By Mick Wood - 2004

In recent years I have written a couple of articles in the BCC club magazine ‘Barbus’ based upon my experiences whilst stalking barbel in Yorkshire ’s River Wharfe. Certain events last October reinforced a particularly important observation made with regard to barbel behaviour whilst in a shoal.

One of the main problems to overcome when aiming for big Wharfe barbel is the sheer number of average sized fish present. When fishing blind you are fishing with both hands tied behind your back and I am sure that those who fish in similar circumstances will sympathise with this view. If you can see what is going on then it is often possible to work out a strategy to isolate the biggest fish. Most of us will have read articles by anglers who have observed a group of fish, noted the feeding route of the biggest, separated them by feeding different areas of the swim and then caught their chosen barbel.

When there are anything between thirty and a hundred barbel in your swim, this is easier than done! This particular dilemma was one with which I had been faced on more than several occasions. On one particularly frustrating day in September 1999, I had a huge number of barbel hoovering up my carpet of hemp and corn. Every twenty minutes or so a really big fish would enter the swim, a barbel which easily looked big enough to be into double figures. At this time I had only ever seen one other Yorkshire double and fellow BCC member Iain Wood was holding it at the time. I tried all manner of tricks but eventually the barbel caught my line on its pectoral fin and bolted, never to be seen again.

The solution was discovered by accident the following summer. I regularly fish very short sessions between dropping my daughters off at school, then picking them up again at 3:30pm . This means that there is less time for a patient approach, which at first glance might have seemed more prudent. One July day I had numbers of average size (by Wharfe standards) barbel on my feed in addition to two fairly big fish. I decided to just fish and settle for whatever happened to get to the hookbait first. After catching several barbel between four and six pounds, all the moderate fish vanished leaving the two larger fish behind. These I caught on consecutive casts and both weighed over seven pounds.

Other angling writers, most notably John Bailey have commented that barbel do not shoal in the true sense of the word. What happens is that two or more groups of fish congregate in a certain area because of its favourable characteristics. Many of us will have observed small groups of barbel leaving a baited area only to rejoin the main group some time later. This is not the behaviour of a true shoal fish.

Whilst my ‘tactics’ had been discovered by accident, the next time I would use them would be quite deliberate and lead to what I consider to be my finest barbel capture. I had been tipped off about a group of big fish in a swim that I regularly walked past without affording it a second glance. Upon feeding the swim with hemp and corn a small group of barbel containing four big fish appeared. Within ten minutes they had been joined by a larger group of more moderate sized barbel. Without repeating all the detail, I commenced fishing immediately and caught several moderate fish. That group then dispersed leaving just the four big fish on the feed. My next bite produced one of the two biggest remaining; a fish of 10lb 7oz.

The following summer any chance of applying my new tactics were ruined by the foot and mouth crisis and I could not get onto the shallow stretch until September. I did manage a handful of stalking sessions early in the autumn and on one occasion I had two adjoining swims on the go. I caught four or five barbel from each swim, the last one in both cases being an eight pound plus barbel.

And so to last season. The summer was not a great one for stalking due to fluctuating levels in the unsettled weather. We then had the driest early autumn that I can recall and initially I struggled in the painfully clear conditions. During September we had our regional fish-in on the Ouse and Alan Towers from the North West Region was coming across to join us. Since the Ouse would not fish until dusk, I took Alan to the Wharfe in order to try for an early barbel, and given the conditions it made sense to visit a stalking swim.

The day before I had done a ‘recce’ and found that a particularly shallow swim had a group of barbel tucked in behind a sunken tractor tyre. We spent a frustrating couple of hours with Alan behind the rod and myself on top of the bank watching the barbel. Although Alan could see the barbel moving through the swim he could not see exactly what was going on. I was able to give him a running commentary as a succession of barbel swam up to his hook bait, occasionally picking up his corn and ejecting it. Eventually, by using a long tail and dropping the hook bait right into the main holding area Alan caught his barbel. Selectivity was impossible and the barbel was fairly small although still welcome after being led a merry dance for the whole morning.

The dry weather extended into October, a month which usually has long since seen the last of the stalking conditions in Yorkshire. One day I was fishing about four hundred yards downstream of the tyre swim and since all was quiet I decided to walk upstream and take a look. I could individually count over twenty barbel but decided to leave the swim until the following day.

Arriving at noon I had just three hours. I threw in a few handfuls of maggots and watched. Within minutes every barbel was fighting for the maggots and more fish were appearing from the deep, near bank gulley. The first barbel came after five seconds but was small, as was the next one which took twice as long to take the hook bait. My third fish weighed in at seven pounds plus but the fourth and fifth reverted to type. Then even as I watched, all of the small barbel vanished leaving a group of bigger ones behind. My last three fish went 7lb , 7lb and 8lb 11oz. All too soon it was time to pack up so I threw my remaining maggots into the now empty swim. By the time I had tackled down dark shadows were appearing in the swim once more.

The following day I could only fish from 9am until noon but I knew that this would be long enough. I arrived at the swim to find that the brown algae that had coated the river bed had vanished, leaving a clean gravel area the size of a snooker table! Once again I threw in some maggots and watched. Within seconds a small group of large barbel appeared with the two biggest at the front. I repeated the dose several times and on each occasion the same barbel returned, always with the two biggest leading. I cast out and could easily see my hook bait of three red maggots on the bright golden gravel. Once more the barbel appeared in response to another handful of maggots, the two big ones in the lead. It was immediately obvious that the smaller of the two would reach my hook bait first but I left it in place and the barbel snaffled the maggots and tore off. It weighed 9lb 7oz and whilst I was obviously delighted, I was left to wonder what her big sister weighed. She had seen quite enough and it was the last occasion on which I would see her that autumn. I had been on the bank twenty minutes and had been fishing twenty seconds.

The pattern of events described here is clearly not a one off. In conclusion I will ask you to ask yourselves a question. For those of you who fish reasonably prolific venues, how many times have you made a multiple catch of average sized fish and then, after a quiet spell caught a barbel significantly larger than the rest?