Of all the fish that swim there is just one that I pursue only for the chance of a really huge specimen and that's barbel. With roach for instance, the largest fish is always there in the back of my mind but actually, I'm far more concerned with the why and wherefore of the species, the tricks, tactics and tackle refinements required to be competent and how to improve upon mere competence and go on to become not only an excellent all-round roach angler but the very best in the country. In short, my approach to roach is that of a wannabe olympic athlete!
But with barbel, if they don't run big, and by big I mean there must be the realistic chance of a sixteen pounder out front, then I'm not interested in being there in the slightest. My attitude to barbel is that of a high roller poker player — the stakes must be worth the losing or it's not worth the playing.
Consequently, I'm prepared to fish very few places for them and settle on very small areas of vast stretches where things feel right. Locally there's just three venues on the Warwickshire Avon that hold my interest, one being Lucy's Mill at Stratford upon Avon where I've fished seriously for barbel and barbel only, just four times but banked two double-figure fish around the twelve pound mark, lost a third in the same size bracket or better but suffered only one blank session. It's a one bite venue and after it comes, banked fish or not, you go home because a second is very unlikely, however, that bite will almost certainly be from a double and maybe a very large barbel indeed so the cards are right.
There I'll fish the whole while expecting a vicious rod wrencher at any moment certain it will come, and even sure more or less exactly when. On the second and third venues things are likewise. I have an internalised knowledge of each built from fishing experience, of course, but also there's an instinct at work that say's "this swim will pay" and said it loud and clear in the very first moments I ever clapped eyes on them.
Smitten at first sight — you might say...
But love actually.
Yesterday I returned to one of my lovers. As pretty as ever I slid uncomfortably into her deep tight hole and filled it. One rod, one rest, one net, a box of meat and a penknife. There's hardly room enough for me amongst the equipment and have to sit on the butt of the rod on a mean little muddy ledge just to fish, but once in and arranged as best can be, the fishing is electrifying.
My first session in this nook swim saw three huge bites, two chub hooked and banked, but one monster of a fish that I simply couldn't put the brakes on who stripped too much line off the reel too quickly for comfort, was heading for the sea when she stopped, turned, relaxed, when the knot failed at the hook for no reason I could fathom at the time.
Nevertheless, the swim burned itself into my soul and every time since I've expected miracles from her.
Martin upstream teasing his meat through shallow fast water was having success with both chub and barbel chomping the pork every hour or so. Taps and knocks every now and then kept me alert but those savage lunge bites were not developing. Daylight robbery... the Spam plucked from the hair over and over.
I can only do an hour or so before cramping up so went fished the next peg along. I don't like the swim — it's not got sixteen pounders in it nor the chance of them. I tried a new bait when I found a crushed snail and a squashed slug on the footpath.
Retiring both rods when bites failed to show after that first hopeful sign, I then went upstream on a phone call to photograph a successful angler with his catch. An impressive looking pristine barbel approaching nine pounds.
I went back down the hole for another hour where bites once again were quite frequent but so wary that they couldn't be hooked. Nevertheless, the Avon is a river where barbel bites in daylight hours during summer from anywhere but the shallowest, fastest or most turbulent water and usually in its many navigation weirs are often at a premium and so bites of any kind are a good sign for later in the day.
An old fella we'd met in the carp park at start of play said he'd been fishing the river now eight days in succession and hadn't yet had a single one! That's typical. It comes alive only after dark in many places when it's warm and bright.
It wasn't happening. Another move in order, Martin and I went on a hike downstream carrying half my tackle each. He just leaves his where it is! Never had an item stolen though, so it seems that at least anglers can be trusted...
This new swim looked good to my eyes but something wasn't right — the obvious lack of a sixteen pound barbel or the chance of one. I fished it an hour but like the old timer, didn't get a single indication of any kind.
Martin in the meantime had another worth the trouble weighing. A near double-figure fish at 9lb 14oz.
Back down the hole the pattern was that I'd experienced the whole day long and there didn't seem to be a thing to done about it. Big meat, small meat, some as big as your head meat, long hairs, short hairs, number 1 crop hairs, the response was the same. Pluck, bang, tug, knock, twang, but no lurching rod bending lunge and no chance it seemed, of one coming.
Whilst about it I thought about how best to tackle the swim on a night session. Hatched a plan to build a little platform on adjustable legs that I could sit on and fish for longer than an hour. Thought better of it and decided a garden trowel would make that ledge more amenable. Thought better of that too when I realised that would make my love attractive to others!
Even made comfortable it would be tricky still. Landing a big fish there means getting in the water for the elbow room that would afford, whilst staying on the ledge is a suitable fighting stance for nothing larger than small chub. Shallow in the near margins, but deeper a few feet out, it looks easy enough but getting in a river at night is not best practice no matter how safe it might seem by day...
We had to leave by 5:30 so I wouldn't gain the benefit of approaching darkness today and timing down the seconds to close of play knew that sixteen-pounder wasn't to come. Nevertheless, I love it down the hole so don't mind at all. I'll happily fish there in anticipation of the fractional second of an uncomfortable hour on this day, that day, one Summer, that Summer, when it surely will.