If you were at Asenby on the River Swale on Friday 01 July you’ll remember me – I was the slightly agitated bloke wandering the banks muttering about cold tea. I had an excuse though because, for the first time in a good few years, July had arrived without me catching a barbel…
Admittedly work and family circumstances had meant that I hadn’t been fishing as much as I would have liked but I’d managed a couple of sessions and failed to catch. On each occasion the Swale had been carrying the dreaded ‘tea stain’ which is the kiss of death for barbel fishing on the river in question. For those of you lucky enough to fish south of Watford Gap ‘tea stain’ is caused by the rapid run off of rain water from peat moorland, carrying with it particles of peat which stain the water with tannins. Coloured water is generally good news for barbel fishing but unfortunately this water is also highly acidic and barbel just don’t like it at all.
On this occasion after a bit of dithering I decided enough was enough and headed south for the River Nidd. The Nidd has a big advantage over the other Dales Rivers in that it has retained its moraine lake. Moraine lakes are caused by the debris pushed in front of glaciers forming a natural dam across the valley. The one at the top of the Nidd survived into modern times and was deepened by the Victorians to form Gouthwaite Reservoir. As well as providing drinking water Gouthwaite also acts as a handy settlement tank for peat particles.
The Nidd is the smallest of the Dales Rivers (think upper Hampshire Avon, Kennet above Newbury, and Great Ouse above Bedford) and has a bubbly character all of its own. It’s a classic small river: clear water flowing over a bright gravel bottom, swaying fronds of streamer weed, and smooth glides feeding deep, mysterious pools.
The Bradford No1 stretch at Cowthorpe is handy for the A1 and I was soon pulling into an empty car park somewhere along its three mile length. I was cheating slightly as my mate Mick had fished here the previous week and he’d put me on to some good swims. Unfortunately it looked like Mick had been the only person to visit this section since the season started and it was a hot, sweaty battle through the bankside jungle before I arrived at where I planned to fish.
The swim I chose could have been painted by Bernard Venables as a colour plate in Mr Crabtree; a long gravel-floored glide tilted into a deep pool and about a rod’s length out was a clear channel in the streamer weed and just below this the near bank was lined with overhanging willows. In my mind’s eye I could see the line drawings of barbel grubbing around at the bottom of the slope but, despite the period feel, the cane rod stayed in my quiver: if I hooked a barbel in this swim I could give no quarter.
Two medium droppers of a mix of pigeon food and dead maggots with a few small halibut pellets were deposited onto the gravel slope and I proceeded to set up my rod; nothing special there, a through actioned 11ft model, Baitrunner reel loaded with 12lb line, ¾ oz bomb and a long hook length consisting of a length of the main line tipped with 6 inches of braid and a size 12 hook. With a 15mm boilie threaded on the hair I was hot to trot, or at least to fish.
With my bait in position I sat back and worried.
Oh, didn’t I tell you that I’d forgotten my landing net? Well I had, but never mind, an experienced angler like me can land barbel by hand no problem.
I didn’t have long to worry though as about 15 minutes later the rod top hooped round and I was hustling my first barbel of the season away from the trailing willow branches. The landing went OK; pull the fish’s head over the marginal weed, grab the hook length with the left hand and hold. Put the rod down, grasp the fish across the back with the right hand and lift!
My weigh sling was spread across the weeded margins in front of me so it was a simple matter of laying the fish down on it, taking a quick snap with my mobile, lifting the net with my already zeroed scales and back into the water, all in less than a minute. The fish weighed 7lb 12oz.
I put another dropper of bait into the swim then wandered off downstream to find another swim in which I could hand land a fish. A couple of pouches of pellets were deposited in this swim then it was back to my original swim but after an hour without any indications I gave it best and moved down to the new swim.
This swim was on the inside of a bend and I was fishing a slightly deeper channel on the far side where the river pushed under some overhanging trees. I didn’t want to risk scaring feeding fish with the bait dropper so I added a handful of method mix to my bait mixture and gave it a good stir. This gave it just enough stickiness to allow it to be squeezed into a small cage feeder. Casting was a slightly nerve-wracking experience as to get the bait in the right position I had to thread it between a 2ft gap in the overhanging branches. There were obviously fish at home as I hooked a barbel on the first cast! I couldn’t weigh it as I’d got no room to lay the fish on the ground so I estimated the weight as around 7lb 8oz and returned it immediately.
An hour later I lost a decent chub when the hook pulled but there was no more action so I called it a day and headed back to the car.
