Wensum barbel prove elusive, but the Challenge is a success

So I didn't catch that Wensum barbel that old mate, Jim Tyree, challenged me to produce.

I came desperately close the very last morning of the week that he'd given me on the river. It was pre-dawn, still dark and a fish that I'd targeted for 48 hours all but pulled my rod in. I missed it. Of course, it might not have been the barbel that I knew about, but I'm sure it was. I'll always be gutted. Hey-ho, a fisherman's life.

I feel I should have done better and I feel I let down the Wensum rather than my river disappointing me. I fished well in fits and starts, but I wasn't at the top of my game the whole week and you've got to be with a fish like barbel in a river like the Wensum. There are no shortcuts. The line between success and failure is as thin as that eight pound monofilament. My £100 penalty to the East Anglian Air Ambulance Fund is less than my paltry piscatorial display really deserves.

I would not have swapped this Wensum week for seven days in Antigua or Anywhere Else. I have massive memories, the fondest memories, memories that the Challenge will ever hold for me. They begin at New Mills, the great city centre mill pool, just before dawn. The river is silky then, velvet, churning powerfully through the city. To understand the body of a river, you have to see it as early as this, just as the sun is about to rise, painting the water in lights no-one but anglers ever really see. The first rays of that October sun strike the clock on Norwich City Hall and paint it with an ethereal beauty at that time of the day. To this lone angler, each morning it was like seeing the solstice at pre-history Stonehenge. It's then that the brooding bulk of the castle begins to take shape and form and you begin to appreciate the eternal enchantment of the Norwich skyline.

The first joggers have passed, earphones in, barely looking at the lone angler. The earliest dogs are walked, all wanting to cock a leg on my bag that now, admittedly, reeks of boilies, pellets and worse. A resident recognises me from this column and wishes me luck. He's not into fishing he tells me but he knows that barbel, the big beasties, live here. Then Joshua cycles up, all tattoos, generosity, smiles, advice and encouragement. The loneliness of the dark hours fades with the growing growl of the traffic and soon it's mid-morning and time to move upriver, to the peace and serenity of the Wensum countryside.


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But this is an angling column. On the mill pond itself, bream roll, perch hunt, chub boil, pike explode and the barbel lie deep, hidden and secretly present. Two huge, heart-stopping line bites remind me that they are not a fiction but a fact, so close, so very nearly obtainable. Many of you, I know, have caught barbel from this extraordinary place. I envy you and I praise you. To follow you is high on my list of want-to-dos.

The second memory is the last night as the light fades on my Challenge. I'm on a bridge and beneath me are 15 to 20 small barbel, a tight shoal, weaving patterns across the current. I'm mesmerized.

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Anglers will know why, though non-anglers will have no clue why such small fish should have me transfixed. Even tiny barbel are so alive, so filled with the force of the river. Barbel of any size are so magically designed and the small, torpedo-shaped bodies of these fledgling fish are already dusted with the gold that coats barbel with beauty to us anglers. Perhaps, above all, it is the fins of these baby fish that amaze. Even at this size, they are so iridescent, so glaringly orange, mandarin and scarlet. Perhaps coral is the right description, but it is a colour almost unique to England's flora and fauna, believe me.

The good news is that, during my week, I'd seen many, many small barbel like this. Here they are, here are the flag-bearers of the Wensum's future barbel stocks. Some of those little fish might have been introduced by the ever more excellent Environment Agency, but many are naturals, born and bred in the river. This difference isn't overwhelmingly significant. The vital thing is that these ever-on-the-fin fish are the future, learning every day, absorbing every lesson in their Wensum classroom. There are endless shoals of fish like these and if they get to A level stage, they will be the massive, barrelling barbel of the future. This really is an awesome prospect and the most complete example of how nature does manage to restore harmony and balance.

I have also to report that my memories will be filled with the 150 fine fish that I did manage to catch. I landed legions of fin perfect, scale pristine chub up to big weights. Not one showed any sign of otter damage, I absolutely promise you. Whilst fishing lobworm, I caught over a score of serious perch, again pristine, fabulously marked fish.

My final memory involves a heartfelt apology. It was the penultimate night of the Challenge and I was crouched deep in the heavily shadowed wood, the Wensum whispering past. Footsteps approached from upriver. They were solemn, heavy, menacing in entombing blackness. Closer and closer they came till my heart could take no more and I switched on my torch. I swear Mr Brock jumped out of his skin, right over that tiny rising moon!

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