Barbel are arguably the most powerful fish you are likely to encounter in a river. These fish can grow very large, and in the rivers of Europe may reach a weight of 15 to 20 lb 16-75 to 9 kg). In the rivers of the United Kingdom, the maximum size is slightly less than this. Barbel are perfectly shaped for living in fast flowing rivers where they search for food on the river bed. The barbel has the underslung mouth typical of bottom feeding species, and around it are the four fleshy ‘feelers’ called barbules from which the fish derives its name. These barbules are used for detecting food at close range. Because of the position of the eyes, the fish is unable to sec directly in front of its nose and it detects food by snuffling around in the gravel using these barbules.
Barbel thrive in fast, oxygenated rivers especially those with a gravelly river bed. They will venture into the slower, deeper reaches at times but need shallow, fast water in which to spawn. Barbel are fish ol the warmer months of the year and during the winter are less active. They can be caught in the winter during mild spells of weather or when stirred into activity during flood conditions, but serious fishing for them is largely a waste of time. As the water begins to warm up and the daylight hours increase during April, the barbel start moving into the shallows in preparation for spawning. This is the best time of year to estimate the barbel population on a stretch of river as large numbers of barbel congregate together. Spawning takes place between the middle of May and the middle of June, depending on the prevailing river and weather conditions. Each female fish is escorted by several smaller male fish. The eggs are laid in very fast shallow water where the female creates a depression in the fine gravel or sandy river bed by fanning her tail. Once spawning is completed the barbel spread out along the river. They still form shoals or small groups but not in the same numbers as during spawning time.
Barbel are easiest to catch soon after spawning for two reasons. The first is that for a short while large numbers of barbel are concentrated together and are easy to locate.
Secondly, barbel tend to iced avidly after spawning to regain their strength. A large shoal of barbel congregated in shallow water is an impressive sight. Individual fish will roll over giving a brief glimpse of their golden sides. This ‘flashing” behaviour is very common with barbel and often gives away their location when the water is too deep to see the outline of the fish against the river bed. Flashing is a sign of excitement and so is usually associated with feeding. Barbel which are rolling on to their sides in this manner can usually be caught even if they are not actively digging in the gravel,
Locating barbel is the key to success because they are seldom evenly dispersed along a stretch of river. In shallow, clear water, barbel can be located easily enough by walking carefully along the banks and spotting the fish. A pair of sunglasses with polarized lenses helps tremendously since they cut out much of the surface glare on the water and allow you to sec down to the river bed. On deeper stretches of river where fish spotting is not possible, location becomes more difliult. Sometimes barbel will give away their location by rolling on the surface. They often behave in this way when the river is in spate. I have frequently seen barbel roll on the surface when the river has been swollen by heavy rain and is running very fast and coloured. These are, however, chance sightings and not a reliable way of locating barbel. Locating barbel on a deep featureless stretch of river is often a case of trial and error. Talking to other anglers can be helpful, as can studying fishing match results and pinpointing the spots where any barbel were caught.
On a stretch of river which alternates between fast shallows and deeper pools, barbel can usually be found where the water runs into the head of a pool. Underwater obstructions, such as sunken tree trunks, are also likely barbel-holding areas. The nature of the river bed is also important because barbel prefer fine gravel or sand and tend to avoid the boulder-strewn areas. Where streamer weed is found, barbel will often lie hidden under the trailing fronds, venturing out at dawn and dusk to feed.
Barbel holding areas are not necessarily barbel feeding areas. Unlike some species of fish, barbel do not iced by intercepting particles of food carried down to them by the current. When actively feeding, barbel forage along a defined stretch of river, searching amongst the gravel as they travel upstream. In shallow water the foraging barbel can be seen to leave a stream of discoloured water behind them as they disturb the river bed. On a deep stretch of river it is a common occurrence to catch two or three barbel in rapid succession and then no more. What has happened is that a group of foraging barbel has moved into the area that is being fished and then carried on upstream.
If this happens, try casting upstream to try and locate the foraging shoal of fish. On shallow stretches of river, barbel will venture into very shallow water to feed. Sometimes their backs appear right out of the water as they search about in the margins.
Baits and tackle for catching barbel
Barbel will cat just about anything they disturb from amongst the gravel. Small fish, such as stone loach and bullheads; the nymphs of flies; shrimps; even the algae which covers the gravel in warm weather; all these form the barbels’ diet. The strange thing about barbel is that although they will eat almost any organism they find on the river bed, they can be very selective about anglers’ baits. On waters which are not heavily fished, it is often difficult to catch barbel with anything but a natural bait, whereas in heavily fished waters, barbel are easier to catch because so much unused bait has been deposited into the river by anglers that barbel have become accustomed to it. On a few rivers so many maggots have been thrown into the water by anglers that barbel are rarely caught on any other bait, and the angler is nearly forced to use maggots for bait. In the case of rivers where there is very little fishing, a natural bait is usually best and the most easily obtainable of these is the lobworm. Other offerings which have proved to be excellent barbel 16. baits are cheese paste, luncheon meal and sausage. On some rivers sweet-corn will also catch a lot of barbel.
Because they are bottom feeders and are usually found in fast (lowing rivers, barbel are mostly caught by legering. They are very powerful fish and lackle strong enough to enable you to land them should always be used. A 10 foot carp rod with a through action is ideal. The strength of line depends a great deal on the type of water you are fishing. On open stretches of river a breaking strain of 51b (2-25 kg) will be strong enough, but for fishing near sunken branches and snags this should be increased to as much as 1 o lb (4-5 kg). Barbel are responsible for more ‘lost fish stories’ than any other species.
A swan shot link leger is suitable for presenting most baits, but when using maggots a swim feeder is very successful except in extremely shallow water. When barbel are feeding avidly on maggots, they often give false bites by grabbing hold of the swim feeder. Barbel can be caught by float fishing but the bait must be presented on the river bed by fishing over depth. Float fishing works best when the current is not too strong and the river bed is fairly level.
When legering, the biles from barbel can be extremely violent. Never wander off and leave your rod unattended when barbel fishing because if the fish hooks itself when it takes the bait, you may have to save up to buy a new rod. I have seen rods pulled off their rests by barbel.
The first few runs of a hooked barbel are very powerful and you will have to give line. Even when the fish begins to lire and comes to the surface, be prepared for it to explode into life again and dash away. When you land a barbel treat il very carefully. If you retain the fish in a kecpnet. Make sure your net is large enough and of a knotless material. The dorsal fin of a barbel has small spines on the first ray and these can become tangled in the net. Damaging the fish. In hot weather the fish are best returned immediately to the river.