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Barbel Fishing – The Pope’s River Diary


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This is what the River Kennet is all about these days... This is what the River Kennet is all about these days...

Steve is preparing to head ‘home’ in time for the new river season but until then it’s a case of ‘more questions than answers...’







As I press down on the keys for this month’s diary my thoughts are beginning to turn to home. But as the words come into my head I have started to question just what home means to me now. I’m a believer in that old adage 'home is where the heart is' and these days my heart is torn between two places many thousands of miles apart.

Wherever 'home' is barbel will always be aroundMy old cottage up on the Welsh border is not really my home, to be perfectly honest it has almost become a holiday retreat but then again every day is like a holiday to me. I have another base on the River Severn near Worcester where I’ll be spending a good deal of time this year, the Caer Beris Hotel at Builth Wells is somewhere else that will see a lot of me and important family matters will mean that St. Albans will feature heavily as yet another place of residence so you can see I really do fall into that category of a Saga Gypsy!

The reason for thinking more about returning to the UK is obviously because departure day is looming at the end of April and also because of the substantial amount of e-mails I have received relating to this coming summer’s barbel fishing.

My guiding days are filling up nicely along with the three Wye breaks and once I factor in auction days, raffle prizes and promised days with friends there’s not a lot of room left in my diary!

Then of course there is the upcoming Barbel Show which will be an absolute cracker this year, with the likes of Des Taylor, Dave Harrell, Bob Roberts, Stu Walker and Paul Garner up on stage those attending are in for a real treat. Plus there is the added attraction of The Barbel Society Book launch, tickets will be the hottest in town, every bit as desirable as those for the Stones or Boss shows! (Errrr...sorry Steve but I’d MUCH rather have my Stones ticket...Ed) Check out the Barbel Society website for details.

Talking about Boss shows, this past month found me at two in Sydney and let’s just say they were both fantastic nights that will live long in my memory, possibly the best gigs I’ve ever attended, and it would have been physically impossible to be closer to the main man at times. If you are interested there are lots of photos and words on my website.

Fishing wise I have still struggled to get it together over here, just been too busy with other business. Mind you Martin Salter has been giving FM readers an excellent insight into the fishing on offer and once again although we tried it wasn’t possible to meet up over here so we will have to go barbel fishing instead!

So for the rest of this diary, I’m going to share with you the Q and A session I mentioned last time. I’ll spread it over two months as it came out longer than I expected.

Basically I was given the questions in advance and then I ‘sent over’ my responses which then went live one question at a time on the Barbel Fishing – Prince of the River Facebook page, others then pitched in until the subject was exhausted. The session lasted a good three hours.

First of all I’d like to thank Drew and Gary for inviting me to participate in one of your Q and A sessions. Secondly I would like to say thanks for some very thought provoking questions, each of them would make an article in their own right, and I might well do that at some point! But in the meantime I’ll try my best not to be overlong in the responses to allow lots of scope for further discussion.

Question from Tom Herbert

Steve, what do you see as the biggest threat to the future of barbel fishing?

Will it come from the explosion of signal crayfish in most river systems that eat the barbel eggs ergo affecting recruitment?

I appreciate that other fish species suffer the same fate at the claws of this foreign invader and that likewise other fish feed upon the eggs as well but do you feel that the signal crayfish has a significant impact upon barbel recruitment?

Will it come from the ever-changing climate? Will the fact that we have more flooding and colder winters that seem to last forever have a detrimental effect on the fish populations and again recruitment? Will it be from the loss and change of habitat caused by the changing climate?

Look at the way the river systems up and down the country flood so badly and how many pollutants are washed into the rivers systems. I am sure that the river beds and the spawning grounds must be affected by the constant flooding.

Will it come from predation? The otter, cuddly and furry as it may be it is still a cold-blooded ruthless killer that is quickly eating its way through most river systems up and down the country.

