John Bailey's Passion for Barbel

John Bailey

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Passion For Barbel. 15/06/2021

I might have moved West, but I’m back East right now, plotting to film on the tidal Bure tomorrow as the season kicks off. It would not be my choice, but as my stepson says, it is what it is. My point is that I did fish in the East on the upper rivers all the winter just gone. What I found was that flood after flood, roach and chub were pushed out of everywhere they had been found as late as November. Terrific beats then proved to be totally fishless by the end of the season. No matter how hard I, and those around me, tried to relocate them, we did not come even close.

We all know that in the past dredging produced canalised rivers that rushed water to the sea, fish of all species being washed away in the process. The modern mantra runs that by allowing habitat to re-establish, there is enough refuge created for fish to shelter from the full force of the worst of all floods. My winter experiences mean I am not quite so sure about this as are the fishery scientists. My trips to the West during this period did nothing to set my mind at rest. The Wye and the Severn both flooded hugely for long periods and, to be honest, my heart is in my mouth as the new season breaks. Yes, I’ll be fishing here in Norfolk, but what my friends are doing back on the Wye will be equally on my mind.

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I am heartened, however, by news of 'The Last Wensum Barbel Shoal'... yes, there is such a thing! The past three summers I have been aware of seven, sometimes eight, barbel that have inhabited a long, gravel run in the middle of nowhere. There they have been week in, week out, for three years and my source two days ago reassured me that they are still in residence. I’ve only fished for them once during all this time, and I won’t be doing so again. Nor as far as I am aware will anyone else. The stretch is unofficially sanctuary, off limits. Those last few fish can rest in peace and most importantly, perhaps spark a population revival. ( I have little doubt that if the fish were targeted and caught, the shoal would break up and hopes of repopulation would dissolve with the shoal.)

So there you go! I’m not all about bad news. I’ll include a couple of shots of the fish. They are hardly exhibition standard but you’ll get the gist.

And wherever you fish this wonderful June, may the barbel gods go with you!

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John Bailey

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Pingers comes close...

Passion For Barbel. 19/06/2021

I write this on the 19th June so there have been three whole days of the season gone by, and neither I nor any in my "gang” have seen a sign of barbel! Okay, I only had yesterday, the 18th, on the river myself, but Pingers, Ratters, JG, Kate and Clarky have been hard at it for a grand total of a couple of dozen Wye chub. From what we have seen up and down the river, we are bottom of the barbel league, but equal bottom with very many others.

So what’s going on?

Yes, the river is very low, lower than I can remember it in June, and the weather by and large has been hot. However, the 18th and today, the 19th, are cloudy and temperatures have dropped. We’d all love, higher, more coloured water but we have caught in conditions like this very many times before.

There is NO weed. I know the world is tiring on my Ranunculus Ramblings but the fact is that previous Junes we have done well on weed draped shallows. We have not found a shred of the green stuff so far. This is worrying. Our iconic Ranunculus is either victim of insidious pollution or something glaringly simple like being eaten by swans. Whatever the reason, the absence of weed is not helping.

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...we thought for a second or two..

The first week can often be notoriously tricky. I don’t know when (if?) the barbel spawned, or even where, as I was off the river pretty much all May. It could be there are still big groupings of barbel exactly in places we are not fishing. I’m not the first to say location is pretty important!

Us? Are we just doing the same old thing for fish that have seen it all before? Low, clear water, heavy lines and leads have married less and less well as the years have gone by. I guess there just has to be rethink about how we approach this river in summer conditions. Pingers has tried and I think come closer than the rest of us by trotting corn for a day straight.

The worst guess is that the fish just are not there. We have actually seen very, very few fish in the water, either flashing or rolling. I spent hours on the 18th scouting, and spotted exactly nothing. JG saw a BIG barbel upriver but that was a lone fish and a lone sighting. (BTW, I’m confident JG is experienced enough to know his barbel from his salmon. Of which there have been more in the river than for years past!) I have fretted about the effect of continuous big floods for a long while now, and whilst it is right to be proved right mostly, not so in this case. My dread that barbel have been pushed bit by bit downriver over the course of two biblical winters is a real one however.

