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Floatfishing For Barbel - by Keith Speer

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Floatfishing For Barbel

By Keith Speer

When I was asked to consider writing a note on float fishing for Barbel my first reaction was to run screaming for the door, I reconsidered because I have received such a lot of positive remarks from my post "An alternative viewpoint", also last season I ran a "Stick float clinic"for members of my club Welcome to Verulam Angling Club this went down very well and I was surprised just how much satisfaction I got from seeing anglers catch their first ever Barbel simply because I showed them how I do it.

So "Float fishing for Barbel"where do I start? First I would mention this is not a "Do it this way"piece, it is merely about how I do it, I am certain better anglers will have better methods or at least different methods, this is just about how I like to fish for Barbel, I cannot show you anything new, nor can I guarantee that you will catch any fish, but I can show where and how I put in the effort to catch fish and you must remember, simply everything takes effort and as with life in general, effort often leads to success.

Let's visit a fictional swim where I am going to float fish for Barbel; I am on a tributary of the River Great Ouse.

I arrive at dawn, sometimes I already know which swim I am going to fish but often I will have a little wander before I decide upon the days swim, once selected the first thing I do is sit down and have a cup of tea and watch the water. It is a nice mild day with no frost but it is breezy, the water has good colour and the pace is a bit more than is normal. Depth is also up a bit as there is no waterline showing on the reeds on the far bank. The birds are very active and as I sit there, Mr Robin pays me a visit and tells me its breakfast time. If this water is fished a lot (and this section is very public) and Mr Robin looks fat and chirpy, I take no notice but had this been a less well visited water, I would watch him for a moment. Is he a bit thin? Is he a bit bolder than normal? If so, is this because of a recent cold snap or have the local invertebrates been lacking of late? This may make me reconsider how much bait I use later on so it's worth casual consideration. Is there any fly hatching, if so what is it? If there is evidence of fly life waking up and it is a species that is plentiful, will I have to compete with the naturals for the attention of the fish? Paying attention to these facts and taking into consideration temperature and the general weather prospect for the day helps me to consider how much and which bait I will use. Sometimes the observation period takes 10 minutes, sometimes more but while I sit there I also visualise what the bottom will look like from the way the current behaves. The prescence of a hump or dip in the bottom is given away by the boils and whirls as they come to the surface. These are often not there all of the time and sitting and watching will reveal these features. Once identified (or not), I then decide where I am going to catch my fish. This may be a place where they will be by their choice, (a feature or some cover) or it may be a place that I decide I want to draw them into. Whichever it is, once I have identified my main catching area, I then start to consider how much and what bait I am going to supply to that area and how I am going to get it there.

Once I have analysed all of this information I then look to see what other food may be occurring naturally (never dismiss an overhanging Elderberry bush, even when they are out of season, Elderberry or Tares will probably still work in the swim) and at the same time I re-visit all of my previous thought processes because getting it wrong from the start is the easiest way of messing up a perfectly good swim.

Once I have observed the swim I then consider which bait I am going to use in further detail. I have 3 pints of Maggots, 4 pints of Hemp and 2 pints of Caster; I also have a pack of shelf life Tares and a tin of Sweet corn which I probably will not use; I have it to use as a change bait if the going is tough.

I prefer to us Caster as I believe it is an easier bait to present perfectly but I need to make a choice based upon colour of the water flow and what I already know of the venue or river that I am fishing, However Caster is expensive but I often use up my Caster and then save my Maggot to turn to Casters at a later date if there is a lot of colour then I would go straight on to Maggot, I would probably know this in advance so I would not have taken Caster with me, if it is very clear I might go for Hemp both as a feed and a hook bait with the odd Caster mixed with it, but as it is a bit coloured I will kick off on a mixture of Caster and Hemp, which I do not mix as I prefer to feed these baits separately. Tares I will use at odd times during the day as a change bait and I always have a few runs through on a Tare if I am feeding Hemp, it is surprising how often a Tare will produce a bite from a seemingly dead swim.

