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Targeting Bigger Barbel - Part Two - by Ian Grant

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Targeting Bigger Barbel - Part Two

By Ian Grant​

In my previous article I spoke of Bait, and it's application, which really tells only half the story so to speak. I'll describe in this article my approach, my rigs, and methods.

Much if not all of what I write here, will seem so obvious to experienced specimen anglers, some may even disagree - but there you go each to his own. I can tell you now, there is nothing complicated in my fishing, the purpose of this article in the context of trying to purposely catch a big Barbel is to show that catching big Barbel is far from complicated, though it seems to me people often make it so. Plenty of patience and a common sense approach is the key.

I read, hear, and see people trying so hard to catch that big one, and failing, I know the feeling I've been there and wore the T shirt. I hope if that's you, reading this article will set you on the right track, as I said in my first article - my way is only one way there are others, and with experience you will surely find your own, but in the meantime I hope this gives you a leg up !! Read on.

Drawing in the biggest Barbel in an area you're fishing using methods described in my previous article is by no means easy, neither is the final bit - catching it, but complicated it isn't, by over complicating your approach, would only see you diminishing the chances of catching that big one. 'rigs' are one area where it seems some people often overcomplicate their approach, mostly it seems believing that some of the more complicated Carp style rigs will help them fool big wary Barbel, which is most definitely not the case in my opinion, at best you'll achieve a catching in spite of, and not because of situation.

Barbel feed almost exclusively in roughly a horizontal position excepting situations when they are feeding on mid water food and prey, Carp on the other hand may vary from that to a completely vertical position, also pound for pound have larger mouths, and generally most 'Carp rigs' are designed to cope with the varying feeding habits Carp display.

Anything other than a straight forward static bottom bait for Barbel ( in the context of my style of static fishing i.e excepting rolling baits etc ) is an entirely unnecessary complication that I'm certain would cost me fish. My 'rigs' are about as simple as you can get, which is where I'll start just to get this one out of the way.

My Rigs :

There are two, one with a hair one without, I attach my hooks using the knotless Knot, the swivel with a Palomar. Hooks are ESP G-4 Raptors in size 6 for a hair or sometimes 4 if using bait on the hook. Both are shown below using 6's I use as a preference coated braid - Sufix Black Silt or Camfusion, and preferentially in 10lb BS. This is primarily for its protection properties.

The length may vary from 6" to 24" but in all honesty I'm not that accurate in deciding a length, 12" to 16" is typical for me as shown below, I may go as short as 6" if fishing directly into streamer weed. I attach to 12lb big game mainline by Palomar and use a 7mm rubber bead to buffer the lead, which is always free running on a quick change clip never fixed by so called safety clips, this primarily is because I'm certain a wary Barbel can feel resistance when plucking or mouthing a bait.

My leads can vary from swan shot links to a max of 1oz for downstreaming, for upstreaming I always use a 2oz lead which seems to suffice for all situations ( I'll explain more later on that )

So that's it - a hook sometimes haired, sometimes not, attached to a hook length of coated braid, and a swivel at the other end, pretty much the bog standard hooklength the vast majority of Barbel anglers use I guess.


As simple as you can get - my 'rigs'​

Arriving at the Swim :

Well you won't find me crawling about on my belly all in cammo that's for sure, but I do try and set up as quietly as possible, and a few feet back from the swim until I'm ready to put my bank sticks in.

I'm not particularly interested in finding the fish now, I'm holding faith that my baiting techniques have worked, and the fish is there-hopefully ! If it isn't .... I'm going to blank, and that's that !

There is absolutely no point in going to the trouble of carefully baiting a swim over several days or more, and then wandering the river trying to find Barbel, if you lose faith in your approach you will fail before you start, you have to accept that if the minimal baiting described in my previous article has worked, your catches in numbers will fall, because the bigger fish, and hopefully that one very big one will have dominated the swim, that's the price you pay if you succeed in singleing out the bigger fish..

Now we're Fishing :

I never bait before my hook is in the water, the last thing I want is that big one sitting munching my bait, and a lead comes crashing in, - blankety blank! Ok with average Barbel that will spook off for a while if they do at all, and come back sooner or later, competition driving them to feed.

I'm full of little sayings! and here's one for you, if you've done everything right, and you have that big one in your swim, you have about 300 chances to spook it, but only one to catch it. If you spook it - and likely you'll never know you did, it's probably all over for the evening.

