By Steve Withers - 2005

We are fortunate in our area that the nature of the Hants Avon and Dorset Stour lend themselves to fish spotting and observation. Without doubt, being able to stalk fish and watch their reactions to tackle and bait is one of the most exciting and frustrating forms of barbel fishing that there is, giving you a invaluable insight into what is often an invisible world. I know from talking to a few members on this years fish-in that they found the opportunity to watch the fishes reaction from close quarters fascinating and was a real eye opener to some of those who had been more used to fishing rivers which made this impossible.

The topic of a fishes reaction to line in the water has been touched on in a few recent Barbus articles and in my mind it is one of the most important factors to get right for consistent success when daytime fishing in clear water. How often do you build a swim up patiently, get the fish feeding confidently and carefully introduce a baited hook only for their whole behaviour to change? Unless you’ve really screwed up the fish don’t usually disappear but they suddenly become visibly agitated, change their reaction to the baited area and even start altering their patrol route through the swim. Obviously there can be a number of reasons for this change in behaviour – putting a bait in too early, clumsy presentation or concealment, wariness of the bait etc. but in many cases it’s clearly down to the fish being aware of the presence of the line.

Unfortunately there is no absolute solution to the problem, it’s an inescapable fact that there will always be a line leading from the rod top like a big arrow pointing straight to your hookbait. All you can do is minimise the impact and hope it is sufficient for a fish to slip up. Conditions will play an important part in how far you have to go i.e. clear water versus coloured, bright sunshine versus dusk/dark, but I’m convinced that even when we consider it to be less important to conceal the line, such as in coloured water, that the fish have a much better ability to detect line than we give them credit.

The first solution usually considered is the type of line being used with much emphasis these days being placed on fluorocarbon lines with many claims being made about their lack of visibility in water. I must admit to being somewhat sceptical in this area although I know a lot of people swear by them. I have played around with a few of the popular makes but found them to be unreliable with dramatic reductions in knotted strength and a susceptibility to damage – something I’m just not prepared to accept. The claimed advantages are based on the assumption that the line is virtually invisible in water due to the similar refractive index between line and water, but in my experience any line very quickly becomes slightly stained and discoloured in use and this will significantly alter the refractive index so the theory is somewhat flawed in my opinion. Even if these lines do provide a degree of invisibility, for them to be effective assumes that lines are detected purely by sight, which is by no means conclusive. There is a theory that detection is as much based on a fish sensing the small vibrations which result from the water flowing over the surface of the line and transmitted through the fishes extremely sensitive lateral line – all good theory and who really knows but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

Accepting that making the line “invisible” is at best questionable, the next priority is to keep the line rising off the river bed as far away from the hookbait as practical to create an area as large as possible where the fish are not likely to be spooked. Hence more and more Barbel anglers are taking a leaf out of the carp anglers armoury and using backleads. My “standard” barbel rig over the past few seasons nearly always incorporates a back lead in some form and I’m convinced it plays an important role in improving confidence. The type of backlead used varies depending on conditions. For summer low flow conditions, I’ve found a small barrel type “flying backlead” (i.e. threaded onto the line so it can move back away from the lead when cast) to be very effective. ¼ to ½ oz is normally sufficient on the rivers I fish with a rubber float stop used to hold the backlead approx. 6-8ft from the lead - anything heavier can start to create problems during casting. Tightening up after casting then giving a couple of yards of slack ensures the line in the vicinity of the lead is straight and pinned nicely to the river bed. I tend to fish a bolt style end rig with this method using a relatively short hooklink with a semi-fixed lead incorporating one of the many decent bolt safety beads available to ensure the lead will break away in the event of a snag.

Alternatively, rather than mess around with a backlead the same separation between the line rising off the bottom and the hookbait can be achieved by using very long hooklinks. I’ve never been a great fan of long hooklinks being concerned about bite detection and the ability of a fish to pick up and eject a bait easily but one friend has been using long hooklinks with great success so maybe it’s an area worth revisiting.