I now take a moment to consider how a hooked fish will respond in the first few seconds of the fight, I need to establish in my mind what my default options are so that I can react without having to think about it, the first few seconds can be critical, especially when you consider I am probably using tackle that is lighter than the accepted norm.

This might be obvious but spending a few moments thinking about the below surface obstacles can pay dividends when I have just hooked a double figure Barbel that is on a mission.


Two Barbel caught on the float, this one in high summer!


And this one in deepest mid-winter.​

Once I have decided on bait, I then need to decide how much weight I will need to present my bait properly in the catching area, I must also consider if there is a need for holding my float tackle back hard and if so I will need a lot more weight for that. I also have to decide, am I going to start with my shot bulked up or am I going to spread it "shirt button" style or indeed a mixture of both, (shot bulked halfway between the float and the hook with "shirt button" shotting from the bulk down to the hook)?

I always look at the swim and the way the flow works and based upon that I choose the amount of weight that is needed to fish the swim properly, some anglers choose a float first but I decide upon the weight and then find a float that fits. I have decided that this swim would normally need about 8 x No4 (4 BB) so I am going to use a stick float but as it is a bit breezy I need a bit more stability so I go for a 10 x No4 Lignum stick (Lignum is a heavier than water wood, so it does not add to the floats buoyancy but does help to stabilise it, wire stems do a similar job, but being old fashioned, I like Lignum) so with the float selected I set up the float, tie a hook length and grab a light plummet.

As I am going for Barbel my main line on my Centre pin is 0.17 (6.7lb BS), the rod is a 13ft Drennan Stick Float Rod with a through action and my hook length is 0.13 to 0.15 (4lb 12 oz to 5lb 14oz , I use Preston Innovations Power line as a hook length material), the hooks I use are Drennan Super Specialist and the size I usually start with is a 16, which is ideal for both a single Caster or double Maggot. I now plumb the swim, I will plumb across the river and down to the catching area, but not in it as I don't want my plummet to disturb any fish present in the swim, I might also plumb a few feet down stream of the catching area (if I can) to give me an idea of the differing depths. A note on plumbing the swim, if it is clear I will not use a plummet but I would put some bulk shot on at the estimated depth and run through with no hook length attached, as I think this causes less disturbance (this tends to only find the high points though), however, whatever I do, I try very hard not to bounce a heavy plummet on the bottom too much and where possible I use as light a plummet as possible

Ok, it is about 4.5ft deep but it seems there is a slightly deeper trough around where the catching area is. I now add my shot, my float is a 10 x No4 stick and I am going for "shirt button" shotting so starting at the loop (that the hook length which is about 10"long attaches to) on the main line, I add a single No 10 shot, I then add two No 8's 2.5 ins up and 2ins apart. I then add 18 No8's in pairs, 1.5ins apart up toward the float. I use no8's as they can still be brought legally in the UK. If I were in Europe or if I were fishing for less sophisticated fish , I might use lead No 4's or even bigger, but I'm in England and my target is Barbel in a heavily targeted river so it's no8's all the way.


Terry Lathwell with a float caught Barbel from a Great Ouse tributary.​

Having set up my rod for my initial attack, I then set up a second rod, this one would probably be a Drennan Tench Float rod, again I would use a Centre Pin but this would be armed with pre-stretched Power line of 0.19 dia or 7lb 6oz BS, with this rod I would put on a 0.15or 5lb 14 oz hook length, I would also use a slightly heavier float (either wire stemmed or a lignum stick), but this time I would use bulked No4's with 2 No 8 droppers, the bulk of the shot would be about 12 -18 inches from the hook, this outfit is for holding back hard at the back end of the swim where the bigger fish often lurk. Also I like to have a second rod made up (and sometimes a third, probably a second Tench Float Rod or a Normark Avenger) so that I can continue to fish immediately if there is a critical failure with my primary rod (like snapping on the bottom or casting into the tree opposite, breaking a float that sort of thing), there is nothing worse than rushing to fit up a fresh rod while the light is failing and the fish are feeding.

