Even as a fervent atheist I fleetingly pondered the possibility of holy intervention the day I discovered the most beautiful, un-fished stretch of the Gt. Ouse a few years back. Barbel fever was long established and one would be forgiven for believing there could be no fresh discoveries but, astonishingly, Mick Loveridge and I happened upon a substantial and evidently un-fished stretch of river. According to the map it was slap-bang on the beaten track, and its easy accessibility had, perhaps, deterred the adventurous from taking a look for themselves. Mick and I had certainly felt this way but went ahead nonetheless.
On reaching the river we turned left with the flow and waded through waist-high nettles, immediately impressed by the lack of an established path; for us, the tougher the going the better. Through the thicket could be glimpsed the most tantalizing features, raising our expectation of some glorious unfound fishing: long scrapes of golden gravel, dark overhangs on both banks, scummy accumulations of twigs and flotsam and bright green cabbages that waved to us through the clear water. Oh, joy! Actually fishing at this point was impossible so we eagerly pressed-on to where sunshine and blue sky could be seen brightening the river.
Stepping out of the gloom and onto drier ground we were elated to find a continuous, uninterrupted swathe of tall, yellow grass dominating a third of a mile of river-bank; it was August and no one had been here all season. Hardly daring to believe such evidence we stealthily crunched our way through the brittle grasses, pausing and peering here and there until reaching a classic barbel-bush on the opposite bank. Actually it was a willow tree – but a ‘barbel-tree’? No, it has to be a bush – and preferably on barbel-bend. It had, in all probability, collapsed into the water the previous winter and had been there long enough to establish itself as a permanent feature complete with rubbish-rafts and fresh foliage.
With no need for further exploration Mick and I returned for the gear in a state of doubtful euphoria, sure that something or someone would step-in to deprive us of our good fortune. It usually does. It always has. If you find something good make the most of it because it won’t last two minutes, believe me; someone will have had their eye on it for months or years, just waiting to pounce with a project for a canoe-launch…a cycle-track…a pumping-point or even a back-fill site.
We’d hardly noticed the weight of the mountains on our backs and were, quite soon, sitting well back from the water and assembling our rigs at the entrance to our dome. No need to rush at this hour, there was time for tea and more for an early evening meal. Mick is the original ‘foodie’ and ever-keen to innovate even where sausages, eggs and beans are concerned. Sure enough I was duly presented with said food-items plus button mushrooms cooked to perfection and embellished with apple chutney; buttered bloomer slices ensured a hunger-free session right into the small hours.
In his element: the Loveridge rustles-up a meal.
There is a phenomenon known to anglers which – as far as I’m aware – has no name. It is that of two anglers sitting side by side using identical rigs and bait in the same swim and only one getting bites! This was the case on this evening with poor Mr. Loveridge suffering the indignity of a lifeless rod and a sopping landing net permanently on his side. We both smoked at this time and nothing Mick had cooked would have left anything noxious on his fingers so tainted lunny had nothing to do with it. While I was kept on my mettle with regular knocks and occasional twitches of the three-foot variety, Mick could only play Net-Man and watch in wonder. Naturally, I was bemused and saddened by Mick’s rejection too but let’s face it, you don’t dwell on it do you? Three times my fibre-glass tench rod gave the Glasgow Kiss before folding into an urgent curve, and three times the Loveridge was compelled to reel in and make with the landing net. Those fish fought hard, slamming down the rod and rocketing upstream in the dead of night to the zizz of the Shimano…oh, the excitement!…the magical beta-light nodding, bowing and stabbing against the back-drop of a star-lit night. Incredibly, I can find myself at these times commiserating with the non-angler, wondering just what he or she might have to equal the thrill of a battling barbel…where do they get such kicks? I never reach a conclusion, not until I’m back home or in the dome, content and able to reflect from the warmth of my bed; I then conclude that the general public has no equivalent to the buzz of fishing and that, for this, we anglers are truly blessed.
Barbel Bush became our regular weekend haunt for the next couple of months and not a soul did we see. With each visit we brought with us an air of cautious optimism but found no need for our concern: the swim was free – the stretch was free – and we could positively indulge ourselves in some of the finest times we’d had as life-long fishermen. Before swinging-out our baits we’d pepper the overhangs with hemp and sweet-corn and sit back for a while, sure of seeing yet another unidentifiable hawk. This country has few predatory birds and both Mick and I are bird-people so it is frustrating in the extreme to see such creatures so regularly but be unable to name them! Whatever they are, Buckinghamshire has plenty of them but they’re not kestrels, hobbys, merlins, peregrines or sparrowhawks…we think they can only be goshawks for they are certainly large and very fast.
A fox appeared on the far bank one evening. We saw it coming from our right some hundreds of yards off and we kept very still and quiet. Clearly, he too was confident of his solitude for he ambled past us and beyond without a pause or a nervous glance. Only when it was almost out of sight some 250 yards away did I decide to test its hearing by giving a quiet tsst – and it stopped and looked round at us! Can fish, I wondered, detect the fall of a foot from such a distance?
Mick continued to mysteriously blank while I continued to mop-up with two or three fish per session, good ones too with specimens up to 10lb 5oz. Mick’s a great photographer and I’m ever so grateful! But he did get his whacker eventually, its eleven pounds and eleven ounces precipitating a week of digs and guffaws before he flew off to the Greek island of Samos. It was there on his first romantic evening with Carol that he received my midnight text: “Eat your heart out, Loveridge – 11lb 12oz!” You might like to imagine his colourful reply winging across the Adriatic, right across mainland Europe and into my swim.
We fished that stretch and I caught more barbel right into the autumn when pike-fishing took our fancy once more.
The following June we followed a variety of boot-prints through the nettles and found no fewer than three anglers cod-fishing at Barbel Bush. Good luck to them. We’d had a great year there and now it was their turn: two on the near bank, one fishing the other with his bait right under the rod-tip. Naturally, we pulled-off the stretch and found somewhere else to fish, but things weren’t the same. It looked absolutely idyllic, every bit as pretty as the BB stretch and every bit as quiet but, amazingly, we caught next to nothing despite much preparation and at least half a dozen trips. This remains a mystery to me to this day: how can an unspoilt, unfished mile of remote, clean river produce so little? I had a 2lb 9oz perch and a single chub of about 3lbs but that was all. Were I to take you to this stretch you would, I’m sure, think you’d gone to heaven, but I’d wager a fair sum you’d catch little more than we did. It simply didn’t produce bites!
The September edition of Anglers Mail that year featured an account of some outstanding barbel captures from the Ouse including a torpedo of 14lbs. There was a photo. It was a close-up taken by a standing photographer who’d very possibly been instructed to avoid revealing anything outside of the captor’s immediate sphere – but I knew those weeds, they’d been among my closest associates for an entire summer! It was Barbel Bush! One dedicated guy had spent weeks more or less living in the swim and had taken a large number of double-figure fish and a great many smaller ones. Mick and I were to meet him by chance the following close-season when we dropped in for a spot of nostalgia; I recognized him from the photo. He told us the enviable story of his success, one that put our own story in the shade, but Mick and I had no regrets: we’d had a wonderful summer under canvas and in glorious solitude.
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