Thursday 21 January 2021

One Historic Barbel

The day's incessant rain finally relented late this afternoon and I took a quick walk around the West Bay fields which yesterday yielded 52 Lapwings and some gulls. Still 52 Lapwings, but no gulls. However, flushing four Rock Pipits out of the soggy grass was a surprise...

Two of the four Rock Pipits this afternoon

I can only assume these were birds which normally frequent the seafront, but were forced elsewhere by the dreadful weather.

Anyway, I have nothing much else to say about today's birding, so I'm going to use the rest of this post to document a little tale of minimal interest to most birders. It involves a fish...

In this post I mentioned a boyhood angling mentor named Howard Matthews, aka Ginger. In about 1974 he kindly prepared a little document for me. It comprised a few pages of notes and hand-drawn maps, outlining some angling opportunities to be enjoyed on the River Colne near Uxbridge. I eagerly tried them out, catching the Metropolitan Line train from my local station at Preston Road to the Uxbridge terminus and walking from there. My favourite area came to be where the river flows beneath the elevated A40 dual carriageway, and just downstream of it. In those days that downstream stretch was leased by the Uxbridge Rovers Angling & Conservation Society, of which I was not a member. Still, poaching is par for the course when you're 15 years old, so that was no problem. One swim which featured in Ginger's document (and I can only assume he poached it too) lay just below a nearby weirpool. On the far bank was a large weeping willow, beneath which was a nice clear run maybe three feet deep. I occasionally caught a roach or two there...

A couple of decent roach from the Willow swim. I'm guessing this'll be 1975-ish. Forgive the dreadful photo quality.

I don't recall catching much other than roach here, though my old pal Ric reminded me that either myself or another lad who I used to fish with back then once hooked and lost a big, long fish in this very swim. Which may or may not be significant...

In the mid-'70s none of us kids ever considered the possibility that we might catch a barbel from the Colne. The idea would have seemed preposterous. Barbel were mythical fish which swam only in rivers far, far away. By the time the 1970s were done I'd caught barbel from the Hampshire Avon and the Thames, but certainly not the Colne. Neither had I ever heard of a Colne barbel being caught by anyone else. In the early '80s I stopped fishing and started birding, and that was that.

In early 1985 we experienced a big freeze-up. I had chosen 1985 to go for a London Area year list, and that period of bitterly cold weather played right into my hands, delivering all sorts of species which would have been tricky to see in a normal winter. By this time I was completely immersed in birding and quite unaware of what was happening in the angling world. I had no idea, for example, that anglers in the know were nowadays heading for the River Colne to target barbel. Barbel! In the Colne! Not long after the thaw set in, Ric got an early-morning call from one such angler, Jim Clavin. Could he drive out to witness and photograph a barbel which Jim had just caught from the Colne? Not just any old barbel either, but a monster barbel! Yes, said Ric. Yes he could...

Early 1985 - Jim Clavin with a stunning 12lb 1oz barbel from the River Colne

I think this is a super photo, and it deserves a bit of context. In his book 'Modern Specimen Hunting', Jim Gibbinson lists the biggest fish of each species reported to the angling press during the 1980/81 and 1981/82 seasons. In those days a 12lb+ barbel was extremely rare. Of just five reported in the 1980/81 season, the biggest was 12lb 12oz, and probably only two fish were involved in those five records. Just two were reported in the 81/82 season, the biggest 12lb 10oz. By the 1984/85 season things were not much changed, and a 12lb+ fish would still have been a barbel angler's dream. The fish mentioned above were all from the Hampshire Avon, or the Wensum in Norfolk. The notion that such a beast might be swimming in the Colne, just up the road there... Pah!

Well. Not only was it caught in the Colne, river of my boyhood dabblings, but more specifically the Colne above Uxbridge. In fact it was caught just downstream of the A40. And you've probably guessed already, it was caught in the Willow swim...



  1. Great tale and a fantastic fish Gav...

    1. Thanks Stewart, I enjoyed relating it. That's a clonking barbel even today, when the record sits at a ridiculous 21lb-something, but 35 years ago it was just enormous!

  2. Barbel used to be such enigmatic fish although, I feel, they are more like carp nowadays. Shame.
    I forgive the photo quality Gav.... but not the hat ;o)

    Oh yes, thanks mainly to you (Mrs B isn't sure if that's a good thing or not), I am taking delivery of a P950 tomorrow. This time next year I may have taken a decent shot or two.

    1. I am pleased to be able to say that I have never fished for barbel carp-style. Used pellet, yes, but not a boilie. Mind you, had my rod pulled in twice in one day on the Kennet years ago - much to my son's amusement - so would nowadays probably use the safety-net of a tight baitrunner. I'm happy to be a fuddy-duddy. 😊

      You will LOVE the camera! Well, I hope so! 😄

      The hat. Yes. Deserved.

  3. Cracking read - love these old fishing tails :-)

    1. Thanks Brian. 😊 There's probably one or two more where that came from! 😄

  4. Cracking post, absolutely wonderful photo. The ability to look back is a gift which only the passing of time will allow. A twelve pound barbel in the 80's was a seismic capture which sent ripples around the entire speccy hunting fraternity. I was fishing the Royalty, under the guidance of Fred Crouch, at this time, and the biggest barbel I witnessed was 10 lbs 2 oz and that made headlines in the AT. Great story - keep 'em coming - all the best - Dyl

    1. Thanks Dyl. I hadn't seen that photo for many, many years, yet I recalled very clearly how struck by it I had been. Ric kindly sent it to me, and it was exactly as my memory pictured it. Even though I wasn't fishing in 1985, I was as blown away by the size of the fish as anyone! Yes, absolutely mega for the time...

  5. Hi everyone. So glad I've been able to make some small contribution.

    The photo? At the time, I at least felt I had a picture or two to do justice to the capture. But it's dawned on me that this one has more about it than the standard trophy shot. It's why Jim isn't looking at the camera or the fish.

    Of course. It was because he was communicating with several other people as I was taking the pictures. There was a gathering of sorts. It was a real occasion. There was probably other pictures taken of those in attendance. I've a few like that. Pictures of fellow anglers just, well being there. And those are the pictures which really stir the memories.

    No idea where Jim is nowadays. But I do know he has all the negatives to the capture. I handed them over since at the time I had no reason to keep them. I wasn't to know that thirty five years later a digital scanner and the internet would give another life to these snap shots. But good luck to those who have them.

    Believe it or not. That fish remains the only double figure barbel I've ever seen, let alone caught.

    1. Ric, that single photo brings home to me how valuable an image can be in relating a story. Thanks again!

      I'm pretty sure Jim either owns or runs (or both) a carp fishery in France these days. I remember meeting him at Farlows about 40 years ago, and then again on the Cons causeway bank a few years later. I wonder if he still has my British Carp Study Group Annual? 😄