It’s early days. I’m out today. My fingers are crossed. I’ll report back on news and thoughts, as I hope you barbellers will as well...

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...but then Mr Chub rears his big, bold, brassy head.
 

Molehill

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I know I keep banging on about swans and weed, my pet theory with zero scientific backup. A decent sized river with big ranunculus beds will support a pair of swans and their progeny, but if winter floods rip the weed out it simply cannot regenerate quick enough when under pressure from swans.
Simply watch a pair or family of swans scouring the river bed for any fresh weed poking through the gravel - all day long.
If this is a cause then nothing will ever happen about it, pray for another good dose of bird flu this coming winter on your local river. Though the resulting restrictions are a pain in the proverbial for all of us with domestic foul, commercial or amateur.
 

Molehill

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Have to remember that the Wye was one of the greatest salmon rivers in the British isles, whereas barbel are recently introduced interlopers. However much anglers may love to catch them I am sure they have resulted in the demise of some other naturalized species to the Wye.
 

John Bailey

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Passion For Barbel. 20/06/2021

The Boys fished the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th for not a barbel, and only a few seen. So that’s the story, almost. A quick conversation in Woody’s, my new Hereford tackle heaven, confirmed that not a load of fish were coming out anywhere. Then, on the afternoon of the 19th, lightning struck. I spotted two groups of fish hanging in weed a little after 5.00pm. There were perhaps fifty fish in all, of typical Wye size, between seven and nine pounds. But then some badly behaved canoes careered past with much shouting, swearing and jollity, and the glorious golden beasts were gone. Nor have they come back on the 20th when I looked half an hour back. Hmm. Perhaps canoes really do more harm than I have been thinking all these years.

From one of our bridges I noticed a sea lamprey nest upstream. One. Twenty years ago when I was into these weirdly fascinating creatures I counted FORTY such nests one June in exactly the same place. The Wye is an SSSI. It is the duty of the EA, Natural England, Defra and all the rest of our useless bodies to protect such places and all that live in them. It is blindingly obvious that canoes grind the gravels where these nests are dug into pulp, destroying all the lamprey eggs laid in them. But do the guardians of these wild, special havens lift a finger, mutter a word in defence of the unlovely lamprey? What do you think? Fish. As ever, bottom of every pecking order, the overlooked jewels on our natural crown.

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Not a great shot, I know, but you can see the lamprey nest quite clearly in the right of the picture.
It is about a metre across, and instantly made visible by the whiteness of the stones that the lampreys scoop out as
they dig the foot-deep depression in the gravels. The eggs are laid and fertilised, the yard-long adults hang around for a few days,
and then drop back downriver, enfeebled and often dying. Life is hard enough, without the canoes wrecking their heroic efforts.
 

John Bailey

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The Wye at dawn

Passion For Barbel. 20/06/2021

We’ve got a hut on the stretch we have leased, which is something I have long wanted, given the place huts have held in my piscatorial and imaginative history. As a kid, I was brought up on Walker and Taylor, and stories of their hut on the Ouse, the spiritual home of their adventures. Fred’s pies. Guitars and singing around the camp fire. Serious snoring and the scratching of mice in the dark hours. The adventure of it couldn’t help captivate any fishing-mad kid, and then I saw a glimpse for myself.

In the 1970’s, John N would take me to his club fishery on the Felixstowe marshes where the tench were prolific and big. We’d fish 'till ten and then retire to the hut there, an old freight waggon where a couple of mattresses were laid out and gave us sleep enough after a bottle of Cockburns. We’d be up, after a fashion, to see the dawn break and the height of tench activity before driving away at midday. Tired, jaded but hut-happy.

