Tuesday 12 January 2021

Barbel Tales

Like Carp Tales, this post is one of those self-indulgent jobs aimed at providing me with a nostalgia-rich read on future wet and dismal days. I am slowly and inexorably becoming an old man now, so stuff like this is to be expected. Sorry.

The story begins in 1974. At least I think that's the year. I also think it's late summer. However, I absolutely know that I'm sitting in the passenger seat of Ginger's VW van as it carries us west through the pre-dawn darkness. I am so keyed up! Barbel are the quarry, a fish I've never even seen before, let alone caught. And we're going to the fabled River Kennet at Thatcham, then on the London Anglers Association ticket. Barbel City. From the car park you crossed to the far bank of the river by a narrow footbridge...

Every angler stops on bridges. Always. I still do. If the bridge carries a road, chances are I'll check both sides too. Can't help myself. Below that rickety little bridge over the Kennet, invisible in the dark, mysterious water, I imagined leviathans. In the event, neither of us caught a barbel. Ginger hooked and lost one, and I got bored with watching a motionless rod tip, swapped legered luncheon meat for float-fished caster and caught a plump, pound-and-a-quarter roach.

Some two decades later I revisited that stretch of the Kennet, by then known as Rainsford Farm, as a member of Thatcham AA. From the same footbridge I watched a thick swathe of streamer weed occasionally waft aside to reveal a large, pink-finned, grey-green barbel lurking beneath, untemptable. Rob was with me, a young teenager himself now. We both caught a few modest barbel that day, on sweetcorn I recall.

The Hampshire Avon's Royalty Fishery provided my first barbel, and as I write, also my last, documented here. A week on the Avon in 1976 was enough to persuade me to do it again the next year. I dread to think what horrible little Instamatic type camera is responsible for the following, but it is one of very few photos from those times...

July 1977. The state of it! I can't help noticing that the background is pitch black. Which means we were fishing after dark - not allowed. I seem to remember somehow climbing across the famous pipe bridge to sneak out undetected. The photo shows a modest barbel from next to the railway bridge.

Like almost everything else I do, fishing has come in fits and starts. In the 1990s I made several visits to the Kennet once more, to Padworth and Rainsford Farm, and a Reading & District stretch called Upper Benyons. At Padworth one evening I fished a shallow run upstream of a weedy section, regularly catapulting small doses of hempseed across the river in an effort to tempt the fish out of their hiding place. It worked. Lobbing out a lightly-legered lump of cheese and allowing it to trundle round in the flow did the trick, and I caught an amazing 16 barbel. I never met anyone else who used cheese for barbel, but they were sometimes suckers for it. I never got close to that kind of haul on the Kennet again. I once caught 16 in a day on the River Teme though, in 1990 I think. Those were some of the hardest scrapping barbel ever. Serious arm-ache.

A Padworth 8-pounder. Not sure whether or not this was from the Amazing Night of Sixteen, but I'm pretty sure it was from the same swim

A superb mid-'90s Upper Benyons barbel. Summery loveliness...

The Kennet and I parted ways again, for about 15 years this time. And then Rob began working over that way, a good excuse to drive up from Devon and join him on the river once in a while. I don't know how many barbel I've caught over the years, but many hundreds for sure. In all that time I never managed a 'double', a ten-pound-plus fish. In my absence, the Kennet barbel had grown fewer but bigger, and a double was now a real possibility. In June 2010 I visited Rob for a couple of days on the river. The fish were reluctant to play, but eventually I caught a barbel. Just one...

Upper Benyons on 22nd June, 2010. A double at last. 10lb 4oz.

2011 was the last time I fished the Kennet. Again with Rob. We rented a little cottage for a few days in September. The fishing was dreadfully slow. The prolific days of yore were seemingly over. I think we only caught three or four barbel between us, despite systematically searching long stretches of the river. One afternoon I spent some time slowly walking a short length which lent itself to fish-spotting. Weedy and not too deep, with some nice gravel runs between the beds of streamer. Unfortunately it appeared totally fishless. Still, watching the gently swaying sheets of greenery can be a bit hypnotic, and I ended up standing there like a lemon, day-dreaming...

