Barbel forecast for 2017 is one that is full of complexities

Happy barbel days on the Wye. Picture: John Bailey

Happy barbel days on the Wye. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

It was a day of decent sunshine and the river was moderately low and clear – I'm talking about the Wensum here.

There was a patch of gravel which I began to feed with 4ml pellets. Minnows were first on the scene, followed by some hefty gudgeon, small chub, minute roach and even some perch. A couple of bigger chub bullied in and silt began to drift downstream. Through the silt emerged treasure. Gold. A dozen small barbel, weighing, I guess, between six and 10 ounces, perfect, exquisite little fish. Quite evidently these barbel had been born in the river and had survived there for at least a year or more. And, of course, where there are small barbel, there very evidently have to be mummies and daddies. An exciting prospect indeed.

If only we could get our barbel back to rivers like the Bure, Wensum and Yare. What delights they gave us in the heady years of the 70s, 80s and 90s. We all remember the bruising battles with beautiful barbel. Magnificent fish, and Norfolk was the talk of the barbel scene. But we seem to have fallen onto hard times. Have we, though? Are those babies a glimpse of an exciting future?

It's all about recruitment, of course. One way or another, large, mature barbel have to find the gravels that are suitable for them to spawn on. The eggs have to hatch and the fingerlings have to escape predation. The small barbel then have to endure the winter floods and, the next year, continue their growth and their learning processes. There is always something there to eat them. Danger never goes on holiday when small barbel are concerned. But if half that small shoal can survive for another few years, then there is a chance.

But what are the chances? Of course, it's highly unlikely at the moment that we are going to see any more stocking of barbel into any of our rivers by the Environment Agency. It might happen some time in the future, but recent trials on the Ouse have suggested it is not the way to go. We are probably far better looking at the habitat we've got and how to make it barbel friendly.

One giant leap towards having barbel in the future is the practice of gravel jetting. This is almost like sticking a Hoover into the gravels and lifting them and cleaning them and filling them with life-giving oxygen. Then, if the barbel (and chub and roach and dace come to that) want to spawn there, the eggs have a far better chance. However, the gravels soon get clogged with silt again, so it is an exercise best done in the spring before the barbel are thinking about their nuptials.

Let's say we could jet more gravels and let's say we do have the large fish to lay eggs upon them. If those eggs hatch and the fry manage to avoid signal crayfish, small chub and the like, there is still cormorant damage to worry about. That's where the Wensum Working Group comes in and their praiseworthy attempts to secure a Wensum catchment cormorant licence to be in place this coming autumn. If we can protect the whole river and give the cormorants nowhere to settle, then the small barbel I've just seen and other youngsters up and down the river will have a far greater chance of living on to maturity. Recruitment, therefore, can become the norm rather than the hoped for.

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It's all massively complex. Our little chalkstreams might look placid, tamed places, but in reality they are not. They're volatile, full of dangers and nature will have to work hard if our barbel are ever to re-establish themselves in any meaningful numbers again. And, in all probability, we are going to have to give them a strong, helping hand.

Funnily enough, barbel have meant the world to me both east, here, and in the west, on the Wye. Barbel began to appear in my Norfolk life around 1979 and on my trips to the Wye 10 years after that. In fact, for much of my adult life, I have caught barbel either on the Wye or the Wensum and loved every single one. Of course, the rivers are different in scale and the problems of catching barbel vastly different. The fact remains that much of what I have learnt on the Wye over the years, I have been able to bring back and use in my quest back home. Still, much as I worship the Wensum, I'm looking forward to my Wye trips this year. The Wye is a good place to serve a barbel apprenticeship. I wouldn't advise anybody to begin on the Wensum, it's just too difficult and I wouldn't even back myself anymore to catch one without at least months of effort. It's not like that on the Wye. Blessedly, you can hope for a bent rod most mornings. If any Norfolk angler fancies having a go for barbel, then consider coming westwards with me this summer. Contact for details.

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