“They’re mighty meaty matey!”
Having been catching those whiskery wonders, the barbel since the Neolithic period of 1968, I have to smile with pleasure when I see the bait crazes go full circle. As while I am not one to follow the latest “in-bait” crowd, there really is some satisfying pleasure in catching fish on bait that worked forty years ago. I remember my very first carp, a wildie taken from Tundry Pond in Hampshire. Still at school, we camped out one night. It was the height of the Jack Hilton era, and there were only two baits that you dared fish with. They were written about headily in the books and magazines of the time, they were highly technologically advanced fish catchers of the era. Par-boiled potato and balanced crust. For that, in modern day terms I suppose you could read boilie on the bottom, or pop-up. I would think 99% of carp anglers fishing today have never caught carp on a potato, and would fall off their luxury bed chair with laughter, but of course, at that time, the bait worked. Why? Because anglers used it a lot. Back then, the barbel phase went from big baits like meat and bundles of lobworm, to the “preoccupation” phase we had (applied to carp and tench as well) of loads of small baits. Maggots, seeds, nuts etc. It was at the time called particle saturation, was highly successful, but then someone invented the boilie, and preoccupation suddenly became old hat, despite the fact that it was still working. It was almost as though it was the anglers who got bored using the bait rather than the fish getting bored feeding on it. At the time that Boilies were being used on the barbel scene, so the average size and juvenile size barbel seemed to spiral downwards. Hardly surprising with low water levels, algae covering stones and reducing breeding habitat, the American Crayfish predating the eggs and fry, the cormorants demolishing anything up to 2lbs etc,etc.That left pretty much the last stock of decent sized barbel which understandably grew bigger and bigger. The carp scene of sitting over a pair of static boilie baits moved to barbel anglers and they started catching the big fish, the publicity machine cogged up a few gears and suddenly everyone was happy to sit out and wait for the very few large barbel that are being caught over and over again.
Meanwhile I was chugging along with the same old traditional baits, not breaking any records, but quietly ticking along happily. Not a boilie in sight. In fact I have never even used a boilie for barbel. I’ve had no need to. I picture myself as being sort of lapped on an athletics circuit. I’m using meat baits, catching fairly consistently. The boilie boys are racing round the track trying to catch a barbel up front, and eventually go full circle, until they lap me. But as they lap me in the chase for the twenty, they haven’t noticed I’m still happily catching on…yawn, yawn….MEAT. Ok so that gives you the general idea, but I have found a few tips along the way, and there may just be one or two ideas that help you pick up a fish quicker, rather than chase after the barbel in the big boilie race. Everyone must know that traditional luncheon meat has always been a number one catcher of old whiskers. Years ago on the Royalty, when they banned the maggots for a period (see what I meant about preoccupation? It was working too well, so they banned it) I used meat, but I got the edge on some regulars by melting down LARD in a frying pan, crushing up luncheon meat, stirring it in, leaving in a baking tin to cool in the fridge, then cutting it into cubes for hookbaits. Lard is the stuff you get the best chip taste from, but it’s definitely not good for arterial blood flow. You would almost get a slick of fat coming off it on the water, and I have no doubt it would still work today. Being slightly soft all you need do is use a piece of crust as a casting pad to prevent the hook pulling through as you lob it out. It wasn’t so much a bite, as a need to touch leger just so you didn’t lose the rod!
There are two ways to fish the tradional luncheon meat. That’s legering, or moving, I guess for moving you could also read floatfishing, but let’s just look at the basic methods with baits on the bottom. What would be standard? A size 4 hook, two feet of trace to a weight and leger stop. You can use a split shot to pinch on the line and hold the lead from sliding onto the hook, but I believe pinching it on, say 6lb line weakens it significantly. You could also use those plastic leger stops, but the problem I find is they are prone to slip. If you are lobbing the bait out into a gap in the weed, no problem, but on somewhere like the Severn or Wye, that has deeper water, stronger current and farther casting, they can slip. There is nothing worse the winding in for a bait check to find the weight down near the hook. So I now use small black Berkley barrel swivels in a size 10, which has a breaking strain of 50lbs, more than ample in freshwater situations. A tucked blood knot wetted and pulled down tight prevents any slippage, and the swivel might even weigh less than the split shot. Cut a square cube of luncheon meat. Push the hook through, bring out the point, twist and bury the point again. Job done. Everybody knows that. Everybody uses big cubes of meat. The barbel know that, so after a while they take it in and blow it out without registering more than a Dace nibble on the quivertip. I know. I’ve spent enough hours getting headaches squinting through the water. So how about taking a small knife, and slicing the meat circular? The barbel gets all that meaty smell and taste, but because it feels a different shape to a cube of meat, they mouth it a second or so longer. They drift back downstream while they think about it. That registers as a 3-inch pull on my quivertip and that’s all I need. Job Done. A small point, but at the backend of the season when they are starting to wise up it works well.