When the flow increases or when there is a lot of debris coming down the river the light flying backlead becomes unsuitable as it is merely lifted off the bottom by rubbish on the line and suspended in the flow, so in these circumstances I revert to one of the clip on type backleads. The weight of these can be varied to match the conditions and typically I use 1 –2 ozs in winter. After casting the lead is simply clipped onto the line and either dropped into the margin on a slack line or feathered down the line to the desired position relative to the lead. Bites are usually a slowed down version of what you would normally expect, with a slow pull as the slack line is taken up and the lead lifted off the river bed followed by the normal rod wrencher. During the fight the backlead simply slides down the line and is stopped by the lead – the one important precaution is to make sure that in the event of the backlead snagging that the lead will break away from the clip otherwise it’s a recipe for disaster.

At times when significant weed and debris is coming down the river, the added advantage of the clip on lead is that getting the rod top under the surface and pinning the line down with a heavy lead in the margins allows you to fish through conditions which would be otherwise almost impossible. In the most extreme cases when masses of weed have been coming down the Avon in the autumn, I’ve fished with the rod top buried 3-4 ft under the surface with a 3oz backlead right in the margin, using a bobin for indication with either a baitrunner or centrepin to make sure I don’t loose the rod – not pretty fishing but it’s caught me some good fish when all other methods were unfishable.

As well as looking carefully at the line from lead to rod, the hooklink material also has the potential to cause problems. For many years I fished braid hooklinks almost exclusively, most of which including those claimed to be high density braids, tend to either float or lift and loop off the bottom in certain circumstances giving a very unnatural appearance. The coated braids such as Kryston Snakeskin or Mantis are better but they don’t totally solve the problems and I find they still need small pieces of heavy metal putty to keep them nailed down on the bottom. For the past couple of seasons I’ve reverted back to nylon hooklinks and to be honest I’ve found them to be just as effective as braid without the hassle of having to mess around with putty. For anyone who has doubts about the way braid behaves when a fish is creating disturbance around, there is a video produced by Korda which is worth a look at as it shows some great underwater shots of the reaction of carp and tench to a variety of rigs, both braided and nylon. It also shows some revealing footage of carp fleeing in panic at the sight of fluorocarbon lines!

It is not always possible to fish backleads, for instance a lot of summer fishing on our local rivers involves putting a bait onto a small area of gravel surrounded by weed which prevents effective pinning down of the line. On these occasions it is often possible to use the natural features in a swim to your advantage in trying to make the line less obtrusive, in particular using weed beds to partially mask the line. A swim I fished several years ago always held barbel which fed on a small patch of gravel surrounded by beds of ranunculus on all sides. The barbel would happily feed all day on loosefeed placed in the middle of the patch but as soon as a line went into the water they would become very nervous and it usually ended up being a case of waiting for dusk to nail one which slipped up in the failing light. Eventually it twigged, and by changing the baited area to be hard against the weed it was possible to put a bait in and almost thread the line back over and through the weed with a lot of slack line given to prevent the weed moving the bait out of position. It worked a treat and the line being disguised by the weed seemed to give the fish enough confidence to feed and I had many good sessions watching the rod top swaying back and forth with the motion of the weed before the pin suddenly screamed off.

Finally, as always there is the contrary point of view – if you can’t hide it, then go to the opposite extreme and make it more visible and/or resemble something the fish are either used to seeing or is just different from what pressurised fish spend their time avoiding? I know Trevor West has gone to great lengths in the past in threading pieced of reed stem onto the line so the fish don’t give it a second thought and I’m sure there are other variations on the theme if you have the guts to be seen on the bank doing it!! The theory of some of the brightly coloured lines on the market for carp fishing are that they stand out so much that the fish are less likely to touch them and spook and as they look so different from what has been thrown at the fish for years they simply ignore them. I remember an old quote from Rod Hutchinson when he was talking about line. A particular angler he knew liked one brand of line which was dyed green because he thought the fish might mistake it for a piece of weed, Hutchinson on the other hand preferred Maxima as he joked the fish might mistake it for a piece of discarded tow rope – now there’s a thought!