I don’t really consider a season truly under way until I’ve caught a barbel from the Swale so a few days later I was back at Asenby – yes, I’m a glutton for punishment! There was enough tea stain in the water for me to consider another venue but it was now more reminiscent of a delicate Assam so I decided to give it a go.
My first swim was really two swims in one so I fished a maggot feeder over to a far bank bush and a boilie over a few droppers of my pigeon feed, dead maggot and pellet mix along the near side margin. I fished double maggot on a mag-aligner rig on the far bank rod so I was able to ignore small fish indications for a while confident that there was a bait left on the hook but after a couple of hours with nothing to show other than a couple of small perch I decided that it was time for a move.
Three hours later – after trying a couple more swims without success – I dropped into what was going to be my last swim. This is a popular swim but I ignore the patch of beaten earth and perch myself precariously about 10 yards upstream which allows me to present a bait hard against a jungle of far bank willows in a position rarely fished by anyone else. I added a little method mix to my pigeon feed so it just held in a feeder and my hook bait was a 10mm Source boilie.
A few casts in quick succession deposit a modicum of bait in the swim and my final cast (After I got my eye in) just kissed the overhanging branches. I settled back as best I could to wait out the final few hours of the day. The atmosphere is oppressive, stifling the song of the birds, and the sullen river idles under a leaden sky; occasional casts mark the passing time and keep the swim topped up.
It was getting late and I had a long drive home with an early start in the morning but I resolved to wait until the last glimmer of the day. Hope faded with the light and I started to gather together my gear and as I did I caught the lunge of the rod top out of the corner of my eye and I quickly silenced the shriek of the old Mordex!
There was a tangle of branches just downstream so I clamped down hard and gave the fish the butt but instead of kiting out into midstream as I expected the fish crabbed upstream and away from me. I gained a little line but then there was an ominous deadening of sensation and stalemate ensued. I tried giving a little slack but the fish sulked in its refuge and I sulked on the bank; I was determined I was not going to lose this fish.
I needed to take the initiative before the fish recovered, so I pointed the rod at the fish and give a few experimental tugs – nothing. I increased the tension and gave a steady pull and felt something give slightly and I felt the fish shake its head. I pulled harder – another shake of the head, and then something gave…
I lifted the rod quickly and the fish made its first mistake and kited away from the snags. I kept the pressure up and worked it back towards me winding smoothly and slowly, praying that the hook length would hold. It did and I pulled a long lean barbel over the net; the hook length looked like cheap parcel string, but it did its job. The fish looked to be just under 8lb but I didn’t weigh it, just a quick snap and it’s back into its watery home.
That’s it then – my duck is broken and the season is truly under way.
A Word on Bait
Like many people I’m beginning to feel that pellets are being over used, often to the detriment of the rivers. I’m now experimenting with mixes that are easy to feed in reasonable quantities, attract barbel into the swim and don’t spook them.
After some experimentation last Summer I’m now using a mix of pigeon feed, dead maggots and 4mm pellets. Rough proportions are a pint of the cooked pigeon feed, a pint of dead maggots and a handful of pellets. The maggots are prepared by riddling out any maize, giving them a generous glug of flavour (I’m using Teme Severn Lamprey at the moment) and then popping them in the freezer in an airtight bag. You might want to double bag them if you’re using a domestic freezer as some flavours will taint the other food and I can tell you from experience that green lipped mussel flavoured bread is not popular!
I’m using pigeon feed rather than pigeon conditioner as this contains some larger particles like tares, corn and various beans. Some of these larger particles are roughly boilie-sized so fish will expect to find little round balls in the swim. I prepare the pigeon feed by soaking it for 24 hours in a mix of water and molasses, then boiling it for around half an hour. I usually then leave it for another day or so to start to ferment slightly before storing it in session sized bags in the freezer.
On the bank it’s simply a matter of mixing a bag of maggots and a bag of pigeon feed, adding a generous handful of pellets and giving the mix a good stir. This can be fed by bait dropper or a couple of handfuls of method mix added to allow it to be compressed into a cage feeder. If I need to catapult feed across to a particular part of a swim then I’ll use pellets, but keep the quantities very low.
When using the above mixture I use a standard hair rig presentation with either a 10mm drilled pellet or a boilie. More and more now I’m using artificial baits either on their own or in conjunction with other baits and when barbel fishing I’m now tipping the boilie or pellet with an artificial maggot. This adds a little more visual attraction and also counteracts the weight of the hook, making the bait behave more naturally.