“I’ve got an 11lb Barbel booked for 4.00pm.”

Yes I actually did say that and at the time I had every reason to believe it was going to happen. So did the fish keep its appointment? Read on to find out!

I’d travelled down to Stratford upon Avon on Friday morning in heavy rain and further rain, enlivened by gale force winds, was promised for the weekend. The intention was to meet up with a group of old friends, drink lots of beer and fish for zander. These sessions are always spiced with a competitive element and there are some seriously good anglers in our group: Dave Tipping, who’s currently writing for Angling Times, David Martin, director of Go Fly Fishing UK and cover girl on this month’s Trout and Salmon magazine and some less well known, but equally good anglers.

As we stood, glumly regarding a rapidly rising Warwickshire Avon I made my decision and announced:

“Stuff the zander, I’m going barbel fishing.”

Ignoring the chorus of abuse and not so friendly banter I leapt into my car and sped off to a swim I knew just below the town.

The swim on Friday

Despite the high water the swim was still fishable so I took the temperature (10C, 50F), sat and watched the river for a while and thought carefully about my tactics. Having wimped out on the zander I now had to catch a barbel or face the prospect of two evenings of constant abuse!

Conventional wisdom tells us that barbel feed readily in winter floods, but in my experience this often doesn’t apply in late autumn and early winter. At this time of year the water temperature has been slowly dropping for some weeks, but it is still relatively high and floods don’t raise the temperature significantly. The fishes’ metabolic rates have been slowing to their winter levels and they aren’t boosted enough by the small rise in temperature to encourage a heavy feeding session. Conservative feeding and careful positioning of the bait would be vital: I was probably only going to get one chance and I mustn’t blow it!

I placed a couple of handfuls of pellets into a bait box, just covered them with water and left them to soak whilst I set up. I decided to use my standard feeder rig of a Drennan wire cage medium feeder, fitted with a dead cow to add a bit of extra weight, with a shortish hook length of about 2ft. The business end of the hook length was a size 12 hook tied by a knotless knot to a short length of braid and the bait was to be an 11mm Halli Hooker. About 3ft above the feeder I tied a power gum stop knot around which I squeezed some Kryston Heavy metal. This would keep the line to the feeder pinned to the bottom and prevent it picking up too much rubbish: it was essential that I wasn’t forced to cast too often. I took care positioning my rod rests so that the line entered the water in a small area of slack water close to the bank. This would again help to prevent rubbish building up on the line.

Rod positioning is important


I then drained most of the water from the pellets and dried them off with some Sonu Baits Exploding Fishmeal ground bait. I keep this mix as dry as possible so that a steady stream of fishmeal particles drift downstream from the feeder, attracting fish without feeding them too much.

I threaded a Halli Hooker on to the hair, pressed some of the pellet mix into the feeder and swung the rig out so it landed just outside of a crease caused by a small reed bed about 2 rod lengths out. For the first hour I re-cast every 10 minutes just to build up a small amount of feed in the swim. I then switched to a cast every half an hour, which was about the longest I could leave the feeder out without too much rubbish building on the line. I had a couple of indications that I put down to small fish in the first hour, but after that the swim went quiet. The river stopped rising and the amount of rubbish eased slightly, allowing me to cast less often, then at about 3.45 the rod tip smashed round and I had a screaming take.

Despite the heavy tackle the fish was unstoppable and it took about 30 yards of line on its first run. I was beginning to think I’d hooked a large carp, but a tail waving on the surface indicated that it was definitely a barbel, possibly foul hooked. It took a good 5 minutes to pump the fish backwards upstream until the change in angle of the line and a good thrash from the fish untangled the line and let me play it normally. It was a nice barbel weighing 8lb 13 oz.   This fish was followed by a chub of about 3lb, before I packed up and trudged back to the car in a steady downpour.
Saturday dawned calm and clear after a night of heavy rain (and heavy drinking!). The river had risen still further and the water temperature had risen to 11C so I decided to stick with the barbel and revisit yesterday’s swim.  With the extra water the swim was now only just fishable, but I managed to clear a bit of bank large enough to perch my chair on.  

