My next fishing trip saw me sitting on my familiar chair staring up at a rod tip framed by sky blue but this wasn’t a Suffolk beach, in fact it could hardly be more different. The date was a notable one for older anglers, June 16th and I was fishing for Barbel and Chub on a mighty western spate river.
Proposed months ago and planned weeks ago all of a sudden the day arrived, 15th June 2022, four fifty something blokes who have known and fished together since the early nineteen eighties and one laid back Retriever rendezvoused later than planned in a supermarket car park. Our motivation was Barbel; when you live in Suffolk these creatures are a big deal simply because we don’t have any, it shouldn’t need saying but stillwater Barbel don’t count. As a youngster I would read about these awesome river creatures that mostly lived in Wessex, never believing I’d actually see one but a few years ago, with help from a friend I actually caught a couple. I was shocked when I realised almost twelve years had passed since that memorable day and eleven since I last visited the valley. Time to get back.
We then set off on a journey across the country, in the middle of the day the traffic was lighter than either end, the car was hot but the journey was smooth. By mid afternoon we were settled in to our own patch of field somewhere in border land where we idled away a few hours making last minute tackle adjustments and discussing how we thought things would go. The forecast was against us, for the next two days we should expect the hottest weather of the year so far, the river was low too which wasn’t ideal but something we had expected. We’d been warned off fishing opening week so expected the fishing to be tough, just one Barbel in the net would see me go home happy but we wanted June 16th to be special one more time.
In the evening we walked a mile or so up and down hills and over a brook to the local pub, here we bulked up on calories with steak and chips and a couple of pints. The walk back in the dark was more wobbly and by the time we were back to camp I felt tired. I zipped up the tent at a sensible time but I couldn’t sleep and it wasn’t because of the Owls in the trees, I was just too buzzed.
No sooner were my eyes closed than I was awake again, it was growing light in the sky, three AM or something equally ridiculous. It seemed to take ages to get sorted and away then the drive went on and on before climaxing with a treacherous slope. We got out of the car and the scene was glorious, with mist rising the river valley looked beautiful, a steep wooded slope behind us framed the scene, we were here, June 16th!
We loaded up and went walking our separate ways. I really fancied a deeper run below rapids but could find no access I felt safe using. I stopped a little way downstream on the first of a series of Salmon groynes, Rich was downstream of me on the last. The far side was shallow with a gravel beach and scrub willow, mid river was deeper and clear, my side was fast and shallow with a bit of weed. Fish were topping, trout rising and Salmon leaping, from my own experience it felt right for a summer Chub and maybe therefore a Barbel? The swim was rock and concrete but flat and comfortable, behind me trees on the rising hillside provided shade that would be crucial for survival during parts of the day.
I started around 0500, casting regularly, in theory to get a bit of feed out there but in reality because I was getting knocks and rattles from the word go. Downstream Rich was also getting bites regularly but he too failed to connect with any. I was probably a little over eager and striking too early, put it down to excitement. I fished with mostly an oozing pellet thing made by Sonubaits but switched to a 14mm halibut pellet from time to time during the day. These were hair rigged and tipped with something recommended by a friend. The rig was a simple running leger with a long two part hooklength and a strong size eight or ten hook. Two or three ounce flat leads were used and attached to the swivel by a paper clip which would give way under pressure if snagged. I mostly used a small PVA mesh bag of hemp and halibut pellets which I nicked onto the hook. None of the above was my idea, it came from reading archive Lumbland from the days when Dave used to fish for Barbel.
Richard moved around 0615 and it was a short while after this that I had two sharp downward pulls on the tip, I was on my feet and attached to a fish. The bite hadn’t screamed Barbus and there seemed a chub like resistance but this was due to the fish moving upstream of its own accord. The weight began to grow as the fish hung in the current and I slowly gained line, a long bronze fish appeared in front of me for a second before powering suddenly away in a boil and this Barbel novice was taken unawares, too much too soon the hook pulled, it was gone. Ninety minutes into the fishing, I’d had a chance but blown it. By this time Kev had appeared, he’d been fishing upstream and seen the commotion so scrambled down to help (NB Where Kev goes so does Cooper, the world’s most chilled out retriever). He seemed even more gutted than me but at that moment I was thinking positive, where there’s one there could be more.
I fished on. The knocks and rattles continued but the timing was all wrong, always while I was making up PVA bags or a cup of tea, never when I was poised. I took to holding the rod and finally hit a bite, the fish had a bit of weight but quickly dived into weed where it seemed solid. Steady pressure got it free then it was stuck again. Eventually patience combined with pressure and I got the fish moving again, it was a Chub but lovely to get something in the net. I used to do a little Chub fishing back in the previous century but had caught very few bigger than this one. Kev had appeared again and took a quick photo before I slipped it back, I was off the mark and confident of more.