And now this! Ours, as we are calling it, is not too glamorous, and pardon me for not furnishing a photograph until we’ve ladled TLC on the poor thing. Yet again, we are talking an ancient waggon off the railway, and goodness knows how it got there and when... perhaps after the Beeching rail cuts of the early Sixties, I wonder. Whatever its history, there it is waiting for a good clean, a new floor covering, and a thorough painting inside and out. Once the shell is dealt with, it’s a case of furnishings. A cooker of modest sorts. A stove for winter pike days and those cold dawns of a barbel fisher’s morning. Some form of light perhaps, and of course a table and some easy chairs. My vote goes for bunk-beds too, giving a couple of us a chance to fish late, start early, and relive my Suffolk days forty-plus years ago. That’s the perfect scenario for me. A sleep serenaded by the song of the Wye outside. Waking to the dawn chorus. The pewter-surfaced river, broken only by the boil of a gently rolling barbel. Then, barbel caught and returned, the smell of cooking bacon wafting down the valley.

So, watch for photographs of our progress as the summer wears on. It might be rough and ready, but it will be home sweet home to me.
 

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Tim and the Severn at Upton

Passion for Barbel. 21/06/2021

Today has been spent in the excellent company of Tim from Severn Expeditions in Upton-on-Severn. What a star. Full of enthusiasm, and above that even, profound knowledge of the river and its fish. I arrived early, walked the banks and found most rods were out for carp with a couple of river crackers landed. Barbel, however, and the anglers shook their heads. “No, mate, too early in the season. Autumn is the time for them.”

So, I considered, my Wye worries are perhaps unfounded, and the barbel on both rivers are simply being shy and their time will come. BUT! I explained my worries about big floods these last years shifting fish, even big barbel, down river and Tim agreed. He mentioned Upton floods of late, and how chub, barbel and carp had all to be rescued from the fields afterwards. Once again, there is plenty of cover on the river here, but if we think that is enough of a shield in really high water, perhaps we need to think again. I don’t know. Does anyone? Have there been studies done into the effect of floods on fish movements? I write what I see, both in the East and in the West, and what I see I do not believe is good.

Tickets were bought from the wonderful Mrs Shin at her shop in the Upton Main Street. She is such a great lady today but, lest we forget, in her day she was a formidable match angler, a woman who showed women could really fish at a high level and hold their own with men. Yes. Worries abound, but perhaps that’s simply me and my neuroses that I have brought with me to the West of the country. This is a special place and perhaps all will be well this strange barbel summer of ours.
 

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Always excited to be on the river for the 16th but the realisation is that we always struggle for barbel early season, as you heard from the Severn anglers too. It was great to be out trotting with pin / laying on, and enjoying the bend in the rod from some decent chub. Will do the catching - of barbel - later. Can't wait to be back on the Wye.
 

John Bailey

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FAO Mr Bailey....Was that you with a camera crew out in two boats on the lower Severn this morning ?

Hi, my eagle-eyed friend. Indeed, that was me out on the lower Severn with a camera crew yesterday morning. We weren’t exactly fishing, though we did go on to catch a couple of zander, and it was more of a recce. I’m not allowed to comment further, but some of you might guess the purpose. You’ll be able to see it on BBC2 in the Autumn!

All the Best, John
 

John Bailey

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Tim Maylin with a Severn zander... and hopefully their future is now more secure!

Passion For Barbel. 23/06/2021

Just in from the lower Severn and it has been a grueller. Of course, everyone I spoke to said that the barbel are not to be expected 'till the late Summer or early Autumn, so I was holding out no hope for one of them. It was the almost complete absence of smaller fish that got to me, but I asked around and every one of some twenty anglers had the same tale to tell. And it’s a disturbing one.

There was a general feeling that the rain on Monday night was a disaster for our chances of anything much. The complete consensus is that rain bounces off the fields into the river, bringing with it a noxious mix of agricultural chemicals. Now, these fears are not new, I know, but I was talking to anglers who live on the river and fish it every day for their various reasons. These are folk who know every mood of the water and every nuance of its behaviour. This is not scientific but nor is it hypothetical. This is empirical knowledge, built on intimate relationships with the river, and as such I personally take it seriously.

Several anglers were serious when they stated their belief that outlawed chemicals have been used since Covid by farmers, safe in the knowledge that checks have not been carried out during the pandemic period. We cannot comment on this, but fishing does seem to have nosedived during the last 15 months, according to these observers.