Will it come from the fact that once my generation (or maybe the one behind me) has hung up their rods there will be very few barbel anglers following in my footsteps? Will the ‘X-box generation’ ever step up to the plate?

Or do you see another threat to the future of barbel fishing or indeed is there a threat to the future of our beloved pastime?


Hi Tom, that is one heck of a question!

It is very easy to look at all the problems that are out there and become very pessimistic, indeed there are many anglers, some very high profile, who take that view, but I’m more of an optimist! That’s possibly more to do with Pete Reading’s influence than Fred Crouch’s!

Signals - revolting creatures!Crayfish.
There is no doubt that they impact on barbel recruitment but it is so difficult to quantify in isolation. There are so many factors to contend with today and this is just one more that is unwelcome. On a positive note they offer a food source to other predators but I would like to see a concerted effort for their removal and I reckon it will come at some point. Out here in Australia carp are an alien species and are treated as vermin but it’s a real struggle to eliminate them from the river systems, the authorities may never succeed and life has to adjust.

Changing Climate.
I’m not a huge believer in the climate change stance; I tend to ask a change from what? I think we struggle getting our heads around what constitutes a cycle, especially if it doesn’t conveniently fall within a lifetime. So I truly believe that as the barbel has been around for a seriously long time it can cope with most things, what it struggles with is our intervention as with the crayfish and the next bit of this answer...otters.

There is no doubt that these creatures have devastated certain fisheries, no one can sensibly deny that. However there were probably other factors that caused the situation on the Wensum and Ouse, namely barbel becoming too big for their own good. I have always been convinced that this is an important issue. I have seen otters on the Kennet and I’ve yet to see evidence of a fish kill, that’s not to say it hasn’t happened.

I just feel that this is a battle we cannot win at this moment in time the public just won’t take any notice of us. I know the potential is there for real havoc on the small rivers, fortunately the bigger rivers appear to be able to cope. It may sound defeatist but my view is we have to make sure as anglers we make the most of whatever our situation is on a river because nothing ever stays the same. In twenty years time this issue will have stabilised and we will still have barbel fishing to enjoy, I’m sure of that.

Other threats to our rivers.
There are many, especially in built up areas, the pressure will only increase, we can all only hope that the light is seen before it really is too late. I’m hopeful that local communities will prevent further damage, but they will have to be ever vigilant.

X- Box and future generations.
This, in my opinion, is potentially the biggest danger we face, and we won’t even see it coming. The Crabtree generation is gradually starting to disappear and although there appears to be a strong group of Generations X and Y coming through, we can hardly say the future looks bright. We have to accept that the point of entry these days is usually through carp fishing, whether that’s a good thing is a whole new debate. But at least there is a point of entry.

My worry is that people fishing the rivers will just become fewer and fewer and death is then caused by a thousand cuts. I wish angling could be portrayed in the UK as it is here in Australia, as a lifestyle rather than a quirky hobby, I’m sure that would have far more appeal to the youngsters, make fishing cool! I’ve always believed that but I know I’m in a minority - certainly from my generation. The Internet undoubtedly has a huge role to play now, because that is where the kids are going to get their info from.

So a hugely complex question Tom, but you knew that already! We, that’s Homo sapiens, have caused the problem and it’s up to us to put it right, the trouble with anglers in general is that we don’t make enough noise about the sort of things that would get great public support. PR isn’t our strongest asset, never has been and it’s because we are seen as a minority hobby rather than an uplifting lifestyle. That is our salvation, not in my view through politics as we seem to be going, but that’s another issue altogether!!


Question from Drew Lawrence

Hi Steve,

I had a fifteen year break from fishing and have only been back at it for the last three seasons; I spent the first two seasons back fishing for Barbel without success.

My willingness to learn and seek out advice has seen me start to catch again; what has been apparent to me, or should I say in my opinion is, although materials and baits change the fish behaviour hasn’t, in all your years of fishing, how much has changed with you and your approach and who do you go to for advice?