At this point I would mention my centre pins, I own and use several, of the three that I use most of the time for fishing for Barbel, I had two of them made for me, they are not true pins but of the twin bearing construction, for me a pin MUST be as free running as is possible, so as very few true pins run well enough I rarely use true pins (I do have three Speedia's, these are super little reels and they can be "run in"to a point where they spin very well). My reels must also be user friendly, I much prefer the solid or non- perforated style, my reels are for float fishing only, several of my reels have no handles and I nearly always remove any ratchet system, the ones I use most also have finger holes in the front plate instead of handles. I always have the line coming off the top, I do this because line control in a wind is slightly easier, and it is more direct as the line goes straight into the rings from the top of the reel, but the main reason is that I have far better control when putting pressure on a running fish. Being kack handed I hold the rod in my left hand, which means I can also control the flow of line with the thumb of my left hand, I like to use very free running reels, so more often than not I am slowing or "feathering"the reel spool to slow the flow of the tackle through the swim while trotting, with the line running from the top of the reel I use my thumb as a "trailing shoe brake", this way I can apply as little or as much pressure as I want in a calculated and controlled way.

With line coming from the top, my control of the way I let out line while playing a fish is so precise, that it is worth an extra couple of pounds breaking strain on the line, this is the main reason I get away with using tackle that is lighter than that which is advocated in most fishing journals, also as I can control the amount of line a running fish takes with the hand that is holding the rod I therefore have a hand free to do other things, like continuing to feed the swim. Feeding the swim while playing a fish is very important, I want to keep the fish that I have not caught and am not playing on the feed, so I need to feed to keep them interested. I have noticed that anglers that have the line coming off the bottom tend to use two hands to play a fish, one to hold the rod and one to control the amount and speed of line being taken during the fight, during the first second or so after I have hooked a fish it is vital that I hit the swim with a larger than normal amount of feed, I usually throw the feed hard at the surface of the water so that in makes a noise. The other fish in the swim see a fish bolting (because it is hooked), they also see (and hear) a lot of bait in the water, I want to make the feeding fish think that the hooked fish is charging about in a feeding frenzy, hitting them with a quantity of bait often confuses them into continuing feeding, but it must be done as soon as a fish is hooked. I have seen match anglers "splash"pellet into their swim with some force while fishing for Carp, they do this to alert the fish to the feed, Barbel can react in exactly the same way as Carp if they are already feeding. Having a free hand means I can feed when I need to.


This angler uses a centre pin (an Okuma which is an excellent reel for float fishing) with line coming from the bottom of the reel; he needs to use both hands to play the fish successfully!


Ok, so I'm ready to rock and roll. All the gear is made up; I have set all this up away from the swim as I want to cause the least disturbance possible. so I quietly position my seat box, I carefully setup the bait water on my box (I can't be a proper Barbel angler I use a seat box, AND it is not camoed up), position my landing nets (I have two one for smaller fish and one for the Barbel), place the bait boxes on the waiter, get my towel out and positioned, place spare;- shot, hooks and hook length on my waiter and get a disgorger out and put it behind my right ear. I have already washed my Caster in the river water and added fresh water to the casters. I have selected about a hundred or so casters which I have left out of the water so that they dry off and become floaters, (later this will balance the bait against the weight of the hook) and as such provide a hooked bait with as close to neutral buoyancy as possible. The most likely cause of missed bites and lost fish is the fact that the bait with the hook in it does not "pop" into the fishes mouth as easily as one of the free offerings, I try to make the bait react in a similar way as a "pop up" or "neutral density"bait does as with bottom fishing for Carp or Barbel. It is good to remember that the hook bait is already restrained by the hook length. Anything that gives me an "edge" is worth doing, this may not matter so much for Barbel but if I were fishing for big Roach I would make every effort to give myself an "edge"as big Roach are already THE most difficult fish to catch by far

I have set up my tackle at 4ft 12ins deep, this is deeper than the swim in general but as I am fishing "shirt button" and intend to hold back a little on the pin this should send the float tackle through the swim at about 4ft 6ins deep. Over the course of the day I will constantly change the float depth, going from "overdepth" and holding back hard, to fishing the float through at river speed several inches off the bottom. I will also change my shotting pattern from spread out to "Bulked" up. Barbel can turn up at all depths and in all current speeds, but you have to start somewhere so I nearly always start with "Shirt button" shotting within an inch of the high points on the bottom.