Time passed, the fishy action dwindled and the sun crept above the hillside, I moved the chair back further but eventually ran out of shade. By the early afternoon the heat was unbearable and the fish had completely switched off. We reconvened at the cars for a catch up and refreshments. Kev had caught a few Chub as had Giles who’d been fishing upstream in a gorgeous but snaggy looking swim. Rich hadn’t caught and regretted leaving his spot on the lower groyne so early in the day. I walked up and down the stretch and although much of it looked fishy, a lovely mixture of shallow pacey parts and deeper slower stretches, nothing gave me more confidence than the spot I’d fished and fed through the morning so it was to there I returned.
I mixed up a bit of krill groundbait which I was able to mould around the lead and alternated between this and the mesh bags. With the sun now behind the opposite trees the bites started again. Occasionally one that was strikeable and there were a couple that I couldn’t work out how I’d missed. I noticed that the action came quicker when I was using groundbait as opposed to the PVA bags. But for all this I failed to hook any more fish and the fading light became almost dark too soon. Back to the cars; Kev and Giles had added more Chub and Rich too was off the mark with a couple. It had been a long, hot, gruelling day and we’d failed to catch what we’d crossed the country for but we’d loved it.
Another scorching hot day, even worse than the first. We didn’t get up quite so early and getting to the river didn’t go smoothly, just where do we leave the car? It was like one of my weird pre fishing dreams, not the first time they’ve been prophetic. We eventually got ourselves sorted, the stretch was known as Courtfield and it was nice but not in the same league as the one we’d fished on the first day. The fishing was comfortable despite the steep banks but the river itself all looked samey, there was little to make one part stand out from the other. It was a stretch with a history I was aware of; I’d stayed nearby in the past and had walked it at the time and found what had been written in the trees. We spread ourselves along and gave it a go but there were far fewer signs of fish than the previous day. We all felt we needed water with more pace and only Kev had any success with a couple of small chub caught trotting.
As planned we left around midday and adjourned to the pub for sustenance then back to the camp for a siesta. By 1800 the heat had eased off and we were back at the river giving it another go. With the lower light levels the river seemed a lot more alive and I actually felt a fish might be a possibility which hadn’t been the case in the morning. But it didn’t happen, for any of us and it was no hardship taking ourselves back to camp just after dark. Today was a bit of a disappointment, the stretch was nice but didn’t compare to where we’d fished the previous day. Mostly we’d been beaten by the heat, had we been at home we wouldn’t have left the house let alone tried to catch fish. My bed beckoned early but sleep didn’t come easy.
Another early start as the stretch we had booked was a bit of a drive away. This morning was cloudy and much cooler with rain possible through the day but when we got to the river it looked gorgeous despite the gloom. Upstream of the car was a long stretch of straight banks, steady flow and poor access which then shallowed up through groynes and riffles. Downstream were more groynes and lots of depth changes and gravel bars. But the spot directly in front of us looked best of all; here the river narrowed and boiled, bushes covered deeper water on the near side and opposite us it was shallower with a sandy beach, to me it just screamed fish. Kev and Rich were happy to go wandering so I settled in with Giles just downstream of me.
I fished with the same methods that hadn’t produced any Barbel for the previous two days, I was sure what I was doing was not the problem, I just needed to put myself near some feeding fish. I cast around the swim, alternated between bags and groundbait, switched hookbaits and even tried trotting but nothing happened. Giles faired a little better fishing slightly downstream but bites were finicky and just one Chub succumbed. It started raining around 1000 and pretty much rained all day, mostly pissy drizzly stuff but sometimes it got heavier. I was wearing wet weather gear so just sat it out and stayed comfortable for most of the day. By lunch time I was getting itchy feet despite sitting in a swim that looked cock on. Sitting it out on the first day hadn’t worked, I had to move.
I found myself perched on the first of a series of groynes with a good flow, deep water close in and in the first few minutes had more action on the tip than I’d had all morning. Once again this was in the form of knocks and rattles, there was nothing I could strike at. It was during a period of heavier rain and deep gloom that my tip pulled steadily round. It didn’t seem at all fishy but I felt obliged to lift the rod and see what was going on. There was definitely weight on the line but it wasn’t kicking, as it got nearer I could see something long and thin that appeared fishy, what the hell was it? It turned out I’d hooked a large, foul smelling and very dead lamprey. I didn’t get too close, nicked the hook out with forceps but it was definitely Lamprey shaped only far bigger than the ones we use as bait and with a mottled colouration like a Catfish. It was disgusting and seemed to be an ill omen in the deepening gloom.
