Sunday, 4 August 2013

A Case of the Trots — Barbel and Chub on the Warwickshire Avon

Having set my heart and mind on a quest to understand the full gamut of possibilities offered by various forms and styles of trotting bait, I've decided to run a series of case studies that might be of use as notes to myself and a more thought provoking technical study to other anglers than my run-of-the-mill diary style posts. I want to look at the subject in-depth, think critically about the problems encountered, write up what I've learned about a range of different venues, the different approaches necessary to get the best from them and cover as full a spectrum of species as possible, from barbel and chub, to dace, roach, perch, grayling and trout. And if I get the time to try, perhaps pike and zander too.

In short — if trotting will catch it, I'll try for it, and then I'll write about it.

A Case of the Trots — Barbel and Chub on the Warwickshire Avon

There'd been thunderstorms in the north of the catchment the previous day. The Sowe in Longford Park burst its banks for a short time, one of its culverted tributaries popped manhole covers flooding residential streets and when we left for Harvington levels were falling but the water still well-coloured from arable land run off. I hoped the storms had not affected tributaries in the rest of the catchment quite so badly because if they had I'd not be getting any trotting done and would be confined to rods-up close-in styles of fishing.

Thursday afternoon with temperatures peaking at a stifling 34 degrees we arrived at the main river 40 miles downstream (as the duck swims!) where it was clear that the effect was minimal and though levels had risen in the meantime and spiked a couple of feet up on normal summer levels, they'd fallen back quickly once the brief torrent from the relatively small catchment sector that had been affected had passed through. In short, it looked just perfect for my intentions next day.

First thing on an overcast Friday morning donning waders and armed with the fourteen footer, nets and a couple of pints of maggots in the bait pouch I got into position at the head of the relatively shallow medium-paced approach to the weir. Catches were predictably of dace, small roach and gudgeon but I hoped to build the swim and get chub and barbel feeding eventually. That never happened. A few chub did put in an appearance after an hour or so and even a one-pound perch who gave a fabulous account of itself, but really, I think the loose feed was devoured mostly by minnows who occasionally hung themselves on the size-fourteen and little of it reached bottom. 

Plan 1 fail!
Plan 2 — get into the weir run off and see what results a lump of trotted meat might bring.  

This was a new experience to me. I've never before in my life fished meat in motion, always using it as a static bait for the carp, chub and barbel who still adore the nutritious stuff, even if they've learned it usually contains a hook.

And I suppose that's lesson number one. 

Here at Harvington the fish populations are pressured in a way they rarely are anywhere else on the Avon. It's enduring popularity as a weekender barbel  session destination really  has everything to do with the fact that the stretches available do contain large specimens and provide easy access for anglers wanting to turn up and fish for them straight out the back of a van. 

I hesitate to caricature modern barbel angling and anglers, but in my experience it's become a 'drive-in Saturday' experience where weekender fair weather anglers wanting nothing more in the way of exertion than pulling up a handbrake, set up stall at whatever free peg is still available mid-morning, cast out baits, fall asleep at the wheel for a couple of days, and mostly blank.

There's not a great deal of original thinking going on. The fish have seen it all before. Static meat is utterly ignored in my experience, and though it'd be the first bait and method I'd choose to use on an under-fished or in the case of the weirs at Lucy's Mill in Stratford, badly fished venue where baits are invariably cast to where anglers hope barbel might be but nowhere near the crucial line where they're actually found, it is the very last bait I'd choose for the place. 

When moving though, fish have learned that it's safe. I'm sure every time a piece is tossed out at Harvington then within the half-hour there's a queue of fish sat behind it like dogs at the dinner table all waiting for an impaled crumb to fall from the fork when they pounce on it. It's the same story elsewhere and just a couple of miles upstream I've recently witnessed friends clean up alongside static bank anglers (myself included) by trundling meat through rapid water under the brightest sunlight of mid-afternoon.

It was high time I tried it for myself and this was the ideal opportunity. A bright sunny day, lots of fast water and hopefully fish actively seeking food within it. 

First try was the turbulent water immediately beneath the weir and fishing that by standing on the sill itself. Removing the feeder from a barbel rig already made up on the rod I attached a large float to the snap link swivel instead. 

This admittedly lazy improvisation nevertheless was effective there. Acting as a heavy waggler it allowing the side-hooked meat (hair-rigged it snagged far too often) to amble about in the eddy currents at will and though it sank from sight at the slightest snag or even when I over-tightened the line, did show when the bait needed to be twitched in order to move it, when I needed to slacken off, and most importantly in the white foam of the weir pool, where it actually was.

