Fishing for Barbel: Barbus barbus

The barbel (Barbus barbus) has a grey-brown or green-brown back, varying in shade in different districts, and the flanks are paler, being bronzed or straw-coloured with a distinct metallic lustre. The belly is cream or buff, the metallic appearance giving, way to a pearly sheen. The dorsal fin is brownish, toning to the colours of the back, and the abdominal fins are grey or off-white, sometimes with brown streaks. The leading spine of the dorsal, fin is very tough and serrated on its rearward edge. The paired fins are large and spade-shaped. The body is almost cylindrical at the shoulder, but flattened underneath, and is laterally corn-pressed towards the tail. In profile the shape is wedge-like at the head, tapering smoothly to the tail, and flattens underneath. The snout is sharp and the mouth distinctly underslung, with thick leathery lips. Two barbels are situated on the middle of the upper lip and one in each corner of the mouth. The tail is asymmetrical, the lower lobe being rounded and the upper one pointed. For the size of the body, the scales are very small.

Very young fish are silvery in appearance and lightly speckled with tiny black spots. The fins are not speckled and can therefore be easily distinguishable from those of the similar shaped, GUDGEON. In fish up to 15-17 cm (6-7 ins) long the barbels are often very small and underdeveloped, and may indeed be difficult to find. For all this, the young fish is rounder in the belly than a similar-sized gudgeon, and the speckling on the flanks fades in the second year.

Much evidence has still to be collected on the subject of growth rates, but in waters like the Kennet and Avon the rate is fairly fast, a year-old fish attaining a length of 15 cm (6 ins) by the end of its first season, and reaching a weight of about 225 g (1/2 lb) during the second year (about 22-25 cm or 9-10 ins). At the end of the third year the fish may be 25-35 cm (10-14 ins) long and weigh up to 700 g (1-1/2 lb). A 2.5 kg (5 lb) fish may be anything between six and eight years old, and a 4.5 kg (101b) one may be eleven or twelve. Fish of record class and weighing 6.2— 6.7 kg (14-15 lb) are usually twelve to fifteen years old, and in Britain this must be considered fairly close to the maximum age.

Barbel are useless for eating — around spawning time in fact they are nearly poisonous — and should always be returned to the water for the benefit of other anglers.

Barbel are indigenous to the eastern counties of England, and were formerly found only in rivers in that area. They have, however, been introduced in many other rivers over the past fifty years or so, are now common in the Hampshire Avon and the Dorset Stour, and are becoming settled in many other western-county rivers. They belong essentially to fast clean waters where hard bottoms predominate, and when introduced to fresh waters habitually seek out the gravelly reaches somewhat below the main mom- zones, taking up residence permanently at points where the flow is suitable. Failing suitable conditions they do not often flourish.

They show a marked preference for mill-tails, weir pools, and the swift scours and runs, even to the extent of taking to quite shallow water if necessary. Here they feed on the bottom, grubbing about among the gravel for food, using their barbels to locate it and their tube-like mouths, in a sucking manner, to shift small stones or gravel. They are especially fond of the weed of the fast waters and often stay in the very thick of it, sometimes among islands of reed or weed which the swift water has isolated by washing away softer soils.


Barbel spawn in early summer amongst the swift gravelly shallows, leaving their eggs on the gravel and sometimes covering them with scooping movements of their large tails. Once spawned they immediately move into fast shallow water or into the weir-pool scours where they may often be observed right under the sill of the pool lying behind the tumble of water and close to the masonry. By August they have scoured themselves and work into deeper water and among the DACE and ROACH swims.

In winter, when the weeds have rotted, the fish work into open water, where they can be found on the margins of fast water but with cover which compensates for the loss of the weed. Once the first frosts come, the fish seem to go off feed and become semi-hibernatory, feeding only when warm sunny spells break the winter weather.


