John Bailey: Barbel - your perfect fish for autumn

Enoka holds a stunning Autumn barbel - a most elusive creature Picture: John Bailey

Enoka holds a stunning Autumn barbel - a most elusive creature Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Autumn, a ”season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and barbel”. So wrote poets Johns Keats and Bailey and I know the great one of the two would have agreed - if he had actually caught a great, golden barbel of his own.

Each species of fish has its own special time. Trout, surely late spring, on a chalk stream with the Mayfly lifting off in clouds? Tench, probably mid-June, a dawn, by a mist-shrouded lake? Bass, July, when the North Sea can be clear as the Seychelles and the silver ghosts flit everywhere? Pike on a dour, quiet, gloomy November morning when the Broadland waterfowl are afraid to leave the reed beds?

You get my drift by now. Ditching the poetry, the barbel has always seemed to glow brightest around now, and, with this pulsating fish, that is saying quite something. I had plenty of Wensum barbel in the wetter summers of the good old days, but my first double from that river came one still October afternoon and it was as golden as the oak leaves and never, ever to be forgotten.

Barbel are undeniably, spectacularly beautiful. So athletic, so streamlined, not a trace of fat. Colours almost tropical in the coral of the fins and the burnished bronze of the flanks. But that battle! That first run. The ability of the barbel to fight on and on, with no chub-like surrender. And the strategist in me loves the fact that you can catch your barbel in so many ways. Yes, a feeder does the job fine. Yes, too, after dark works for them particularly well, but you can think out of the box, remember. Stalking the shallows early morning is pulsating stuff. Rolling meat. Touch legering – the electric thrill of a barbel bite tearing the line from your fingers is something you don’t forget in a hurry. Float fishing? Either straight trotting or more static laying on both work well on pressured waters especially. All this explains why so many of us have so much respect for the fighting barbel. In all ways, they are the ultimate coarse fish species. Now is the time to catch them.

But where? That for us East Anglians is the problem. The Thames is a top river and access is not hard. There are some crackers opposite Hampton Court on the free bank there, but a fish won’t come easily. Four years ago, I saw a “nine” landed at dusk and two hours after that I lost a seriously big fish that wanted to cross the river and get lost in the palace maze. Most of my mates from the Norwich area make the journey to the Trent, which isn’t too much of a trek. You can make Newark in two hours easy and fishing isn’t hard to find and not expensive at that. As we all know , the Trent is the river of the moment with mid and even big “doubles” coming out each week. Trouble is, we only hear about the successes and not the thousands of blanks in between the headlines. The Trent is hard fished and the barbel are hard to fool. However, there are plenty of chub and increasing numbers of smaller barbel, so the chances are your four-hour round trip might well be rewarded with something decent.

Which is more than I can say for the Hampshire Avon. If there is one river writ large in the annals of barbel glory, it is the Avon, but I generally fish my boilies off for not much at all. The Royalty fishery at Christchurch is worth visiting for its history alone – which is good because history is often all you will get unless you are very good or very lucky. The Royalty is way down but the mid-river is still partly accessible and quieter with plenty of big fish – a friend of mine is tracking down a barbel he guesstimates at 18lb-20lb this month. If he catches it, I’ll eat my hat. Mid-Avon barbel in my experience are as hard as they come. I joined the world class Longford Estate fishery 15 years back and had a 12lb barbel first visit. That fish blew me away, made my year. Which is as well because I didn’t catch another there over 4lb in the next decade.

A few Norfolk men get themselves to the Ribble, which can be good, but it’s a trek to what is nearly the Lake District. The Severn is a bit more accessible and can be a barbel belter! Back in the 80s I used to take the barbel-hungry Norwich School boys there and we always did well. I’d leave them fishing at night while I went down the pub and that’s not something teachers would get away with now I’m guessing. I got out just in time! However, go a little further west and you get to the wonderful Wye. I began my guiding career on the mid-Wye and I still feel 30 years on it has everything to offer. The fish aren’t Trent big, but they are plentiful and you can catch them in every way known to a barbel angler. In the 90s, I made waves by targeting them on a fly. There was even a Sunday Times feature on me catching them on nymph and six weight fly rod. If you think a Grafham trout fights hard on that sort of gear, you haven’t hooked a Wye barbel.

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After this short geography lesson, you will have noticed the one problem with barbel fishing this month is that there are none around here. Or next to none anyway.

Forty years ago, the Wensum was the great up-and-coming barbel venue with plenty of fish, and big ones too. This century has been one of continuous and ruinous decline. Everyone has noticed this fact, remarked upon it and done little to change it. Back in the day, the Wensum Anglers’ Conservation Association worked wonders, and even the then Environment Agency helped out.

That was then, but now the Agency thinks it is enough to throw in a few four ounce barbel and hope they won’t get eaten by cormorants, otters, pike and perch.

Of course, the result is a wipe-out and until there is serious new thinking I’ll see you on the A17 on the way to the Trent.