After that I was done with the groyne so wandered down to an area of gravel runs, channels and much character. I set up on a bar of gravel that was currently an island but would surely be underwater for most of the year. Rich was fishing upstream of me and Kev was downstream on the end of the bar. On my left was a narrow, tree lined channel while on my right the main river was wider but possibly a little shallower. Both looked very fishy to me but I started off on the narrow side. Here I had good bites on the first two drops, fishing halibut pellet on the hook and groundbait moulded around the lead. I let the third bite go on a bit longer and hit it, a nice Chub fought well in the current and I was grateful to get it in the net, not a monster but even so I’ve not caught many better. I had another decent bite on the next chuck but missed this one despite giving it a little longer. After that I must have spooked them as I only received knocks and rattles. I switched to the main river but here it was quieter, just enough movement on the tip to keep things interesting. It looked good for a bite as the light faded but it wasn’t to be, by 2100 we were all tired and damp at best so made a sensible decision to get away. It had been a grueller with just a handful of Chub between us.
The last day. As Giles and I were travelling back in the evening we were sensible enough to have a bit of a lay in or at least wake up without an alarm clock. This gave us a chance to break camp and get some fuel on board but we were still hiking along the river side by mid morning. Today was a mixture of sunshine and cloud, mild without being hot and with the previous days rain being carried the river looked in fine nick. Laden with our kit we took a slow walk along the stretch which had better access than some though not necessarily where you’d want it. We met Rich and Kev fishing a nice gravelly area mid way along the beat. They’d had a couple of chub between them but we hadn’t missed any feeding Barbel. Apparently there was a renowned swim nearby so I set off in search of it but by the time I had been hiking for ten minutes it became apparent that I’d missed it. However I did find something very interesting.
I was almost at the end of the stretch when I came across a wider area of river with extensive shallows stretching out from my bank and a deeper far side. I stood looking for long enough to work out that the shadows I was seeing were actually rocks and not fish but I also saw something long and bronze flash twice on the far side. It could have been a big chub but my money was on Barbel. I found a swim about forty yards upstream, here steep muddy steps led to a mound of rocks which had probably been a salmon groyne in the past. Downstream on my side were the shallows I’d been watching, the far bank was a bit deeper. Both banks were treelined but upstream it was narrower with bushes whose branches touched the water. In front of me the water was relatively deep and boiling nicely but it was the downstream area that held my attention as this was where I’d seen a Barbel. The swim would be cramped and uncomfortable and for a long moment I considered walking back to the infamous swim and fishing closer to my friends. No, I’d seen the creature I’d travelled across the country for, if I didn’t give it a go here I could regret it forever.
With a tree above me I used the old eleven foot tricast and a shorter one piece hooklength made of 10lbs fluorocarbon. I managed to jam the rod rest between two rocks, cast a halibut pellet upstream with groundbait moulded around the lead and set about organising the swim. By carefully placing a few rocks I managed to set the chair up solidly and set about arranging my gear around me. With this done I wound in for a recast and was surprised to find a small Chub had hooked itself, one that would definitely go in a bucket come winter. The next cast downstream brought a proper bite and a bit of weight held in the current. I brought it back towards me and had a bit of a tussle but it had nothing like the power of the fish I’d lost on the first day. The net slipped under a good sized Chub which I weighed and found, as I suspected, it was my second best.
I was running out of time and catching a Barbel was becoming less likely but I’d loved the unfamiliar style of fishing which had not been affected by being limited to one rod. If anything the simplicity had made it more enjoyable. The surroundings were so different to what I’m used to in East Anglia but the river reminded me of the one I’d grown up fishing as a kid in the seventies. That one has dwindled and changed to become unrecognisable and the one before me was massive in comparison. The handful of Chub I’d caught had not been what I’d come for but I’d not be going home too embarrassed. As an angler I’d learnt loads, the fishing was engrossing and I’d felt I had a chance most of the time.
By now I’d switched to PVA bags and had been casting around the swim, trying different spots upstream. There had been plenty of taps and twitches but only a couple of decent bites which I’d missed. I’d been eyeing the upstream area and every time I’d looked it seemed a little better, it was deeper here but still boiling through with good pace. I’d been fishing probably ninety minutes before I made a cast in this direction, landing three quarters the way across. I don’t know how long it had been there before the tip pulled down in two fishy installments. The old rod bent over with a decent weight as a fish moved steadily downstream, for a few seconds I held a weight that was growing with every one of them. Then just like the one on the first day the fish woke up and powered off breaking my hooklength like an old worn fishing cliché, I’d lost another Barbel.