We never stop learning do we?

Fred - Mr BarbelHi Drew,

You must be a bit of a mind reader, I’m touching on a similar topic for my next FishingMagic Diary (February)!

Like you I took a lengthy hiatus, basically that was family time and when I was focussed on making pots of money, I sort of succeeded but it didn’t last. Anyway, let’s try and answer yet another quite deep question!

I suppose the biggest change in approach has come about because my expectations with regard to weight are higher now. It’s hard to believe that 25 years ago you would be happy to catch one double in a season, now all things being equal we expect one every time we go out! That has meant that tackle has become stronger, we use 1.75lb test rods as standard when it’s not that long ago it was 1.25lb.

Lol Brakespear - a good man to know on the SevernFred Crouch always used his split cane rod and 6lb line, he rarely lost a fish, but it is different now. Barbel are far more widespread, you hear the moans but the truth is we’ve never had it so good in terms of distribution, anglers have short memories!

I don’t really go to anyone for advice, I don’t want that to sound arrogant, what I mean is I read everything on the Internet and take out the snippets that I want, because I spent so much time fishing with Fred his influence has been huge and I tend to use that as a starting point if I’m faced with a ‘problem’ and then add my bits on! However when I’m on the lower Severn I will always touch base with Lol Breakspear, a top man and someone I’ve fished with many times and who I have huge admiration for.


Pete Whetston

I know you fish the Kennet a fair bit, the stretch I fish used to be prolific with catches of 10-15 fish in a day, not uncommon but now you're lucky to have one fish in a day!
What do you think has caused such decline of the Barbel stocks on the Kennet in recent years?

Hi Pete,

Another great question and one that doesn’t have a simple answer, I wish it had. I know Fred Crouch would say that we as anglers have helped to bring this situation on ourselves but I think there are other factors as well.

When I first fished the Upper Benyons you would be looking at a dozen fish in a session but no big ones, now you’re lucky to get a couple but they may well be huge, it’s a problem, there ought to be more fish coming through.

Would I fish for these if barbel were no longer around...?I’m hoping it is a cyclical phenomenon and if it is we have to be prepared for some tough times on this river in the coming years, then further down the line it should start coming back with more smaller fish and the cycle starts once more. But because of its proximity to London, the boats on the canal, the crayfish, the lack of weed, the low levels etc. it may well need a helping hand.

I have heard from a couple of reliable sources that huge shoals of smaller fish have been spotted but then they seem to mysteriously disappear, we’ll have to see.

I wish I could be more upbeat on this but the Kennet is a river that is suffering today and really needs some intensive research to pinpoint the problems.The stretch I fish has seen catches dwindle in recent years and the fish have spread out, I will be keeping a watchful eye next season. The smaller fish are evident but they don’t seem to shoal up anymore, perhaps that’s an instinctive reaction because of predators, I’m guessing.

When the bigger fish die off, the fishery will lose anglers, then we might see a return to how it was in the eighties and we start all over again. I hope that’s how it will be.

The Lea gives us the best example, at Fishers Green now I’m led to believe there are a very small number of big fish, back in the sixties it was a huge number of small fish, in the eighties it was less fish but you could still catch a good few but doubles were rare. In the nineties a double was expected. On the upper river there are stretches that mirror what was happening at FG thirty years ago.

To be positive I did have a session this season when I had eight takes in a day, so I’m still hopeful that the fish are there in sufficient numbers and it is a biomass thing, i.e., ten doubles or a hundred pounders but not both!

Obviously my answers are much shorter than they might have been; I did say that each question deserves at least an article to even attempt a comprehensive answer. I purposely left points out hoping they would come out in the discussion – quite a few did.

The close season will be over before we know it, next time out I’ll be back in the UK getting used to the change in weather and getting used to not wearing shorts after being in them for the past five months

See you soon.


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Steve Pope, Barbel Fishing