I have to add that there was much disgruntlement too about the zander culling debate, and the fact that the Angling Trust has issued a paper on the subject this very day is both coincidental and very welcome. It makes very sensible points, and might see the conclusion of all this friction finally come to pass. It is well worth going on the AT website and forming your own opinion. I certainly have mine!
 

John Bailey

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My last Wensum barbel... nine pounds, perhaps, on a good day?? Or perhaps too empty for that weight?

Passion For Barbel. 26/06/2021

A dear friend has reported from the Thames on the size of some of the barbel there. Gob-smacking if true, and inspirational for all of us. It is a long while since I personally have a had BIG barbel, and there are good reasons for this.

Firstly, I don’t fish for them! Because of guiding, my entire focus has been seeing others succeed, and if you don’t hold a rod, that limits your chances. This year, and since the first lockdown, I have cut back on my guiding, and perhaps for the first time in a decade, I can do something for myself again.

Second, there is the question of venue. My poor beloved, beleaguered Wensum has suffered greatly this century, and barbel numbers and sizes have withered. My great days were often on the The Point at Costessey back in 1979/80, but more recently at Lenwade Mill. It was there one day nineteen years ago I had two thirteen pounders, a fourteen and a “low” fifteen... all on float and corn. My largest, at a shade under sixteen, went on to become John Wilson’s PB at around 18 pounds, I think.

Then there is the Wye. Back in the Nineties, doubles were common, and I had big numbers of fish between ten and twelve, with a river PB a fraction below fourteen. Are there fish that size in the river today? I personally fear not.

So, where does that leave me? I have stated my desire to catch fish this year on tactile methods like float fishing, fly fishing, and roving with freelined meat. This will be challenging, exciting, and all the things I love about the sport, but as for huge fish? I think not, and size, whatever we say, does matter. My recent forays to the Severn have got me thinking, for sure. The river is only an hour off from me now I am based in the West. That’s close enough to mount some sort of campaign, and I have been developing feelings for the river. My problem is that I want, these days, to do things my way. I’m not sure I can go the usual big fish/big river route, and I have a couple of months to think of some approach I can love and the barbel will too. No man is an island, and any ideas more than gratefully received.

Problems, eh? But what problems to have, I agree. Lucky, lucky me!!

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The exciting but intimidating Severn...
 

John Bailey

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Rothers with fish, reel and rod!

Passion For Barbel. 30/06/2021

It’s always one of my pleasures to fish with Ian Rotherham, one of our great all-round anglers. But it’s with barbel that he has made his name over the past year or more, and just last season he landed over a hundred Trent fish including TWENTY SEVEN doubles to thirteen plus... have I had that many in my career I ask myself?

Today though, we were on a Norfolk carp lake of both renown and difficulty. Rothers cracked it, though, with a beautiful common in the mid-twenties, caught close in, just how he likes to fish for his barbel too. It was a spectacular fight, made even nicer by the sight and sound of a Gary Mills pin purring away. This is a special, made for Rothers on his sixtieth birthday. A homage, if you like, to the improved Coxon made early last century and featuring a mahogany back plate, indented with an old threepenny bit dated 1960, year of the Ian’s birth. Turn the reel round and the front features nickel silver spokes and boss – just a lovely tool indeed.

The rod was 'The Carpathia', built by Nottingham maestro Andrew J Davies. Glorious bamboo, flamed to give the deep lustrous sheen of brown. Emerald green whipping and rings made from nickel silver once more. Two pound test curve or thereabouts. Superb, all-through battle curve. A joy through and through.

You know, if I’m honest, I’ve always treated Rother’s tackle tartism with amused affection, but I understand it these days. I’ve gone back to “getting” tackle, to understanding how top stuff can really enhance the pleasure you get out of the experience. We don’t fish to live these days: angling is the best of our lives, so why compromise if you have the option?

So, thanks mate. Lovely day. Lovely fish. Lovely reminder that great gear great experiences makes!
 

