John Bailey: Softly, softly changed my season

John Bailey with a barbel

My precious little barbel - Credit: John Bailey

Yesterday, I landed my first barbel for a long while. Yippee!

It was small, I accept, but perfectly formed and size isn’t everything we are are always told. A completely gorgeous fish it was, a miracle of nature, but it was the manner of its capture that chuffed me especially. I’m not bragging, honest, but I went back to the way I used to fish for barbel and it worked for me again and highlighted a good few lessons along the way perhaps.

I baited really carefully after giving it great thought. Guessing there weren’t many fish in the swim,  I went easy on it, introducing some 20 10ml pellets mid-morning. An hour later, a further 20 and an hour after that, the final 20, making 60 in, all over three hours or more before I started fishing. I wanted any fish present to be accepting pellets with abandon, not suspecting a thing.

Next there is always the splash factor to consider. I know there are times big leads and feeders make no difference and the fish feed on regardless, but not in shallow rivers, I’d suggest. Splash a feeder in that knee-deep swim and I knew my chances would be dead in the water. So, four SSG shot spaced up the line with six inches between each would, I knew, hold bottom, but go in with minimal impact and disruption. Moreover, those SSGs might simply sound like freebie pellets dropping from the sky - but that might be overthinking it, I’m aware.

The penultimate piece in the jigsaw was the end rig I needed to get right. I KNOW bolt rigs work and that in certain circumstances fish hook themselves, but very often spooky fish do not fall this way. My barbel would not tolerate the splash of a heavy lead so I had to present a pellet it would take with confidence. Any resistance as the fish picked up the bait would lead to instant refusal and that was my challenge. A light hook. A retro glass quivertip rod, soft as a stick of rhubarb. A three-foot tail between bait and bottom shot. That was my plan.

And finally, I had to make that first cast count. Believe me, in skinny water situations, the more you cast, the smaller your chances become. Barbel, all fish, simply pick up on the sensation that all is not as it should be. Wariness becomes suspicion becomes fear becomes panic. My pellet went in with a whisper and then I waited, thigh deep in the water, rod held as still as I could manage. Ten minutes into the cast and the tip nudged and went round, confident as you please. Job done. A baby belter of a barbel in the net.

I’ve taken time over the telling of this capture not to prove how good I am (cos I’m not) but to make a point. I believe we are on the cusp of many things in this country. Perhaps Covid has changed our mindset and perhaps we want more from our lives than we did 18 months ago. It is interesting that the surge in fishing licence sales has been in part made up of women, and younger women at that, coming into the sport and wanting to learn the art. Do they want to sit on a box for 10 hours, hoiking out a maggot feeder and staring at the sky and a static tip? Do they want to spend three nights in a bivvy waiting for an alarm to wake them from their slumbers? I suspect not. Newcomers, female or not, want action and interest and involvement. They want to be engaged physically and mentally both. They want excitement and new skill sets. In fact, they want fishing as it once was before bolt rigs and buzzers blasted our fishing to bits.

Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer

Paul and Bob... at work - Credit: John Bailey

Most Read

I’m immensely proud of playing a small part of the Mortimer and Whitehouse, Gone Fishing series on BBC2 because I think the programs have been, to a degree, responsible for this increase in angling’s popularity. Those who did not get angling now see some point in it. Those who felt it was a slightly grubby waste of time might have had a rethink. That’s obviously in part because Paul and Bob are loveable, funny and genuine, but also I believe they fish in good old fashioned ways that viewers can relate to. We’ve just finished series four and the boys have floa fished, fly fished and lure fished. I had them feeder fishing once for a short while, but they didn’t go for it much and we went back to the visual, tactile stuff that makes anglers hunters and not ambushers.

There are scores of angling skills out there that make fishing a super sport. Let’s list a few. Dry fly fishing. Buzzers and nymph work with a three-weight wand.  Learning to Spey cast or use the French leader. How about fishing poppers, working jigs and imparting life to rubber lures? Then there is trotting with a stick float or freelining or touch ledgering. What about beach casting, fly fishing for bass, mullet and mackerel or even taking a canoe out to sea to hunt a tope? (Not for the sane this, I hasten to add). Sight fishing for bone fish if we want to get exotic or simply fooling a carp into taking a slab of bread crust in the reeds. I  have adored football all my life, but it is just about ball control, reading a game, passing, tackling, shooting and heading: there are 40 ways of catching chub alone!

What I’d say to these new people entering the sport is this. Buy cracking good gear to start with. A couple of great rods and reels and essential bits and bobs, but then concentrate on what you want to catch and how you want to fish. Don’t get hung up on the endless intricacies of knots and rigs and baits because it is watercraft and understanding the fish themselves that make fishing what it is and that is an endlessly compelling way to spend your best days by the water. Join the sister and brotherhood of thinking anglers and you’ll never look back!