Tip number two. Everyone likes to keep a bait rolling on the bottom, particularly in the summer months when the fish are active. But a standard running leger rig is difficult to feed through channels of streamer weed as it catches, and this is the spot the barbels are at. So I take a tip I learned about forty years ago down on the Royalty, which a guy from Yeovil showed me. Size 2 hook. Straight on the mainline. Then the shot of your choice dictated by the strength of the current and other local conditions. Generally a swan shot is good. Don’t pinch the shot two feet up the line as per normal tactics. Pinch it tight against the eye of the hook. Then you cut a slightly oblong piece of luncheon meat, but cut out a tiny scoop in one end with a pen knife, about the size of the swan shot. Push the hook in through the bait in the scoop, out the top, then twist and barely tap the hook point back into the meat. This keeps the shot right inside the meat, the barbel can’t see it, and basically they just eat the lot, weight and all. But the best part is you can then cast your meat into tiny channels of streamer weed, and keeping the rod high, and work the line down with minimum snagging on weed. The further down a “run” you can get, the better, as in summer when the weed is thick, the barbel often lie right under the back end of streamer weed. You also have the option of trimming off the corners of the meat to make yours a different “mouth sensation” to the fish from the other anglers. All you need is for them to pause long with it to register a bite, and you should be in.
For floatfishing you can do the same as above for trimming bait shapes, and remember the use of a float is even better for fishing weed chocked runs as the line from float to bait goes down vertically, and doesn’t keep sticking to the inside edge of the weed. There are many brands of luncheon meat out there. Most are in tins, with fatty pork luncheon meat being most popular, but it’s worth noting you can also get a big block cut in a chunk from the Deli counter of most supermarkets. All luncheon meats can be frozen, and I always take the leftovers back home and bung in the freezer, hoping of course that wifey doesn’t use the same stuff for my sandwiches! Now onto my prime barbel catcher. Hot Dog segments. I first stumbled across this bait while fishing a Farnham stretch of the Upper River Loddon. At that time not many Barbel were being taken, but it was just on the edge of getting popular as a venue. No night fishing meant I would dash over for a three hour session after work, which was great for a fish or three, and of course a few blanks. It wasn’t great in the bright daylight, but I did find most of the fish were either in slightly deeper pools where the current slowed, with the majority being right up tight against the margin growth on the far bank. You would need to anchor a bait and wait as the river is so tiny, that constant cast-and-retrieve would shoot your chances down. I got a barbel first time I used the Hot Dogs, and from then on I had a fairly regular production line, and would expect a fish or two each session. Eventually I got the club record at the time with one I think weighing 9-11. Since then I believe the stretch has been hammered well, the fish grew on through the years, and I heard of a 14 plus from it, an amazing Barbel from such a tiny river.
Hot dogs have a totally different smell to luncheon meat, and I believe that is why I was picking up fish while others were not. They generally come soaked in brine, but all you do is open the tin and drain off at home, or on the bank, but please take the tin home with you. I’d hate to see an otter or cormorant cut their foot on it! From the average hot dog I cut four baits. Obviously two ends are rounded, so I slice them off straight and have four segments. Now they are a much softer texture than luncheon meat, and you need to be aware they are not great for trundling, and best used as static bait. Having a soft centre I find the best way of hooking them is to use a baiting needle which I made from a straightened out paperclip. Well, come on, there is a recession on! Straighten the clip out, and then make a 180 degree turn at one end, just a few mm, enough to give you something to hang the hook on. Just slide the paperclip right down the centre of the “dog” segment making sure it comes out dead centre at the other end. Hang the bend of your hook in it, and slowly draw the hook back through the meat. When it’s clear on the other side you can gently tap it back to bury in the meat. The reason for this is if you just push a size 4 hook through the soft bait, the whole of the bend virtually slices the “dog” in two creating a weak point that may cause it to break up in faster currents or on the cast. Here’s another tip I learned from doing an interview with Peter Arlott, the bailiff of the Aldermaston Mill fishery on the River Kennet. Peter uses meat almost exclusively, but likes to bring the hook out slightly to one side of the hook, so the point is actually fully exposed. He reckons it makes for a better hookup rate. I now try to do the same with my “dog” segments, bringing the paperclip baiting needle out just a tad off centre so the full point of the hook is showing. Again, its later in the season when the Barbel tend to get picky and blow a bait out that this extra hook point showing can pay off.
As well as legering straight meat and “dog” segments I have found that a small open end feeder with a basic mix actually draws in the unwanteds like minnows and dace. These species line up directly below the feeder and this action in turn attracts the Barbel. With Dace in particular on pork luncheon meat you get nibbles all the time on the quivertip. Then suddenly the nibbles stop, usually for about thirty seconds as a Barbel muscles the small fish out of the way, with the rod going round shortly after. I always concentrate a bit more when the nibbles suddenly stop. As for groundbait in these feeders. Why use expensive stuff when most of it is washed away? I use a mix of bran and cheap sliced white bread, not too wet, just enough to hold together for one cast. If you retrieve and the feeder is only half empty (or full) then you mix has to be damped down some more. You don’t want it stuck in the feeder; you want it to keep emptying out constantly to bring the barbel in. So there you have it. Cheap and cheerful meat tactics for Barbel that will help you save a few quid on expensive goods, and still put a few fish in the net. A tin of Hotdogs in the cheapo supermarkets might set you back less than 50 pence a tin, and dry bran is about £7-50 for 25 kgs!, and a full loaf of sliced bread is about 35 pence. Let the anglers using the latest boilie flavour do their own thing, as far as I can see from my own catches, there’s little or no advantage in using them. And as for keeping costs down…well you will have to go a long way to beat plain old MEAT.
COPYRIGHT: Graeme Pullen. All rights reserved.