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Great fish and yup, caught the way he wanted to catch it, brilliant!
 

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Passion For Barbel. 4/07/2021

So, yesterday I was on the Wye with greatest mate Ian Miller, aka Ping Pong. (That is a very long story to do with the Wye and the old Angler's Mail, which I might tell one day.) I have made no bones of the fact that the barbel have been miserably lacking these first weeks of the season, and we both fished hard to try to put that right. To avoid disappointment, I’ll tell you right now we failed, again, but it is about the art of touch legering that I wish to speak.

Some of you might have remembered back in the mists of time, certainly between 1995 and 2010, I did very little Wye work any other way. The rudiments of touch legering are simple. Use a light lead. Try to minimise the bow in the line by getting as direct a contact to the bait as possible –that’s why wading can give you a big advantage. Point the rod at where you hazard a guess the bait is lying, and hold the line in the fingers of your non-rod hand. (Everyone has different ways of doing this.)

Touch legering offers many advantages. You need a minimum of gear so can be very mobile. T/L tells you if there are barbel in the swim, even if you do not get a full-blown bite. This might seem like gobbledygook, but you really can and do feel barbel brushing against the line if fish are present. The sensation is a kind of scratching feel on the fingers. Do it and you will be amazed. Honest. Back me up you barbellers who are already in the know. That is why PP and I touch legered yesterday: even if we didn’t catch, we wanted to know if they were there. (They weren’t btw.)

Full-blown, hittable bites can come in several forms. Best are those that give a savage, rasping tug. The fish is simply on out of nowhere. Very bloody exciting!! Often, you might experience a couple of short pulls that then develop into the real deal. Frequently, all you will feel is a long, slow build-up of pressure that rather feels like weed on the line. Strike and 90% of the time you’ll find that it isn’t!

The more you practise touch legering, the better you’ll get as your confidence rises. You’ll soon begin to detect a barbel simply blowing on the bait, and that is where the problems lie. By 2008 or thereabouts, I realised that feeling a bite like this is a two-way street. By that I mean, if you can feel a barbel, a barbel can feel you. Once barbel wise up and know the game, they can pick up a bait, feel the pressure from your finger tips, and gently drop the bait as a result. This is very spooky, but it happens quite quickly when fish get the message. (It even happened in India with mahseer. That IS spooky when you know a fish of 80 pounds plus has sucked in a bait, realised the line is in your fingers, and carefully puts that bait down.)

If you haven’t tried the method, and if your barbel haven’t seen it, you could be onto a winner, and a very exciting winner at that! For many years, the usual gang and I used very light rods for two reasons. You could hold a rod all day with no fatigue, and you could feel bites better by far. Light spinning rods. Even tough 8-weight fly rods. 1.25lb tc, 10ft Avon rods. Cane, too, we have found to be superb in the “giving” qualities it seems to possess. But you get the picture, and I’d urge you to give this a whirl when you can.
 

Keith M

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I’ve been using the touch legering technique for Barbel and Chub ever since a good friend of mine (Budgie) said that he’d help introduce me to my very first Barbel on the river Kennet after we had finished our watch in the Met office where we worked back in 1975.

I remember that evening as if it were yesterday and I can even tell you exactly what rod, reel, line, hook and every other thing that I was using. I can even remember budgies words of encouragement and the things I could feel through my fingers as if it were yesterday.

After our watch we changed out of our uniforms and loaded our tackle into budgies car and away we went down to the river Kennet at Newbury.
I was using a 10ft split cane B.James & son Richard Walker MKIV Carp rod with a Mitchell 300 reel loaded with 8lb Sylcast line straight through to a size 4 Drennan Specialist hook; and using a 5 SSG link leger which Budgie had set up for me. For bait we were using cubes of Luncheonmeat mounted directly on the hook with a piece of grass through the bend to keep the meat from coming off too easily.

It was just like Mr Crabtree; “Cast three quarters the way across the river, tighten up any slack line and then place your finger across your line” said Budgie; which I did.

You’ll probably be able to feel through your finger; your lead moving downstream for a short distance before coming to a stop” said Budgie; and I could feel exactly what he described through my finger.

