John Bailey: My Wensum barbel agonies reach new extremes

Dad Bob Hammond from Mendham admires son Greg's chub. We weren't as lucky with our barbel Picture: J

Dad Bob Hammond from Mendham admires son Greg's chub. We weren't as lucky with our barbel Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Talk about 'angling anguishes' – my words in last week's column have come back to haunt me personally and painfully and made me realise anew there is nothing like our sport for inflicting the highs and lows of life.

To start at the beginning, a few days ago I put up a blog full of my passion to catch a Wensum barbel and how no other river venue would do. Norfolk angler Chris Clare got in touch to say he had seen a group of these near mythical beasts on a stretch I know well, though one I cannot reveal of course for Chris's sake.

He went on to say that he had lost track of them after mid-June but, all fired up, I went looking for myself. After some 20 hours of searching, I found barbel, perhaps those Chris had seen, holed up in a pool close to a bridge. There was a pod of them and it looked like they were staying put for a while at least. Apart from a couple of true whackers, four were around six to eight pounds, which might have made them Wensum-born fish.

Chris, I was so excited. Like you, all us river anglers know it was akin to seeing a herd of unicorns grazing on Stiffkey Freshes. For me, seeing these languid beauties, the magic lay in their majesty but also in the proof our rivers can still surprise, still show they have the pulse of life flowing through them.

My plan was to bait once and sometimes twice a day with 10mml Robin Red pellets, treats all fish adore. At each feed, I decided 30 to 40 pellets would do, thrown in singly over half an hour or so. In the deepish water, I couldn't be sure the pellets were being taken by the barbel, but after a week, the frequent flashes of long golden flanks made me think I was close and my chances were looking good.

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Enter into the fray Bob Hammond from Methwold and his son Greg up from Essex. We had a grand morning stalking chub up a couple of miles of Wensum and I liked what I saw. These guys could fish so, at 11am, I dribbled the usual feed of pellets into the pool and at midday we were walking the bank up to fish it. For me, at least, the tension was palpable. I felt like one of the gunslingers at OK Corral, facing a challenge that could make or break us. Over the top you think? No, I'm understating the rate at which my heart was racing, my veins pounding.

Gear was simple. Avon rod, reel and 10lb line. Two AAA shot were nipped onto the line two and three feet up from the hook to hold bottom and keep the line nailed to the gravel. A pellet was hair-rigged on a size 10 and we were ready to go. This would be a team effort. I would strike and if successful, I'd try to cope with the barbel's first brutal runs. Once partially tamed, Greg would take over and I'd do the netting. I hasten to add Greg endorsed this plan given the fact I have landed a few hundred times as many barbel as he has. Barbel, though, confound the rules and all logic.

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I don't think any of us were expecting the rod to slam round a mere minute after the bait had settled. The fish was blisteringly fast and powerful and scorched its way to the branches opposite. My teeth were gritted and I dug in and I hung on. It seemed I had weathered the storm and after a minute, the fish turned back into midstream. I was preparing to hand over to Greg when the fish went again, this second time with even more fury in him. Again it looked like I was in some of control when the line broke. My heart broke with it. They say you cannot lose what you have never had, but this is a false wisdom all anglers loathe. In today's world you cannot claim the loss of a fish as a tragedy, but a light went out in my soul. This was four days ago and the feel of the unbent rod, the sight of the limp line, still haunt me like the barbel has just gone, the unbowed victor.

On the fishing front I have been left with all the predictable doubts creeping in. Will those barbel have left the swim after what happened there? Can I find them again in all that river if they have resumed their travels? If the fish are still there will the Robin Reds be blown and will I have to start with a fresh bait all over again? And most importantly, will that lost barbel recover mental and physically quickly and completely?

There's a more crucial consideration to all this than my pain alone. Those barbel discovered by Chris prove that the Wensum and our beleaguered eastern rivers still have the will and the wherewithal to survive and to nurture fantastic fish. These are tough times for all wild fish, for all natural waters, we know, but they are not dead yet. These are the most gripping of natural history stories. We anglers are in the front line here and the power still lies in our hands to help the rivers in every way we can. I pray to the barbel gods we accept the challenge and prove its equal.

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