The swim on Saturday

My tactics were the same as on Friday, but I had to cast more often due to the amount of rubbish coming down.  For a couple of hours the swim was dead, but then I started to get gentle indications which didn’t develop.  I switched to maggot on the hook without any better results so I put the indications down to large fish in the swim, but not taking my bait. Normally when this happens a switch to a live bait such as maggot provokes a take: hmm….

I gave it another half an hour then decided that it was time to provoke a result. I put 3 medium sized bait droppers of maggot into the swim, taking care to minimise the splash as much as possible. I decided to continue to fish with the pellet feeder with pellet on the hook so I had the option of switching to maggot if no bites were forthcoming. After re-casting I began to work on repositioning my chair and other gear to prevent a wet bum from the rising water, so I had my back to the river when I heard a zzt… zzt… zzt…

I turned to see the rod tip nodding gently and line peeling slowly from the reel. I thought at first that it was a build up of rubbish on the line, but the nodding sensation through the rod indicated a probable bream. After a bit of a struggle with the marginal weed I netted a nice bream of about 6lb.

Bream, about 6lb


Things then went quiet until just before 4.00pm when a standard 3ft twitch saw me connected to a good barbel. I was now a good way back from the edge of the bank due to the rising river and I had to wade out to prevent the fish weeding me under the marginal weed. I’d anticipated having to do this and noted the line of the bank edge so I didn’t step over into the deep water.

This fish looked very large as it came to the net so I was slightly disappointed that it didn’t quite make double figures – the needle on Avons stopping at 9lb 9oz.

The 9lb 9oz barbel

I gave it another hour, but by 5.00pm I was having to stand on my last remaining patch of dry land and I didn’t fancy doing any further exploring in the dark on a rising river so I called it a day and headed off to the bright lights of Stratford.

Sunday morning, nursing a thick head, I had a decision to make: zander or another go at the barbel. Given my previous results, the increasing size of the fish and a falling river what would you do? Exactly! I headed back to my swim, ignoring the catcalls from my so called mates!

The river had dropped a foot overnight and was still dropping so I was able to fish comfortably on a level bank. The water temperature had dropped slightly, but there was still a nice colour to the river so I was fairly confident.  At 12.00pm I got a text from Martin:

“What time are you going to get your double?”

To which I replied with the words at the start of this article. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be and I remained fishless until I called it a day at about 5.30pm and headed back up North.

Lessons Learnt
Early winter floods can be difficult to judge. Try to keep an eye on the water temperature (published on Rivercall for some rivers) before the flood and take the temperature before fishing. Always assume that the fish won’t be having it big style and feed conservatively – I only used just over a pint of pellets over the three days. 

Fishing a back lead of some sort and careful positioning of your rod will minimise rubbish build up and allow you to fish more effectively in a flooded river.

If you’re getting finicky bites try a switch to maggot. If the maggots aren’t being crushed then it’s likely the culprit is a fair sized fish. If all else fails it’s worth piling in a fair amount of maggots – you might just provoke a feeding response. 

Don’t despair if you don’t get bites straight away, you’re unlikely to get multiple catches of barbel in these conditions. You could almost set your clock by the feeding times in the swim I was fishing and it’s likely that the fish were responding to light levels when feeding.

Try to fish both up and down the flood. Feeding spells might well be short at this time of the year so it’s important to maximise your chances of finding feeding fish.

Always work out how you’re going to land a fish in these conditions. If you’re going to have to enter the water make sure you know where the edge of the bank is. No fish is worth risking your life for!

Above all, don’t take accepted barbel lore as gospel. At best it’s a broad generalisation and at worst it’s complete nonsense! Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Oh, and somebody did catch a decent zander! Here’s Martin Lofthouse with a superb fish of 9lb 1oz:

9lb 1oz zander