Like CHUB, barbel are voracious and will eat almost anything which is brought down by the stream, ranging from silkweed and small insects to minnows, crayfish, and frogs. In between these extremes, they like sausage, bacon, bread, cheese, elderberries, and a wide variety of foodstuffs which come their way. During the early part of the season (mid-June — mid-July) they show marked predatory tendencies and are often caught on minnows or crayfish. They are also partial to worms and maggots

The angler often gets the impression that the fish feed only occasionally, but this may be because they are preoccupied with items too small for the angler to present as bait. Gathering as they do in quite large shoals, usually of similar sizes, they can dispose of very large amounts of ground-bait when on the feed.

Almost any ROACH bait may be successful for barbel, but for serious angling there are a number of baits which stand apart. Bread in the form of flakes, cubes, crusts, or paste is a well-proven barbel bait, and in most cases a fairly large bait presented on a No. 6-4 hook will produce the best results. However barbel are sometimes very fastidious feeders and when preoccupied with small items of food may be taken on very small bait. Then the angler must try morsels of the selected bread bait and fish with suitably sized hooks, say 10-12s. The danger always present is that these smaller baits will be grabbed first by impatient and hungry roach or dace. For a bait of bread flake, a large piece of new bread is squeezed in the middle to make a compact firm nucleus. The hook is then inserted through the hard centre. Alternatively, the bread flake may simply be pressed on the bend of the hook so that the softer and flakier edges obscure the appearance of the hook without preventing swift penetration.

Cheese is an excellent bait, and has the advantage of definitely attracting the fish towards it as a result of its smell. The highly smelling cheeses are particularly good, but, being soft, tend to come off the hook too easily in some of the faster waters. A slab of cheddar cheese is very good, but flaky-textured cheeses are best avoided as they crumble too quickly. The cheese can be used in cubes, in which case the hook is pushed into the cube with the point close to the surface, or as a paste, in which case the cheese is first kneaded into a soft consistency and them moulded about the hook. Cheese paste is good on very foul bottoms such as are often found in weir pools. For baits which are trotted, tripped, or rolled along the bottom, cheese pastes have much to recommend them, since they seldom permit the hook point to catch up in bottom debris.

Almost any kind of worm is useful, but, owing to their size and toughness when properly scoured, lobworms are probably the best. The whole worm (or even two worms) is used and the hook must be scaled to the bait size. A difficulty with worm baits is that the hook point must invariably be left protruding and is liable to get caught on the bottom more easily than with the other baits, in which it is masked. Some anglers prefer to hook the worms twice to make sure they don’t come off easily, others believe that hooking only once makes the worm appear a more natural bait.

Barbel have often been taken on a single gentle (maggot) on a No. 12 hook, intended for roach, but to set out to hook big fish with hooks this size is somewhat unrealistic except in very special conditions. The problem is not merely one of hooking such a large-mouthed fish with so small a hook, but also one has to consider the strength of the smaller hooks, which are of necessity made up of fairly fine wire. Barbel can straighten out quite large hooks.

A bunch of maggots on a No. 6 is a reasonable compromise on size and strength and some anglers like to use twenty or thirty maggots on a sharp No. 4 or 2. A swim-feeder used in conjunction with maggot bait helps. There is no doubt that a trickle of maggots drifting down the stream is often sufficient to bring the fish up to the hook-bait. In shallow waters the angler may see his swim-feeder picked up and shaken to remove the maggots. Certainly this does happen when barbel are feeding well. Beyond incorporating a hook in the swim-feeder there is little he can do.

When using a crayfish as a bait, you should first kill it with a sharp blow on the back of the shell at the head and then hook it through the tail with a No. 4 or 6 hook. It is not necessary to remove the large pincers, although some anglers prefer to do so. With crayfish baits (usually on leger tackle) it is unwise to be too fast on the strike because the fish often mouth the bait somewhat before taking. Often the fish crushes the shell with its pharyngeal teeth before pushing the bait back into the mouth to suck at it. The hook in the tail is usually free of the hard carapace of the shell and can get a clean hold in the mouth only if the angler doesn’t pull it out by striking too soon. He should wait for a definite ‘run’.

Minnows make a very good early season bait and may be lip-hooked and trotted through the swim, or presented as dead-baits, sink-and-draw style, or on a leger tackle, or even simply float-fished through the swim. Preferably the bait should be presented so as to give a semblance of life; a swivel (a small metal device to prevent the line becoming twisted) up to 60 cm (2 ft) above the hook enables a dead minnow to flutter attractively in the water and makes it a very killing bait.