Shame I never got a bite there to strike at!

Then a move was made to the run-off and the fast channeled water that flows along the fishery bank. This required wading across to the opposite bank and walking through the shallows there to access the head of the rapid run. It could have been done from the fishery bank, though so many different lines through the flowing weed could never have been explored because limited to one position the current would have drawn the bait inside the main flow to the bank at any distance and into weed on too many.

From the first trial trot down it was clear that the pace was not only very rapid but the float keeping the line at or near the surface had the bait shoot down almost as quickly. In seconds it had travelled ten yards, then twenty and thirty when the rod top banged around and a fish was hooked. A chub of three pounds or so.

I hadn't intended to trot so quickly after that initial run through. It was only a way of gauging current speed and strength and what bulk weight I'd need to control things. I'd intended to weigh the bait down thereafter so it would just trip and then inch it through the swim as you should when 'trundling,' or so I've heard...

But this fish had shot out of its holt and on impulse grabbed a bait moving at five miles per hour. So much for inching. I thought that capture not only remarkable but the technique once discovered well worth persisting with and so I did it again and with equally instant results. As the bait shot down the run instead of watching the float, which was only acting as a visual guide to position and when out of view, weeding, I watched the rod top instead. After a while I took the float off and played without a visual marker noting the pattern of trips and bites as it flew along.

That pattern on a successful run down was a succession of trembles as line trapped under the finger was allowed off the spool, then a pluck or two, a resumption of trembles and then another pluck and a smart and decisive pull as a chasing fish hit the bait hard. In an hour or so I'd chinned out five good-sized chub, lost two more, but had had hundreds of indecisive bites between.

Then on the retrieve with the bait coming upstream and across the top, the rod bucked as a fish took the bait. They'd even take it even when moving in the wrong direction!

Then I realised I had not a chub on the hook but a barbel instead...

Which was pause for thought, because all the bites at speed were clearly from chub with their big  front-loader gobs who can chase food head on and pounce on it, where the barbel present hadn't a chance at such pace with their underslung mouths. But here was a barbel who'd taken a relatively slowly moving bait moving counter current right at the surface which must have required the gymnastic feat of turning upside down to do so!

You learn something new every day, don't you?  And then you learn it twice because the next fish also took a bait on the retrieve, only this time a chub with its entire right side gill plate missing from birth but breathing perfectly well...

So, if chub will take meat with gusto at high speed, barbel and chub will both take it when going effectively backwards, then that means that two shots are possible and the retrieve itself, usually the end of proceedings with a failed trot, is actually a second and golden opportunity not to be wasted.

But why on earth would they grab a bait acting in a way so unnatural to them?

Well, I suppose it's a food they love and know by sight whenever it comes their way so they pounce in a flash of purely instinctive greed. It comes in cubes which must become an instantly recognisable shape, a knowledge acquired over a lifetime of avoiding similar static ones but devouring any that move, and so they'll have anything similarly shaped before the next fish can whenever it's in range and no matter what it's doing because they can spit it out again if it proves not to be their favourite free meal.

I thought it almost lure fishing for barbel because I've no doubt an artificial lump of meat would have performed in exactly the same way, and that's worth a shot next time around because you do lose an awful lot of meat baits in fast weedy water. And losing my meagre supply proved the end of my session, but not before using up the last remaining cubes in a swirling pool where I saw the unmistakable golden flash of a barbel, and after a few minutes with the bait moving slowly around in the eddy currents, hooked and netted it.

So, in two hours energetic fishing I'd taken more fish than anyone else would on the fishery that day. None were 'specimens' but this series of case studies has nothing whatsoever to do with waiting games and boring out big fish. They are about fishing for its own sake and the enjoyment of being active and successful at it. 

The fact that I caught and lost more during those short active hours than the other anglers about the place fishing by rote with static baits under what were hopelessly unsuitable conditions for that strategy, is what matters. They failed because they were bound to. I succeeded because I'm sick to the back teeth of such failure in the pursuit of such small and ultimately ridiculous prizes as personal bests and want positive new experiences as their proper replacement. I went after them and of course I got them never having done it before 

A salutary lesson is what it was. That when things are hot and slow on the riverbank, then getting cool and quick at the riverbed is the way forward, I was actually proud of myself getting stuck in and working things out for myself. Not that promoting such a fact is in the best interest of anyone who's learned the truth of it, because an entire weir run off really is a one-man-only wading domain where two anglers in the same pool is a pool of one too many in the way of company.

