disturb that fish to arouse its suspicions. Given time, I felt sure that it would accept the hookbait, few anglers had fished for them, so they should have no fear of meat.
And so the day passed. Once or twice an hour my barbel would slip upstream and nudge its way out of the weedbed, then for a few minutes, it would browse on the hemp, before once again turning downstream to hide up in the weed. The plan was working but would it pick up my hookbait? I got an answer to that at around midday. The fish was becoming very close to being total preoccupied with the hemp, its visits to the swim both gradually getting longer and more regular. She looked ready to make her mistake at any second and my excitement became almost overwhelming as 1 watched it move close to my hookbait, which then vanished out of view under its head. I wasn't absolutely sure that it had picked it up and wasn't convinced 1 should strike, however, the line pulled almost indiscernibly tighter in my trembling fingers but before my senses could react, 1 saw her eject the bait. My chance had gone.
The afternoon passed slowly, my barbel seemed less confident now, spending long periods out of the swim. A second fish of about half its size turned up for an hour or and so, then also departed. At around five the sun at long last moved round behind the tree, putting both me and the swim in shade. Sun-stroke averted, for the first time that day, I could sit comfortably beside my rod. By seven the light was hardly penetrating the water and it was becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible to see what was going on in the swim. The thought entered my mind that introducing a few tiny bits of luncheon meat to the swim may help overcome any caution she could have to my hookbait. Small bits of meat are incredibly buoyant and need to be introduced well upstream, so are less inclined to spook the swim, so kill or cure, I pinched off about twenty corn sized pieces, flicked them in one at a time and watched them drift downstream and gently sink from view.
They sank so slowly, that I could imagine at least some pieces drifting right down into the sanctuary of the weedbed, perhaps catching the barbel's attention and drawing her out along the trail of offerings. 1 don't know if that's what happened but only a few minutes passed before the rod tip slowly pulled round, like a big lump of weed catching the line, but there was no drifting weed. It could only be a bite and as 1 struck and the rod buckled over a barbel rolled heavily on the surface. Which one was it? It hadn't looked big but the fight had none of the rush and tear of a small fish. After a few minutes it was ready for the net and on the second time of asking she slipped into the mesh.
The weight in the net told the story, it was the big one. She was short but fat as butter and had to be a double and so it proved if only by an ounce. She had that look about her that said she was as old as the hills, her dorsal ragged and anal fin split. This was a fish which obviously had a history. And 1 wondered about it. Where had she come from? How far had she travelled. Had she been born in the Wensum and negotiated numerous mill pools or was she one of a few rumoured to have been stocked by the water authority into the Yare in 1972? Or perhaps she was she an illegal immigrant, travelled overland in the night in the back of someone's car, from the Wensum, the Lea or perhaps the Great Ouse? I could only guess, whatever the answer, it couldn't have changed the fact that I was exhilarated, stunned even. Nothing compares with the thrill of success from cutting your own furrow, seeking out and catching big fish on your own terms.
The following week I phoned up Calverton Fish Farm and put in an order for 600 18 to 21 cm. barbel to introduce into the Yare at our Bawburgh Lakes Fishery. Provided that the E.A. grant us consent, they should go in early in the new year. What a fitting way to celebrate the millennium.