Loaches, elvers, small lampreys, and even GUDGEON should be tried as dead-baits and live-baits when the barbel are feeding, especially during the early season. Many big barbel have succumbed to spinning baits, even tolerably large ones, and the angler may well find such a bait very effective.

Frogs are best presented dead. Kill the frog with a sharp blow on the head or neck, and hook it through the body and out at the vent. A small frog on a No. 6 or No. 4 will sometimes take barbel when other baits fail. This can be trotted or legered and often accounts for CHUB as well.

During the early season, and when you are fishing weir pools, a large piece of silkweed, the green, cottonwool-like weed found on weir sills and elsewhere, wound around the bend of the hook is sometimes effective. The hook should be a No. 8. This bait sometimes tempts fish lying under the sill to move out and take the offering. Other good baits are wheat, hemp, swan mussels, caddis, sausage, and bacon. Anglers experimenting with liver or fresh meat are also sometimes rewarded with an occasional fish.


It cannot be sufficiently emphasized that to catch barbel the angler must be prepared to come properly equipped or have his tackle ruined. It is true that barbel are sometimes taken on ROACH rods, but reports of this kind of thing seldom mention the condition of the rod afterwards. Far better use a rod suited to the task. There can be no doubt that in view of the speed of barbel waters and the stubborn, powerful nature of the fish, the task is indeed a tough one.

An all-through action is essential for a barbel rod, which should preferably be made of built-cane throughout. The Avon type of rod is useful, but few rods today are specifically designed for barbel fishing. Power is essential for any rod intended either to combat the fast water during legering, or to cope effectively with striking at a range of several metres against the current.

Since the rod must also be capable of handling a really tough, fighting fish in a very fast current, it is wise to have it fitted with rod rings of stainless steel and a tip and butt ring suitably lined with agate such as the Awnlite or Sapprite patterns.

The reel may be either of centre-pin or of fixed-spool type according to preference. It must be a strong one, however, and should carry up to 90 m (100 yds) of line. Centre-pins are very pleasant to use when fishing long-trotting methods since they are suited to the style and give a continual and effective contact with the fish throughout the fight. For legering tactics, however, or where longer casting is necessary, the fixed-spool reel takes a lot of beating.

Floats are necessary too, and for long-trotting they must be realistically large. Good shooting is essential to get the bait down in the fast water quickly, and the float must be capable of carrying this kind of weight. An Avon or Thames type of float carrying about a dozen medium shots or six large ones is very suitable. The shots are often best arranged in groups evenly along the line to get the bait down and to prevent line belly between float and hook.

The line should be of about 3 kg (6 lb) breaking strain. Where heavy fish are expected or waters are particularly weedy this could be increased to 3.5 kg (8 lb) b.s. With advantage. If this weight of line is used, the angler must consider buying braided lines instead of monofilament because these are far more supple in the heavier weights, as well as being less elastic.

The plummet should be a fairly heavy one to give an accurate indication of depth in fast water. An ounce is reasonable, but many people prefer one twice as heavy. A disgorger is essential because of the very tough nature of the barbel’s mouth. A pair of artery forceps is an excellent buy, and one that the versatile angler will find useful for many other purposes.

Fishing Methods

Ground-baiting is an important preliminary to serious barbel fishing; the results are often well worthwhile. Bucketsful of worms were once used as the staple ground-bait; and if time and money permit the method is still a good one. Today it is more usual to use bread made up into a good ‘duff’ sprinkled liberally with maggots, worms, chrysalids, etc., and thrown into the swim each morning for several days in advance of the fishing. Then the swim is left unbaited for twenty-four hours immediately prior to fishing it. In view of the speed and variable nature of many barbel waters it is a good plan to try several swims downstream of the baited one lest the bait should have travelled farther than was intended.