And then a little puff of silt. A small, insignificant mini-cloud of disturbed river bed seeped out from beneath the weed. Surely a feeding barbel? There it was again. From upstream I cast a bait over the weed, hoping it would come to rest within sniffing distance of what must surely be a fish. Ten minutes later...

12lb 2oz of muscly perfection.

That was my biggest Kennet barbel by far, also my last. The date, 12th September, 2011. I wonder if it was actually my last Kennet barbel ever? I'll be frank. I feel no urge to return. Even ten years ago it was evident that things had changed from my younger days. More anglers, chasing fewer fish. There may be monsters, but size alone hasn't been a thing for me in a long, long time. If ever, actually. Even more so today, it's all about the experience. The surroundings, the wildlife, the company. And a few bites of course. Does size really not matter? Well, fish big enough to set the pulse racing are nice, but nowadays no more than a welcome bonus.

It was Rob's desire to fish the Royalty that drew me back to the Hampshire Avon on 3rd March, 2017. And so it was, some five and a half years since that Kennet 12-pounder, that this fish ended a very wet day in Christchurch...

7lb 7oz

That barbel was caught just a few yards from the very spot where I caught my first in 1976. A few yards, but more than 40 years. And now of course I'm wondering where, when, and actually if, I'll ever catch another...


  1. A superb post Gav, such vivid memories. Your barbel journey mirrors, very closely, the one that I've experienced although it is only the Royalty Fishery on the Hampshire Avon in which we have both cast a line. Time spent in a punt, securely held by chains and accompanied by Fred Crouch, at King's Weir on the Hertfordshire Lea were immediately brought back to life whilst reading about your own antics with small, yet hard fighting, barbel.
    I've not caught one since 2014, this post has me wondering why? They are a superb species and I'd be a fool to ignore the potential of The Kentish Stour to provide further encounters with such magnificent adversaries. Brilliant blogging - thanks for the kick up the arse I needed - stay safe - Dyl

    1. Thanks Dyl, it was a fun post to write, though a little sad. I came across a web article by Steve Pope about his time on the Crookham stretch of the Kennet, which was basically the opposite bank to Rainsford Farm, the old LAA stretch. It was entitled 'The End of an Era' and written in 2017 I think. The barbel fishing on that water - and perhaps much of the Kennet - is basically finished. The river is in dire straits. So sad. I know there are other barbel, other rivers, and if I lived closer to a decent barbel fishery I could well be tempted. We'll see...

      Thanks again Dyl. All the best.😊

  2. Same here Gav. Superb post. Just the thing to get me out and down to the local piece of the Colne that we both dabbled in decades back.

    1. Thanks Ric. Catching barbel from the Colne at Rickmansworth and by the A40 in the late '80s and early '90s was such a blast. When Rob was youngster, Sandra would take him down the river at Ricky, and fish with him too. Somewhere I have a photo of her with a 6-pounder she caught from the little weir. And I vividly remember that jaw-dropping photo of Jim Clavin with the A40 12-pounder! Must be more than 30 years ago too. What a fish for its time!

    2. Gav, I'll send you a copy.

  3. Barbel caused me to move to Herefordshire 21 years ago, such was the allure. This season, so far, I have not caught a single one and have lost the thirst for them. I am certain to regain the passion and memories of days on the Kennet. Bristol Avon and Teme during their glory years will linger.

    Nice post Gav.

    1. Thanks Dave. I do sometimes wonder what path I might have taken had my passion for angling remained consistent through the years, at the level it was when I was a boy. Surely I would have chased barbel all over the country, wherever the fishing was hot? As it is, the memories linger and are sweet, like yours...

      I've never fished the Wye, though my son Rob has encouraged me to give it try. It's just too far away, and the learning curve of a new water puts me off. Maybe one day, if and when Rob comes to stay, we'll set aside a few days for a proper go at it. And I know who I'll ask for pointers! 😊

      Hope your passion returns. At least the fish are still there, waiting...

    2. Just give me the nod and I'll do what I can.

  4. Fantastic Gav. I'd love to see, let alone catch, a Barbel.

    1. Thanks Stewart. A few times over the years I've had the privilege of watching barbel in clear water, drifting out from beneath weed beds to feed on gravelly runs. Seemingly effortless in a strong current. So impressive. I guess your nearest barbel will be in Yorkshire rivers. Could be wrong, but not aware of any further north.