I should have felt gutted but although I’d fucked up on the first day I felt there was little I could have done on this occasion. But what I could do now was up the strength of my hooklengths so tied a couple up with the 12lbs mono I had on the reels. I still felt confident; in fact I was certain I’d get another chance so out went another PVA bag and a pellet hookbait but for a while things were slow. After a few casts upstream without a pull I cast downstream once more and started getting chubby rattles. Giles stumbled into the swim for a catch up and I told my tale of woe but while he was there I landed another Chub. As he struggled back up the slope I joked he could have this swim if I caught a Barbel.
Around 1500 I dropped the bait upstream with an under arm swing. As I sat down again the phone rang. It was Rich, he’d caught a Barbel and was delighted, I was chuffed for him. As we chatted my tip went round but I struck and missed it, I put the rod down and picked up the phone however the rod was still banging. I hadn’t missed it, the fish had moved downstream and was still attached. With the phone on the chair I gave Rich a running commentary as I brought another Chub to the net. After hanging up I under-armed a bag and a bait into the same spot.
I hadn’t been sitting down long when the rod signalled two sharp but steady pulls. The rod bent and once more the fish moved downstream giving no indication of size before the bending rod stopped it and it hung in the current. I knew what was coming and was ready, the fish powered off taking line and I made no attempt to slow it. I drew the fish back towards me and it powered off again, it was fighting hard but I felt in control, glad to have the extra power of the old rod. I knew I’d have to get the fish upstream of the net and positioned things accordingly, first attempt and the fish powered off again but second time it went in. Mission accomplished! My lunatic laughter echoed down the valley as I grinned like a wanking monkey.
With the fish resting in the net I made the phone calls and received congratulations, Giles was nearest and was on his way. While I waited I looked down at my Barbel, something I hadn’t laid eyes on for over a decade. Long and bronze and gorgeous, not one that would ever have been considered big but size was totally irrelevant. Giles arrived and took some pictures then we put a weight on it, modest but still a clear PB. I was chuffed as nuts. I felt confident of catching another but one was enough for me so I made one more cast while I tidied the gear away and left the swim to Giles.
I loaded the gear and walked back downstream, everything was right with the world. I set off to find Kev and Rich but on the way I checked out a couple of swims, one of which looked both fishy and comfortable. I found my friends and wandered into their large shared swim just in time to see Kev returning a Barbel, he too was off the mark. Three grinning anglers shared a quick catch up then I wandered back to the swim I’d earmarked. Getting into position was tricky but once in I was on a small gravel beach, surrounded by trees and cut off from the outside world. By wading out a little I could cast easily so switched back to the twelve foot Barbel rod. The far side of the swim was lined with tall trees and was deeper so I concentrated on this area, for the first couple of casts I used groundbait squeezed around the lead but reverted to PVA bags after. Nothing much happened apart from a few minor chubby rattles but I didn’t care one bit, my little Barbel wouldn’t raise many eyebrows but it had made my week.
Time passed and it was looking like my idyllic swim wasn’t going to do what it promised. The afternoon was drawing on and we were leaving later, I was considering a move downstream nearer to Rich and Kev. But then something tried to pull my rod in the river, I managed to grab hold before it was successful and found myself attached to a decent fish holding position downstream of me. I was able to bring it across to my side but still downstream of me and in faster water. Slowly it came upstream, circled and as usual powered off again but I felt in control. I was using the lighter rod but it felt nice and I was patient, having ‘survived’ the first run I was confident I’d get this one in the net which I did, eventually. This one was smaller than the first but it didn’t matter. I know that to many people these are just run of the mill fish but to a lad from the Barbel starved county of Suffolk they are creatures we only read about. To catch one, now two of these mythical creatures was as good as fishing gets.
Giles materialised, he’d had a Chub or two but the only one of us not to catch a Barbel. We both moved down to fish alongside Rich and Kev in the big gravelly swim. While we were there Rich had a good Chub that pretended to be a Barbel then Kev caught the real thing and the lads posed for a photo but Cooper didn’t wake up. All of us hoped Giles would break his Barbel duck and when his rod finally bent round all heads were turned. The result was another Chub and the fishing had to come to an end for the day.
Four days spent in a fabulous, beautiful river valley. Four days spent walking miles, clambering up and down banks and struggling to catch fish. Two days of baking, oppressive heat followed by a day of persistent, invading rain. Then a day when it all came right, the weather was comfortable, the fishing was good and it was almost perfect, in the end it had been the rain that saved us. Will I leave it so long between Barbel trips in the future? Definitely not, it’s my kind of fishing in my kind of place. Will I enjoy any subsequent days more than this one?