If you are catching smaller Barbel continually, then either you are using too much bait when pre baiting and fishing, or sooner or later if small ones keep coming, you have to face the fact that no big Barbel are in the vicinity which is rare, even so providing you aren't using too much bait usually the biggest in the area will dominate, even if they are not quite doubles. A good sign that a big fish is present is continual jabs on the line. This can happen even with slack lines, they could be small fish but very unlikely at night, if they are Chub usually sooner or later they hang themselves, very frustrating when it happens, but tends not to the case when a Big Barbel is present very often these jabs and taps, are big barbel, whose caution is preventing them from taking the bait, you must not be tempted to hit them or re cast with a fresh bait etc, it will do you no good at all, and I will write more on that further on.

Generally speaking if having got the baiting right, everything hinges on not spooking that fish. Big Barbel, and some will argue with me, are often ultra spooky, they've likely been on the bank many many times throughout their life, and come to associate many things with that, - hitting tight lines, resistance when mouthing a bait, heavy leads & feeders regularly hitting the water, torch lights penetrating the water the list goes on, but minimising or eradicating these things, and everything you can possibly add to that list can only load the odds of catching your target in your favour.

Fishing at night is when without doubt a big Barbels caution is at its lowest, this is because evolutionary conditioning has taught it that attacks from the bank are far less likely - bears, eagles, and all those types of predators that Eons ago were part of a fishes life which though have long gone - at least in this country still leave big fish with an ingrained caution of bankside movement. The hours of darkness is when it becomes easier for us to move around without spooking a big fish so easily. Sub surface dangers though - ( such as we create ) they are often if not always aware of. Never discount daytime fishing though, some of my best fish have come in daylight, just remember as much as the fishes caution is heightened, so must yours be too in your bankside movements, so obvious you would think, but many neglect to take it on board.

Spook Factors :

In the context of specimen angling, but specifically Barbel ( as we are talking Barbel ) ! there are many factors that will spook your quarry as mentioned above. I'll talk here of what I believe spooks fish on and in the water, the rest I believe is common sense, stomping on the ground, torches etc.

It's no mystery that fish, in fact most wild animals will spook when startled by something strange, it's a reaction that I believe in part is down to genetic conditioning, but all wild creatures have many lessons to learn, those that survive to old age are the ones that learn quickly, the ones that run first without bothering to ask why.

Fish that live in shoals will often come back, after being spooked, being confident of safety in numbers, solitary creatures, and in our case big Barbel often won't at least not in the short term perceiving the risk may not be worth it, this is instinct at work, and an ability to recognise specific dangers that the fish encounter time and again, the result of millions of years of evolution in fish. Once a specimen angler takes that on board, and takes measures to remove every spook factor possible, will see his results markedly improve. Preferentially I cast several yards down, and upstream, and certainly never fish directly in front of me, if I am fishing what I consider to be uncomfortably close to where I'm sitting I'll try to sit as far back as possible, but I do like to be able to view my baited area. Preferentially I try to pick areas I can move in without the risk of spooking fish several yards away in my baited area.

Tight lines are in my opinion are one of the biggest spook factors of all, that and constant re casting. How many times have you sat there, and had a whacking great liner followed by a blank, or at best caught an average Barbel later, possibly the liner was from that average Barbel, or was it that big one ? that left your swim as fast as its fins could carry it ! Always where practical pin your lines down, and never fish with tight lines, yes if you do you may have a few, but I'm certain will dramatically increase your blanks. I'll talk more on that subject in Downstreaming

Re Casting :

One of the biggest factors in failing to catch that big one, the reason when targeting big Barbel I gave up on feeders years ago, again immediately seeing improvements with catches of double figure Barbel, aside from the factor of a big fish spooking from re casts, using a feeder will by putting more and more bait into the swim have the exact effect it was intended for, to build a swim and draw in large numbers of fish, exactly what you don't want, and is totally at odds with the baiting methods described in my previous article.

Leaving out feeder fishing will reduce the risk of small Barbel and Chub entering your swim, which is essential, each one you catch, Barbel or not, reduces your chances of that big one, possibly and even likely the first one caught, the big one if present seeing another caught will only reinforce it's naturally extreme caution, and if not having left the swim immediately will be extremely difficult to tempt into taking your hook bait, an excellent and time honoured tactic for catching numbers, but most definitely does not lend itself to singleing out a big Barbel.

Re casting without very good reason is a no no for me feeder or not, for the same reason I don't bait before I cast my hook bait, the risk of the fish I'm after being in my swim is just too great, and will spook it if it is there without doubt, repeated re casting is just simply the kiss of death, in instances where a big Barbel has been caught after such tactics have been used I'm almost certain are down to the fact that the previous re casts were done fortunately when the fish wasn't present.

Many anglers I feel re cast out of boredom, but you must resist the temptation at all costs.

