Fly Fishing For Barbel – What, Where and How.
2019 for me has been a year of multi-species fly angling which began earlier in the year when I started fly fishing for barbel. I’d been toying with the idea for a couple of years until I finally motivated myself during closing weeks of the course fishing season. What follows is a summary of my journey thus far…
The book ‘Fly Fishing for Coarse Fish’ is where I first read about targeting this species in the UK. A Google search yielded a handful of threads on fly fishing internet forums and two articles published on the eat-sleep-fish website. From the latter, it was the piece written by Nick Thomas which influenced much of my approach. On the social media side of things, it was apparent that Hector Rodriquez was the only angler in the UK who was regularly posting his experiences of hunting them on the fly. I was also aware the John Tyzack also fished for them and contacted him via Facebook to pick his brains on the subject.
Barbus barbus share two characteristics in common with grayling. Firstly both are schooling fish and secondly, they aren’t easily spooked by the presence of anglers. With careful wading, you can stand right next to them! Therefore any experience in short line nymphing techniques (Czech/French/Euro Nymphing) will hold the budding barbel fly fisher in good stead. The only major difference from a technical standpoint is that barbel in the UK, for the most part, are bottom feeders so our flies (and set up) are much heavier than that for grayling.
What Tackle Do You Need To Target Barbel?
A rod of 9-10ft permits good line control and as these are strong fish I personally would not use anything lower than a 5wt. My weapon of choice is a 9ft 6wt Orvis Helios2 Tip Flex.
Originally my leader consisted of 10lb Fulling Mill fluorocarbon although I have since switched to copolymer as eyesight seems to be a secondary sense for barbel. I feel the benefit of greater movement that the latter material permits outweighs the invisible properties of fluorocarbon. Because no casting is involved I use a long leader, enough to get several turns on the reel – generally 30ft plus long. I knot it directly to the fly line/backing and fish this straight through without any kind of tapering.
My indicator consists of a small section of yellow backing tied on with a blood knot. I want it tight enough so it doesn’t move under fishing conditions but not so tight that I cannot move the knot up and down the leader to accommodate the depth I am fishing in.
When fly fishing for barbel I only tend to use two flies. A Peeping caddis and a Squirmy worm (the latter being favoured by Hector). I prefer to use size 10 and 12 Fulling Mill Bonio Carp Hook which are super strong and have a wide gape, and then mount the bead onto the shank with nylon to keep the gape free of obstruction. The latter is a tip that I picked up from the aforementioned Nick Thomas article and maximises hooking potential when using large beads.
To help get the fly get down I use 4.5 and 5.5mm tungsten beads – heavy enough to reach the bottom fairly quickly but light enough so that the fly can roll along the bottom with the current. I use quick link clips to switch bead size according to the depth and flow. Note: I always unhook the fish immediately as the bead can get caught up in the net’s mesh which is undesirable for obvious reasons.
I only use a single fly, any more would be suicidal as, 1. extra weak points with more knots and, 2. the risk of snagging the second fly while playing a fish.
Fly fishing for Barbel – The Technique
The technique is very simple, lob the fly upstream and let it trundle back along the bottom to where the fish are holding. I also use bow and arrow casts a lot as I often need to place my fly just behind snags or in slots between weed beds and this cast I find very accurate in such circumstances. Generally, I am fishing within a rod’s length of the rod tip.
Once the fly is in the water you want to feel the fly bumping along the substrate. Don’t be afraid to really work a pool as I suspect feel is primarily how barbel locate the fly. It may take multiple drifts before you put it within their taking zone.
An unfortunate consequence of the fly trundling along the deck and barbel often being huddled together is that foul hooked fish are an expected but thankfully occasional nuisance.
The Bite and the Fight…
The indicator I use is primarily there to help gauge where my fly is tracking in the drift because the take is sensed mostly by feel. More often than not it is registered as a tightening up whilst moving the rod through the drift. In some instances, the bite will feel similar to getting snagged as barbel often use their profile to hold the bottom immediately after being hooking. Always proceed with caution in such circumstances to avoid breakages if the fish suddenly moves. It’s best to try different angles to confirm it’s a snag or wade out to have a look – which I generally do as the river I fish is fairly shallow.
Unlike rainbow trout with their quick changes of direction, down-to-the-backing runs and acrobatics, the barbel gives a more restrained fight. ‘A war of attrition’ is how one member of a fly fishing forum described it, which in my experience is quite apt. It’s a solid, weighty affair with turns, occasional runs and moments where the action grinds to a halt.
Some final words of warning if you enter into combat with this species, 1. play them as quickly as possible to avoid them being overly exhausted and, 2. have a decent sized net with a deep mesh as the barbel’s body is very muscular and solid and thus don’t ‘fold-up’ like other species.
To See or Not to See
Location wise where I am fishing the barbel are quite predictable, residing in the deeper holes dotted throughout in the shallow river, sometimes behind snags and overhangs. Because I am intimately familiar with my river I know where the fish-holding areas are so I can fish blind. Nevertheless the river is shallow and clear enough that I can see if they are present in these areas or not. Interestingly enough I have caught barbel in very heavily coloured water, further demonstrating that taste and feel more than sight is used to locate food.
On one occasion I bumped into Hector on the river during the last week of the season. We’d landed a fish a piece up when the heavens let loose, turning the water the colour of hot chocolate. I had written the session off but Hector decided to have a few casts in a productive pool. He proceeded to hook and land a fish and told me to have a drift or two, which resulted in a 7lb specimen being landed after my first cast. The water clarity at the time was measurable in centimeters!
If you have a river where you can wade safely or at least be in close proximity to the fish, then barbel represents one of the most thrilling species in the UK to target on the fly. An added incentive is that you don’t require specialist equipment to catch them; some strong line, flies tied with heavy tungsten beads and a powerful rod. Furthermore, as Hector Rodriguez has been demonstrating barbel action can be had throughout the year. So with a little effort and time spent locating a suitable river (and the holding areas within it) you will be rewarded with one of the hardest fighting fish you can hook in our rivers!