It is worth remembering that a float angler has an extra dimension to their tackle that the "tip"angler does not have, nailing a bait to the bottom means the bait is only on the bottom, I have caught Barbel on single grains of Hemp meant for Roach 2ft from the bottom, it is a mistake to think that they only feed "on the deck", those anglers that fish "Rolling Meat"catch many fish off the bottom, I am sure Barbel in some waters are very much more suspicious of baits nailed to the bottom than they are of bait that passes through the swim away from the bottom.


These Barbel were gently placed in the water after being un-hooked, they lay there beneath my bait waiter un-disturbed by the side of my swim for several hours, they could have swum off at any time, perhaps they just like my company?​

Time to start fishing!! I then bait the hook and cast out for my first trot through, in fact I have several trots through, just to see if they are already in the zone or if any thing is at home. Assuming that I do not get a 10lb Barbel straight away I then consider what bait I am going to put in the swim, given these conditions I would start with 6-10 casters thrown in so that my bait follows immediately behind the free offerings and I would throw them in so that there is a spread of bait. If, when I have thrown in some bait I could surround all the free offerings within a 1ft diameter circle then they are too bunched up, if they would just about fit in a 3ft circle then I have got it about right.

The tricky bit is where? I know where I want to catch fish, so to compensate for pace and depth, this is what I do; I throw in a few Casters when I am ready to start baiting the swim, watch them go down, if they sink about 6 inches over a foot of pace in the stream I then know that for a swim 4ft deep I need to throw them in 7.5ft above the start of the main catching area, in other words a foot for every 6inch drop in the water, but I always remember that the flow in the bottom 6 inches is slower than at the surface so I must compensate for this slower current. The rate at which Caster or Maggot sinks depends upon many things, air pressure, state of the bait or condition of the water are just a few factors, so it is important for me to check the rate of fall of the bait in the water every time I fish, I also do this for Hemp as well because Hemp will sink faster than both Maggot or Caster, it is because of these differing sink rates that I keep Hemp and Caster in separate boxes and feed them separately as well. I make a note of the differing aim points for my feed and make a conscious note where that point is, using a reflection or some other visual aid, after a while I sort of go into automatic, feeding regularly without thinking about it, it is this regular feeding that is the key to success.

After a while I would also feed Hemp at a rate of about 10-15 grains every trot through, my intention is to get as many species of fish feeding in my swim as possible, when my main target is Barbel I am not fussed what species pay me a visit as long as I get fish visiting my swim. The best way to get big fish interested in your swim is to make them think they are missing out; getting lots of fish feeding makes them inquisitive. It is just like Mike Wilson's baiting pyramid theory, first you get small fish interested, then bigger fish and so on, the only difference is that you are trying to get the same result through a day's fishing and not via a continual baiting programme; Cyprinids react similarly no matter what species they belong to, when they see fish feeding they want to join in.

With a bit of luck I will start to catch small Roach or Dace, possibly Gudgeon, this may continue for a while, eventually the Roach and Dace get a bit bigger then Mr greedy Chub might move in, while I am fishing I continually check the throats of the fish I catch, if there is evidence of bait in their throat or they are "gobbing"up Hemp or Caster, I know there are not many fish in the swim and I might want to restrict the flow of bait, if I am catching well and all the fish have clear throats I know I must increase the feed, remember my target is Barbel so I want a quantity of bait to pass through the swim and not get eaten, this is the bait that the Barbel will start to eat when they first visit the swim, they will probably clear it up quickly but once they have done this they know it is a place where food has been and they WILL come back. To be successful with Barbel on the float you tend to need quite a lot of bait so you do need to introduce bait in fair quantity, the important factor is to introduce it over a period of time, it is astonishing just how quickly you can use up 3 pints of bait even if you are only putting in small amounts twice a trot through.

