Chris Hall with a River Ribble double-figure barbel
STILLWATER BARBEL – TRAVESTY OR SUCCESS STORY?
Not long ago there was a debate on one of the forums about barbel being stocked into stillwaters. Some anglers have welcomed the move, others, including the Barbel Society, are vehemently opposed. What are the arguments? Who is right? Or, as is often the case, is the issue one that has no black and white answers, just shades of grey? I’m going to set at least some of the evidence in front of you, and let you make your own mind up.
Those with long memories will remember the exploits of Peter Rayment catching barbel from Trimpley Reservoir back in the sixties and seventies. He later wrote an excellent chapter on the subject in ‘Barbel’ by the Barbel Catchers and Friends. In this chapter he outlines the long history of barbel being able to thrive in stillwater. He listed about fifteen stillwaters known to hold barbel at that time (1988). In most cases, the barbel had been able to colonise the lake concerned through some link to a nearby river, whether by flooding or a stream connection. It is clear that his view was that barbel had no great difficulty in thriving in stillwater provided the water was suitable. In some cases the growth rate was better in a stillwater than a river to which some of the barbel were subsequently transferred. Evidence of barbel spawning was inconclusive, though cited in one or two instances.
The Royalty on the Hants Avon, home of barbel for many years
Commercials upset the applecart
The recent debates have centred on the stocking of the modern commercial fisheries with barbel. Some, indeed most, of these stockings have been carried out by the EA using Calverton fish. Other stockings are much more controversial, for adult fish up to ten pounds or more have suddenly appeared in lakes. There is no smoke without fire, for some anglers believe that these fish have been stolen from river fisheries and stocked without consent. One of the main objections to the stocking of barbel into these waters has been the generally high stock densities that prevail, as well as the heavy fishing pressure.
The case against
There are several arguments that are being used against stocking barbel into stillwaters. The first is that barbel evolved as a flowing water fish. This is essentially true, and so far there is virtually no evidence that barbel are able to spawn successfully in stillwater. But how essential is fast flowing water for barbel to thrive past fingerling size? Secondly, that stillwaters, especially heavily stocked ones, cannot provide a suitable habitat. Surely, the opponents of these stockings argue, the water temperature will be too high in summer, dissolved oxygen levels too low, the whole environment too stressful. The other objections are that the pools will be heavily match-fished and the barbel retained in keepnets, and that the whole environs is so far removed from wild and beautiful rivers that it is a travesty to do this to so noble a fish. Some studies have shown that river barbel are fitter than stillwater barbel, and of course to sustain a stillwater population of barbel re-stocking will be essential.
The case starts to crumble
Many years ago I fished a summer match on the Thames at Carrot’s Ham above Oxford. The river barely moved. I was amazed to see one angler weigh in a barbel (only about 3lbs) from a deep bend. The river was to all intents and purposes a stillwater yet here was a barbel swim, for the swim was noted for them. My preconceptions of fast water being required to support them evaporated. A year later, I watched the barbel spawning at Wolvercote, Oxford (where Peter Stone lived). There were hundreds of them, yet these fish spent the rest of the year in the sluggish Medley Reach. Perhaps barbel are far more tolerant of stillwater than some would have us believe.
Remember last summer? Bloody hot or what? But were there widespread barbel deaths on the commercial fisheries? As no one is shouting about it, probably not. This is somewhat surprising given the arguments about the so-called fragility of barbel. But similar species live in warmer waters than ours; the North American ‘suckers’ are surely related. Carp family fish are well suited to warmish water. Perhaps the case is being over-stated? That an exhausted barbel can require careful nurturing on return and they don’t endure well out of water in high temperatures is fact, but in the water, they seem tougher than some would have you believe. These are a long-lived species and toughness is not an option.
One indicator of fish habitat suitability must be growth rates and condition. As Peter Rayment explains, barbel growth rates in stillwater have been proved comparable with those achieved in flowing water. If this were not the case one would expect stocked adult fish to lose condition and die but the converse appears to occur. The growth rates that Rayment found would probably differ significantly in favour of the river fish nowadays. I would go so far as to say that in some instances the stillwater barbel are better suited to heavily stocked stillwaters than some species that are often found there. Bream and roach often struggle in these conditions, as they are intolerant of heavy match fishing pressure.
The Thames at Wolvercote. Barbel spawned here
From what I have seen and read, the barbel in both the Glebe and Makins fisheries are thriving, and growing well. Furthermore, they appear to be providing good sport.
As a more general point, the condition of barbel generally has altered dramatically in the last thirty or forty years. Take a look at pictures of a double figure barbel caught in 1970; check out the length/girth statistics. What was a 10lb fish could now be several pounds heavier. Big barbel are not really any longer now than thirty years ago but they are much fatter. Stillwater barbel are not as fat as the river fish but nonetheless are in better condition than river fish from the past.
Barbel and Keepnets
Here we have another thorny subject. By definition, these commercial pools are match-fished, and therefore if barbel are stocked they will be retained in keepnets. I live in an area where the keeping of barbel in keepnets (aside from the very few matches) has been forbidden for many years yet an entirely different attitude prevails in much of the Midlands and North (shoot me down if I’m wrong, guys). That keepnet atrocities were perpetuated against barbel in the past, I have no doubt. Dorsal damage was prevalent, and cramming large numbers of barbel into a net in hot conditions cannot be condoned. But if using keepnets is seriously detrimental to barbel then some stretches of the Severn would have been denuded of barbel long ago. Again, we have a pointer to the robustness of the barbel as a species. No, I’m not advocating changing keepnet rules or advice given on retaining barbel by various bodies.
Where might we go from here?
The EA has obviously made its mind up in supporting the stocking of fingerling barbel into stillwaters where they consider the water to be suitable. I think that they ought to keep a register of those stillwaters known to hold barbel. If barbel suddenly appear in other waters that cannot be explained by seeding by floods then the owners should be challenged for illegal stocking. The threat to close the water might be enough to reveal the source of the fish, and appropriate action taken (legal action and the removal of the barbel).
The sole purpose of this article is to get you to think, not take the bait like a barbel gulping a lump of luncheon meat. For me, barbel are a worthy quarry, yet just one of many species that I like to catch, and certainly they should not be treated with religious awe.
So, is the Barbel Society getting on its high horse for aesthetic reasons alone? Is the EA totally misguided? Or is the truth somewhere in between?
Next week: ‘Reel Fittings for Float Rods’