Then again, the fish I caught weren't so very big so I doubt I'll ever be in fear of encountering that...

Chez us

  1. Whilst not strictly necessary for this fast-paced fishing conducted at almost the speed of the swift current, a float did help with certain crucial aspects of it. Firstly it kept the line floating on the top of the water and secondly it told me when the bait was weeded. That was important in not wasting time on abortive trots with a weeded bait when the consequent belly of line created still pulled line off the spool at the same rate and felt exactly the same as free bait traveling downstream of its own accord. A bubble float may be the full answer because other float forms were far too sensitive to be useful. 
  2. The reel used was a fixed-spool one. This was not the ideal choice when a centrepin would have allowed line to peel from the spool in a smooth fashion and without tripping. Retrieve was faster with a fixed spool of course, but, if retrieving slowly also catches fish as was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, then what does that matter?
  3. Chub can and will intercept baits going past at breakneck speed whilst barbel either cannot or will not. Barbel with their small eyes, underslung and relatively small mouths are pure bottom grubbers who require at least some time to make their minds up but given time enough will come up in the water. Chub are mid-water specialists who have big mouths and eyes plus minds that make pure opportunists of them when given as little time as possible to make a decision. A 'little time' with chub and barbel are therefore two very different things.
  4. Time is of the essence. Rivers conditions in fast and shallow water change more rapidly so far as fish are concerned than they do elsewhere — an inch or so of depth and an inch or two of clarity either way making a great deal of difference to them, their perceptions, and therefore their location.
  5. Daytime fishing with static baits is the least productive method possible to employ when the river is low, the day bright. 
  6. Where summertime fishing is concerned, angler activity equals angler success
  7. Both species will take a bait moving counter to the current, and if anything was gained by the session that really matters then it was the discovery of this fundamental truth. With chub it may be obvious them being natural born chasers, but to my knowledge, with barbel it's a fact that's never been observed in the entire history of coarse fishing.


  1. Nice post Jeff. Seems you had an enjoyable holiday break. Weren't you hot in Martin's smelly old neoprenes though?

    1. I was when out of the water, Dave. In it I was cool as a cucumber! They'll stink of me if I don't return them soon though, when Martin won't have them in the back of his nice new fresh smelling motor, which is a blessed relief from his old stinky one with loose pellets & boilies falling out the tailgate every time it was opened!

  2. That's right! We nearly lost the rods up the A46 with the tailgate open. I did suggest a layby, but we soldiered on to Cov regardless...

  3. I frequently feel that anglers imbue their fish with far more intelligence than they are due. How realistic is it to expect that a fish will recognise, see danger in, and ignore, a bait that is moving unnaturally? A lot of fish can be caught "on the drop" in stillwaters. How often would they encounter natural food "on the drop"? And how "natural" is a lump of luncheon meat in a river?
    I suspect that a moving bait is simply more easily noticed, and whether that is acting as it should, in accordance with Newton's and other Laws, is of secondary importance to a chub which is just plain hungry.

    1. Chub are supposed to be the wariest fish...

      They are in almost still water when they slink away at the slightest thing, but chuck a piece of meat at them at speed and they just can't help themselves! Every chub angler knows that they'll steal meat from a hair until it gets dark when they just have it hook and all. They must know something about hair rigs then...

      Well, at least they know to be delicate about it is to get a meal without the exertion of fighting for it. Intelligence? Possibly the kinds of intelligence we have at a primal level, but I doubt rational thinking plays a part, just the hardwiring of experience.

      Anglers do think fish are very intelligent though, but I doubt they are.

      At Harvington we had a gaggle of ducks about the tent. They know tents mean free food. We fed them bread and then I started feeding maggots and later white chocolate/coconut boilies which they adored. They came closer, closer still, but never close enough to be in danger. Next day one of them was bolder and came within pouncing distance. Next day he/she (hard to tell which this time of year!) came so close I could almost feed out my hand. If we'd stayed on for a week that duck would have fed off the top of my head plucking boilies off my tongue. No doubt about it.

      I reckon I could have made a pet out of it.

      Now is that duck the smart one or the dumb one? Certainly the best fed one, but how would he/she ever know it wasn't a trap and I wouldn't kill?

  4. I'll have you know, that old car of mine might have been a bit stinky at times. But she was a good car and the smells were all the fishy times we had had. The new car will earn some new smells in time. Now my waders want to come home.