I never get it dead right, that is why I spread my bait out while feeding therefore I keep up the flow of bait until something happens. Given the conditions I have described, fish should turn up quite quickly. If they don't, I will reduce the rate of feed until I do start to catch, or at least get a few bites, then once I have a few fish interested I will up the rate of feed, I always keep in mind the fact that I am fishing for Barbel so I need to keep the feed going, to get them on the feed. If my target were Chub or Roach I would feed very differently but I am after Barbel and the general rule is "keep feeding and I will catch". To do this I don't just go from 6-10 Casters every cast to 12-20 Casters every cast. I keep the same amount of Casters going in but I do it more regularly, for example I feed when I cast out and I also feed when the float is halfway down the swim. The rule here is to keep it constant, I try to bore them into feeding, I don't stop, I am relentless, if I wish to up the rate even more then I will increase to feeding three times a trot through, after that if I want to increase my feed even further I will increase the amount thrown in, but the most important thing to remember is to KEEP THE RATE OF FEED CONSTANT, the amount can vary but the rate must be relentless. I have found that Barbel react more positively to a slow but constant introduction of feed over a period of time. Putting in a gallon of Hemp in one hit works with relatively un sophisticated Barbel, but on a section where they are heavily targeted they wise up to that trick fairly quickly, not surprising really, if I walked down a path and found nothing, yet an hour later when I returned I found 15 Big Mac's, I might be just a little suspicious! Constant feeding will do more to help them loose their inhibitions than a sudden influx of bait; I always try to remember that I am asking them to feed so I do everything I can to give them a good reason to do so!!


Constant feeding in quite cold conditions little but often; I used just under a half pint of bait over the course of an afternoon, to take this fish and one other.​

I have described a main catching area, this is not where I will catch all of my fish but it is rather a target for my loose feed to gather on the bottom, I will probably get most of my fish from this area but I expect to get the quality fish from just below this area.

One item I have not touched is use of a bait dropper, I do use them but I am very careful with them, I mostly use them when I have good evidence that either all the bait that is laying on the bottom has gone or when I know I need to up the amount of feed substantially.

Barbel can sometimes be spooked by their use, sometimes they will happily have their nose in the tin as it opens on the bottom, in the main it is small fish that are so bold, I always keep it in my mind that I am fishing a heavily fished river where every Barbel angler is using a bait dropper, my main advantage is that I am not feeding in the same way as a lot of other anglers so I think hard before I use them.

Last year I sat in a swim on the Lea with Dave Currell, watching Barbel as we fed the swim by hand, Barbel were moving in and out taking some bait and then re-visiting as more bait was introduced, when we increased the amount of bait the fish stayed in position, we were whispering to each other that the fish we were watching were 10-11lb fish (the venue record is 10lb 12oz) when two considerably larger fish moved in and the smaller fish moved away, these larger fish would spook at the slightest movement even hemp suddenly dropping through the swim would frighten them, I am sure the use of a bait dropper would have spooked them for the day. The water we were at is very heavily fished, certain swims are occupied every day of the year, these fish have a right to be spooky, but even so I am sure that with a little application I stand a chance against these bigger fish.


My last fish of the 2009/2010 season was a double until it reached the scales, even so to finish with such a lovely fish was a delight, for me it is not all about size​

I have to admit I relish the prospect of catching from difficult, heavily fished waters, I'm not so concerned with the weight but more for the challenge and I do so very much like to catch them on the float.

I hope this is of help, it would be easier to show how I float fish (and a lot more fun) rather than to try and write it up and there are also a lot of other things that I have not mentioned but as this is a basic guide (and this has gone on far too long anyway) they will have to wait until another time.

If you have any queries or comments don't be afraid to PM me, if I cant actually fish then chatting about it is the next best thing.

Tight Lines for the coming term chaps.

Keith Speer
June 2010
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