You might feel streamer weed brushing against your line but don’t worry you’ll be able to feel the difference between that and a real bite through your finger” said Budgie; and I could feel the streamer weed brushing against my line just as Budgie had described. Then I felt a couple of tugs followed by a 3ft twitch and I was connected to my very first Barbel and all within a few minutes of instruction from Budgie.

It’s only a small one” said Budgie when we eventually saw it; but to me it was a giant of a fish, with its muscled body glinting in the evening sun “You’ll probably catch a bigger one than that one later on said Budgie.

And I did catch a larger one of around 8lb later that night but I can’t remember much about that one, but I’ll always remember my very first Barbel as if it were Yesterday.


My very first Barbel which I caught by Touch Legering back in 1975.

I’ve been using the Touch Leger method ever since that day; whenever I’m not trotting for Barbel and Chub.

Keith[/I]
 
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John Bailey

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Pingers not as happy with a chub as he should have been perhaps

Passion For Barbel. 5/07/2021

Yesterday highlighted a thirty year old problem for me down here on the Wye. Always I’d travelled from Norfolk with my barbel hat firmly on, and many times that hat had actually fallen over my eyes and blinded me to what might have been happening around me.

Bredwardine bridge, circa 1991. I’d found that in low water, I could wade to the foot of the parapet and lob a feeder just five yards into the deeps of the main pool. It was the perfect attack position and the approach served me well 'till the river rose. I noticed that when the feeder hit surface there was inevitably an explosion of fry and bleak, eager to nab the escaping crumbs of groundbait. Most times, after a delay of a few seconds, a further eruption occurred as a predator hit into the small stuff. I took no notice. My barbel hat was pulled down hard.

Right at the end of this fishing sequence, I got down to find a lad fishing conventionally from the bank with little dead and live baits under a bobber-type float. He’d seen the predators around the bridge and he’d had the wit to investigate them. In his keep net, he had perch of 4.02 and 4.05. Now, I have never had a UK four pound perch, not then, not now. That boy, aged perhaps fourteen, had shown more wit and wisdom than I had treble his age.

Why yesterday? Well, Pingers texted me from the Banker Swim where we have fished doggedly, you could say relentlessly, for barbel these past fifteen years. He’d just seen a perch glide from the shadowing trees that he could only think was four pounds AT LEAST. Naturally, barbel hat glued to head, he only had pellets and boilies in his bag, and even a couple of lobs might well have done the trick.

We love barbel. They are the breath of life to us. But there are other species that light up our world equally, and I hope I’m not too old to remember that obvious fact!
 

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Passion For Barbel. 7/07/2021

From what I can gather the Trent seems to be on fire. I believe the Wye down at Ross and below is humming. And there’s not much else going on, certainly not for my gang and me. I’m becoming thoroughly in awe of Woody’s legendary tackle shop in Hereford, especially as I think I am learning how to park in the area. Yesterday he agreed the mid/upper stretches of the Wye appear in the doldrums, and he had his own thoughts on the matter.

Have the barbel spawned, he asked me? Could it be that they clean the gravels in preparation and then, within hours, refuse from the notorious chicken farms undoes all their good work, and the process is interminably delayed? If that were to be happening, it might explain why the fish are not feeding and, worse than that, why they are becoming seriously, fundamentally stressed.

Something seems to be happening at this moment around here, and I don’t like it, but that is probably me! I’ve seen so many declining fisheries in my life that perhaps I look for trouble where it doesn’t exist! Could be that come August, we’re catching so many barbel we get tired of the things.

Which leads me to one last thought today. For many years, I have regarded barbel fishing much like I used to my salmon back in the Eighties. A fish a day is a result and two or three are all I’ll ever need. Ever since the mid-Nineties, I have wondered why some feel the desire to catch twenty or more barbel in a day. Do it once or twice perhaps, or if you are a kid, then I can understand. But for some of us, barbel are simply too precious, too vulnerable to be treated as commodities. Holier than thou? Or just a realisation that you come to with age?
 
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