If you are constrained to one off sessions or when pre baiting is impossible, and when you feel that feeding the swim may pay, choose an area to bait that will allow you to dribble slow sinking bait which will be carried by the flow to your hook bait this usually means fishing the near bank and areas with overhanging trees are ideal being a favourite holding area for Barbel in daytime.

Accuracy is best achieved by first dropping in a few pieces, and observing if possible where they fall, then preferentially lowering you hookbait on that spot, you can then continue to feed with confidence that your feed is hitting the spot, you must apply great caution whilst doing this, a big one catching sight of you will certainly be on it's guard, if not on its toes !!

Still little and often is best if you are after the big one, as again too much bait will likely draw in small Barbel and Chub which if caught will greatly diminish your chances, though if numbers are your target, you can with confidence considerably increase the amount of bait or even use that feeder, Maggots are my bait of choice when fishing in this way.

Hitting Twitchers :

Something I admit to doing several times a season, especially after a few blanks when I want so much for that twitchy pull be be a fish on - twitch.... twitch.... twitch .. and still pulling ..YEESSSSSS !!....NOOOOO ! nothing there dammit - why do I do that !!! I can almost see that fish swimming off....... 'yeah ! sussed you out Granty.... nice bait though, got any more' ?

So here I'll preach that which I can't always do myself !

This argument I've had before on BFW, and never had a reasonable answer to....

How when fishing static, can you differentiate between a Barbel bite, and a fish - Barbel or not - pulling at your bait, or just a liner from anything that swims.... answer - you cannot !

My advice is to leave your rod until it's threatening to be pulled in. Hitting a twitcher and failing to connect if fishing for numbers again is no big deal, though you do risk foul hooking them, hitting a twitcher from that big one that's investigating your hook bait and missing it, again confirms its worst fears, and again you'll never know. If you are getting twitchers, it may be the big one brushing your line, or getting Its snout under the line on the river bed which if kept slack will likely be more of a nod on your rod top, twitches and nods may happen frequently through the session, if they keep coming the fish has not spooked, it may also be taking the hook bait in it's lips and pulling to see if it takes off, I'm certain they do !

Let them have their little play, as much as they like for as many hours as it takes, sometimes the fish may be so cautious it just refuses to take the bait, hitting the twitchers won't help you one bit, and will be the fastest way to a blank or at least that big one. It may be time to look at the shape of your bait do something different, 3 halves maybe, if in summer a lump of stiff paste - make sure it can last several hours though, anything to make your bait unusual in shape or texture, or maybe it's time to tweak your flavour, or mount your bait on the hook, not on this session though do not recast unless the opportunity presents itself when you've nothing to lose, such as if you are wiped out by weed, - keep your cool - mostly you'll find if you give her long enough her greed will take over, and get the better of her, and Wham !

The next bit is admiring that big one on your mat.

Sitting on your hands is advice that was around when Gods dog was a pup - It still holds good believe me.

Downstreaming :

If the river bed is suitable I back lead using very light home made back leads when downstreaming, putting as much distance between my bait and the point my line hits the river bed as possible and practical, the back lead may even be under my rod tip if I'm fishing only a few yards downstream, this is with the sole intention of avoiding liners, preferentially I will fish as far downstream as is practical and desirable to reduce that risk.

However I always pay line off my reel to create slack, this is because I believe even with a back leaded line the tap taps may well be Barbel grubbing on the bottom as mentioned above, getting their snouts underneath the line, and potentially being spooked when coming against the resistance of the lead - main or back lead - which is why I keep my leads main and back as light as I can. The slack line will help reduce further the risk of spooking the fish.

Resistance however caused, whether by the flow or excessive lead weight or both should always be reduced as far as is practical to do so.

How do you keep a line slack in the fast flow? I hear you ask.

Well rarely do I ever present a bait in very fast flow when downstreaming. Though by careful positioning of your bait within the flow relative to your rod top, and paying out slack will help reduce the weight of water on your lead, also by creating a bow in your line will take your line away from the immediate area leaving a few feet on the river bed which will largely be free of water pressure. This though is far from an ideal presentation in my opinion, and one I'll rarely settle for.

My preference is to always look for the slacker areas, which are adjacent to the fast water creating the creases which barbel are renowned for, ideally I look for water with no more than a walking pace flow, and the slack area is even an option, the Barbel generally don't hold in these dead slacks - (dead slacks in a generally slow flowing area are useless by the way, I'm talking of where faster more oxygenated water is close by) but they do feed in them, and if kept pre baited to educate them to the constant presence of a food source are ideal, this is solely from the point of view of presentation, the problem of flowing water keeping our lines tight is either dramatically reduced or removed all together, and you can be sure you're line is pinned down nicely, and even your main line hitting the water is slack enough not to provoke undue caution. A word of caution, these areas will often hold Bream, and possibly Carp, only knowledge of your river will help you decide whether to target such a swim.