The chief methods used on most barbel waters are legering, long-trotting and stret-pegging. Which is adopted will depend on conditions. Legering has become more of a necessity in recent years owing to the continual overcrowding of fisheries where good barbel are likely to be taken, since barbel water is often good DACE, CHUB, and ROACH water. Over-crowding often means that the angler anxious to float-fish may not do so with any chance of success because he cannot find several yards of bank free downstream of him. This obliges him to use the leger.

Long-trotting is excellent where the angler has a large undisturbed length of bank immediately downstream of him. The length of bank necessary depends on the water in question and the kind of bank, but for good fishing some twenty to fifty yards is about right. On many Thames swims, the shorter distance may be adequate, but on the Kennet or Avon the larger distance is preferable. This is chiefly because barbel waters are usually so fast that by the time the float has been cast into position and the tackle is correctly set it has travelled several yards downstream. To give a reasonable chance of its being effective it should remain in the water for at least a few seconds after this. On the Avon this short time is sufficient to carry the tackle 45 m (50 yds) or so from the angler.

The float should be selected so that it is large enough to carry several shots, sits high enough in the water to give visibility at some distance, and is heavy enough to withstand the pull of current or wind movement which may cause a bight of line between it and the rod tip. At the same time, shotting must be sufficient to make the float reasonably sensitive. This combination of terminal tackle must also allow the angler to ‘mend his line’ at intervals without interfering with the conduct of the float.

Depth must be accurately gauged with the plummet, preferably at selected distances throughout the swim. The float is then set at a depth which will carry the bait near the bottom in deeper runs, and touching bottom in shallower ones. When the tackle passes through shallow spots or over denser weed patches, the bait is lifted off bottom by retarding the float momentarily.

The float must in any event be preceded by the bait, and allowances must be made for the ‘tilt’ of the line under such conditions so that the bait is not pulled too far off the bottom layers. The float should be lightly checked by line control to give the bait precedence through the swim. If a centre-pin reel is used this can be allowed to run freely, the current pulling line off the reel. This is usually sufficient to give the necessary amount of check to the running line. If a fixed-spool reel is used, the line has to be checked manually by holding the free hand close to the spool so that line brushes against it as it runs off. Striking is sometimes a problem when fishing in this way, and the usual procedure is to snap the finger across the lip of the spool, so trapping the line on its next revolution as it falls from the spool. Striking from a fixed-spool reel is by no means as instantaneous as from a stopped centre-pin. However, barbel take very definitely as a rule, and the very swift strike of the ROACH angler is not so necessary.

Stret-pegging is a style very similar to long-trotting, but the line is arranged with the float a foot or so higher than the depth. The tackle is made up with a single drilled bullet at the lower end of the cast. This is stopped about 45 cm (18 in) from the hook with a single split-shot, and a similar stop is fitted a foot or so above it also. The tackle is cast into position and the float is held back until the bullet drags upon it, when it is released, either by following it with the rod tip or by paying out a short length of line. In this way the float is allowed to pass slowly through the swim, the bait being tripped over the uneven bottom and through patches of weed until the swim has been thoroughly searched. Bites are usually quite swift and distinct and they are often felt on the rod tip as quickly as they are seen by the float. In some waters it is best to lower the rod tip to allow the bite to develop; in others it is necessary to strike right away. When the tackle swings in under the bank it is withdrawn and re-cast. The method is useful for searching out the whole of a swim from one bank to the other, the tackle swinging in a semi-circular path around to the near bank at varying distances from the angler according to choice at each successive cast.

The tight-line leger is at its best for barbel, bites being signified by a sharp knock or tug at the rod tip. The weight is a drilled or perforated one suitable to the stream and conditions. If a static bait is wanted, a coin lead or flat-bottomed lead is best, but if the tackle is required to roll the bottom a pear-shaped lead with a swivel incorporated or attached is essential to prevent line twist as the lead rolls through the swim. Usually a lead just heavy enough to hold bottom is used. It is shifted at intervals by raising the rod tip and lifting the weight off the bottom, when the current carries it further downstream.

The weight is, of course, stopped with a split-shot or split-ring attached to the line about eighteen inches or so from the hook below the weight. However, the length of the ‘trail’ depends on conditions and may be varied from about 20 cm (8 in) to 1.8 in (6 ft). The angler should try both extremes to find which is best. Sometimes fish will only take bites from a short trail, but on another day, even in the same spot, they will accept only a long trail.

