Tips and tactics

How to catch your first barbel

by Ricci Cox

Barbel are probably the most sought after fish in British rivers nowadays. Known for their hard-fighting qualities and ferocious bites (many a rod has nearly been lost or actually has been pulled in thanks to a barbel bite), this torpedo-shaped, bronzed beauty is definitely worth targeting.

They are now more widespread than ever before thanks to stocking around the country over the past decade or more by some angling clubs. Rivers like the Trent, Severn and Nene hold more and bigger barbel than ever before. Many a river around the country has produced big fish well into high double-figures nowadays, even a few twenty pounders and the current British record is a 21lb 2oz, caught in late 2019 from an undisclosed Sussex river.

There are many ways to go about catching a barbel. From the simple method of free-lining a bait, such as luncheon meat on back waters and smaller, steady flowing rivers, to fishing more ‘carp-style’ with boilies and pellet baits and fancier rigs with lead core leaders or rig tubing and heavy leads on fast running rivers like the Severn and Trent.

Small, steady-flowing back waters also make for great barbel habitats
Start with boilie, pellet and hemp and you won’t go far wrong!

If you are new to a water, I would recommend keeping it simple and and start with a boilie, pellet and hemp approach – a pretty reliable tactic on any water for barbel. Boilie choice is important. I would recommend a quality fish-meal based boilie, like ‘The Source’ which I’ve caught many barbel on. Others like ‘Complex-T or a Halibut-flavoured boilie or pellet will work a treat too. Avoid fruity flavours.

If this doesn’t produce on a given day, you can always try a cube of luncheon meat which works well. I’ve caught barbel on Paprika and curry flavoured luncheon meat as well as plain, so don’t be afraid to experiment with spices and flavours. Pepperami and other meaty treats have caught many a barbel over the years too.

When it comes to rig choice, I’d recommend a three-foot leadcore leader (I’ve never been snapped up or lost a fish on one of these in nearly 20 years of carp and barbel fishing) and a simple lead-clip system with a 2-40z lead in most cases, a hair-rigged boilie with a quality size 8 hook on a 3ft, 20b breaking strain braid or 12-15lb mono hooklink, depending on your main line – go slightly lighter on the hooklink with mono, i.e – 12lb hooklink with a 15lb mainline). When casting out, don’t tighten instantly, let the rig and leadcore sink and settle on the bottom first. The leadcore leader keeps the line all pinned down as barbel are spooky and will shoot out of your swim in an instance if they suspect anything is wrong, especially the big, wily, older fish – I’ve seen this with my own eyes in a crystal clear summer river.

A simple but effective barbel rig. You can swap the lead for a feeder if you want to put more bait out each cast.

Getting bait to the fish can be done with PVA bags, a catapult or a bait-dropper (again, depending on size and flow of the venue). When fishing small back-water river swims, I’ve even found it possible to sneak up and just put a few handfuls in right over the rod-tip, when hidden by the bank foliage, trees, etc. Just be careful not to spook fish, especially on really small backwaters, rivers, etc.

Rod choice is usually a 1.75lb specialist barbel rod and medium-sized reel on small backwaters and rivers and a 2.8lb carp rod and free-spool-reel with 15lb mainline on big wide rivers like the Trent or Severn. This may sound quite heavy gear if you are not used to fishing that way for barbel, but believe me a double-figure plus barbel, in a strong flow will still test your gear, let alone the trees, etc that can flow down in floods! It also makes it a lot easier to cast 3 or 40z leads and PVA bags out 50-60 yards.

Here I found a clear gravel patch just 2 inches from the bank on a small backwater and carefully lowering the rig in with a handful of bait over the top. The barbel (pictured) was the result – as this fish moved back out of the main river under the cover of darkness and took my hookbait on its way through

On smaller streams and back waters, a single rod-rest will suffice, with rod in the air and line out of the flowing river as possible. I use ‘snag-ears’ on the rod rest as barbel bites can be ferocious and I’ve heard many a tale of anglers rods being pulled in! Or you can hold the rod on small waters – like I am in the picture left (also resting on a bucket). They’ll be no mistaking when you get a bite! On bigger rivers, carp-style alarms and butt rests low to the ground will do the job. Bite alarms are great for fishing into dark too, if you don’t want to fish alarms, make sure to get a starlight for your rod tip or you’ll be packing up early!

Best times of year to catch are from the first day of the river season (June 16th) through to October/November time (depending on air and water temperature) and even though you’ll still catch barbel in cold, winter, flood water conditions, it’s a lot harder, bleaker fishing. Dawn and dusk are great times for a bite, although I’ve still caught a fair few in the middle of the day, so anytime is possible really if they’re in your swim.

On small rivers and back waters, have a walk and look for likely looking swims in the clear water (patches of gravel amongst the weed, under over-hanging trees, etc) and don’t be afraid to put a bit of bait in on these spots – as smaller fish, chub, etc will inevitably feed off your bait too.

On bigger rivers, don’t be afraid to put a fair bit of bait in as there can be dozens and dozens of barbel in a swim at any one time. And big fish mop up the bait too. On my last Trent session I put out around 3 kilo’s of pellet, hemp and boilies over 2 rods, had two bites, with the fish weighing 11lb 4oz and 11lb 7oz.

One last word… don’t over think it. Just get out there and try it if you’ve never caught a barbel. I know many people who want to catch a barbel, but come from a background of roach, bream and general coarse fishing and are daunted when more experienced anglers tell them of epic 20 minute battles with monster barbel on super-fast flowing, big rivers like the Trent and Severn.

Just get out there and enjoy yourself, most barbel fishing in the UK is on lovely, wild, scenic rivers or quiet little backwaters… you don’t have to start on big rivers. Do a little research and find a water that appeals to you. You’ll never forget your first barbel if you manage to land one (or the bite and fight for that matter) I’m yet to catch a barbel (even when they’re only 2-3lb) that doesn’t take off like a rocket a put up a great account of itself! I’ve nearly had my rod pulled in a few times which is why I now use ‘snag-ears’ on the rod rest to stop this from being an issue. Tight lines!

One last word of note regarding gear, is to take a well padded unhooking mat and to rest your barbel (by holding it gently upright by the tail in the water) or in your landing net to give it chance to recover before releasing. On hot summer evenings I’ve sat with a barbel for 5-10 minutes after an epic fight before it’s been strong enough to power off again…

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