Upstreaming :

Has become such a large part of my fishing over the past few years, I now often look at swims with regard to giving my upstream rod prime consideration, such has been my success in using the technique in comparison to my downstream rod.

Fast water is now no longer a problem with presentation, and whilst I don't actively seek out very fast flows I certainly wouldn't discount them from a point of view of presenting a bait when upstreaming.

When first trying this technique out probably about 15 years ago I did so following the advice of an article I read in a monthly mag. Using a quiver tip with the tip well bent to the lead, the idea being that as soon as a Barbel took the bait you'd get a violent spring back followed by the rod top nodding as the Barbel dragged the lead downstream. This worked of course, but also giving a spring back if you had a liner, and in those days I was ignorant of the implications of that, and to be honest not caring either not being specifically on the trail of big Barbel, also at certain times of the year it became a pain when debris continually caught the tight line, and dragged my lead also giving me a spring back, I succeeded in hooking and losing one fish to a hook pull, which evidently was only very slightly hooked, I gave it up as a bad job, wondering how on earth the method had any value.

It was 4 years ago my thoughts returned again to the method, and I had a think of how it could be made to work or at least in a way that suited me.

Applying a little logic made the solution obvious, it was the tight line to the lead causing the problem. ( I've since met a couple of anglers who also independently thought out the problem and use an identical technique, so I'm not by any means claiming this as my invention, but it was new to me. ) So on my next session I gave it a go paying off slack which the flow immediately pinned to the river bed, and on occasion when drifting weed caught the line entering the water it just helped pin the line down further, having no detrimental effect on the presentation at all.

The classic bite was not a spring back, but a nod nod nod of the rod top as the barbel made contact with the lead, in the weeks to come I couldn't believe my luck, Barbel after Barbel were coming to my upstream rod, effectively doubling my captures.


A basic diagram of the method​

There was one other improvement which I have to say I haven't seen others try, I discovered it quite by accident, and was as a result of my inattention to detail !

I had cast my bait, and as usual slowly lowered the rod paying line off the baitrunner, allowing the flow coming downstream to take up the slack in the line and pinning it down exactly as I wanted, the line I suppose was entering the water 6 feet or so from my rod top when I placed the rod on it's rests, a further 20 feet or so being pinned down to my lead and hookbait. What I hadn't realised is I had forgotten to click off my baitrunner.

I sat down, I really can't remember how long it was before I got the take, I do remember it was still daylight and didn't really expect a take before dusk, suddenly the rod a 1-3/4 tc wrapped round in classic downstream style, the bells on my rod rests jangled as well as they ever did on a downstream take, and my baitrunner was fizzing !!! Shocked was not the word ! As I grabbed the rod I fully expected to make immediate contact with a fish running upstream, such was the violence of the wrap round, for a few seconds and winding frantically I couldn't feel the pull of a barbel, until I made contact which by now was almost in front of me.

Excitement over, and fish weighed and returned - a pleasing 12lber, I sat and thought about what had happened, which was obvious, the 2oz lead was enough to hold position whilst the fish pulled line through it from the baitrunner, what surprised me was that the resistance from the lead was enough to give me a classic wrap round, subsequent captures proved it was no coincidence, and every take since has been that way, no nod nodding of the rod top, just a wrap round, and a fizzing baitrunner.

Every season since using the upstream method as described, has seen roughly equal numbers taken on both rods.

The advantages are I think are three fold , firstly the line being pinned down by the flow gives an ideal presentation, all the work is done for you without resorting to back leads, secondly as I've said the flow now is your friend, and doesn't pose a problem creating tight a line. Lastly, it opens up choices of swim and more importantly bait placement to me that previously I would never have considered, let alone thought of.

If you haven't tried upstreaming try it exactly as I've described I promise you won't be disappointed.


My PB 16lb 2oz caught upstreaming about 15 feet to my left on a clear area in patchy streamer​

Well that's about it, if you think about it there is nothing complicated in this approach, it's mostly common sense, another favourite saying of mine.... Find 'em, give 'em something nice to eat, and for gods sake don't spook 'em, and you will succeed.

Yes the more you know your river the easier the decisions on where to start your baiting become, there's no easy route to that, it just comes from spending time on the stretch you are fishing. This is what without doubt together with a baiting strategy described in my first article are the major factors in success in achieving your goal, that and absolute confidence in your approach means you cannot fail. Blanks are inevitable hopefully not many, and you have no choice but to take them on the chin ! but there is always something to learn from them, they will become fewer as your techniques improve, for me, though I try everything to avoid them is what keeps me coming back.

Best of luck to you all, and have a great season.

Ian Grant
May 2011
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