On leger gear, the only signal the angler gets as a rule is a sharp knock or tug at the line. Sometimes this is a very gentle tap, sometimes it is a vicious thump. Sometimes fish tap the bait before taking and follow this with a thump. There is no knowing beforehand, except by studying the water and the fish. The angler must then decide whether to strike immediately at the taps or await the thumps. One day he will be correct, another day the same tactics may be entirely wrong. When barbel are really feeding in earnest they often hook themselves. Then, at last, there is no doubt about it.

Whatever the method, once the fish is on, the fisherman may well be amazed at the sheer power and endurance of this magnificent fighter. A good fish will give him many uneasy moments before it is safely netted. Usually it is as well to let the fish have its head and run for the opening moments of the fight. However, where dangerous obstacles or thick weed jungles have to be avoided, it may be necessary to haul the fish in immediately after striking, before it has time to collect its wits.

Mere ribbon weed fringes need not worry the barbel fisherman who is confident of his tackle, but water-lilies or reed beds are a different matter and must be avoided if at all possible. If the fish heads for such a sanctuary, it must be turned by applying side-strain until it is well clear. This isn’t so easy in a narrow river because the angler is restricted in his choice of position and there is often no open water into which he can lead the fish. Sometimes he must run upstream or downstream to get above or below the fish to head it off. Sometimes the fish becomes weeded in apparently insignificant weed and nothing will buck it. In these circumstances the fisherman should always apply slack-line tactics, hoping that when it feels resistance gone the fish will clear itself. Then the angler can resume the battle as soon as he sees the tell-tale line running away again. Once the fish is seen, the worst of the battle is over, but these last-moment dives can be a great source of danger unless the angler is ready to give line or drop the rod to soften their effect. Once the fish is beaten he shows it clearly by turning on his side. The net is ready and the fish is drawn over it. Sometimes on seeing it he dives straight in, thinking it offers a retreat. Then he is soon on the bank.

But this is in a way the most difficult moment of all, because a barbel fights so hard that he is usually quite exhausted when he comes ashore. If he is not quickly unhooked and returned, there is a very good chance that he may never recover. This is where the artery forceps are so useful, because they expedite the removal of the hook and enable a quick return to be made. If the fish must be kept in a keep-net, it is essential that he is placed there with his head upstream; otherwise he may well die in the net. On returning the fish, support it in the water for a minute or so until it has recovered sufficiently to swim away under its own steam. If a fish gives a lot of bother and seems to be wasting time, never, never attempt to pump the offending excess air from the swim-bladder by pressing or stroking at the lower flanks. More fish are killed than saved by this expedient.


The first three British record weight fishes were taken at different times and from two different rivers. The first was taken from the Thames in 1888 by T. Wheeler, and the second from the Avon by H. Tryon, in 1934. A further fish of the same weight was also taken from the Hampshire Avon during 1937, by F. W. Wallis.

Many reports of even larger fish have been substantiated, but since these fish were taken out of season, or found dead on the banks, they are not acceptable as records. They indicate that a future record may well be heavier than the present record weight. The best such fish was a 16 lb 8 oz specimen hooked by Mr Parkinson on the Royalty fishery during 1948, when he was spinning for salmon. Roy Beddington’s 16 lb 4 oz fish was taken from the same water in 1943, although this fish was foul-hooked in similar circumstances. Other fish include a 15 lb 12 oz specimen taken by an otter and left dead on the banks and several around 6.7 kg (15 lb) fish taken by salmon anglers out of the coarse season and therefore not eligible.

On the Continent barbel grow to far greater sizes than in England. For big fish in England the Thames, Kennet, Hampshire Avon, and Dorset Stour probably offer the best chances. Other important barbel rivers are the Great Ouse, Wye, Yorkshire Ouse, Nidd, Swale, Dove, Wharfe, Derwent and Trent. Introductions have been made into the Medway and Severn.

15. July 2011 by admin
Categories: Coarse Fishing, Fish | Tags: | Comments Off on Fishing for Barbel: Barbus barbus


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