Catching Your First Barbel From A Small Stream

by Keith Manger (BoldBear)

Big feeders and leads are as alien as using a beach caster on a canal.


There are quite a few articles written for novices about fishing for Barbel on larger rivers like the Trent or the Bristol Avon where using large swim feeders or large leads (up to 5oz) are sometimes needed to hold the bottom; and using sit and wait tactics in likely swims seems to be the norm a lot of the time. This is not a lot of use for someone who fishes smaller more intimate streams and rivers where a 5SSG link leger is the norm and a 1Żoz lead is the heaviest you are likely to need,
This article attempts to describe how I and many others tackle the smaller narrower streams and rivers where you are usually fishing in clear shallow water at close range, and where using big feeders or leads is as alien as using a beach caster on a canal.

Trotting with a float is not covered in this article; which would need an article on its own; other than to say that it can be an excellent method in the right swims; this article only deals with legering for them. Most of my Barbel fishing is done by legering or rolling/trundling a bait along the bed in places where a float can't go and where there are snags and weed beds across the stream.

Who This Article is Aimed At

There are quite a few anglers fishing small streams and rivers which hold plenty of Barbel who have yet to catch their first one; even after trying for several seasons.

I remember when a friend and I first started fishing parts of the upper Lea near Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire we fished for several seasons without even seeing a Barbel; although we caught plenty of Chub, Carp and quality Roach. We knew the Barbel were somewhere in the river because we knew that others had caught them, and we fished in what we thought were the likely swims, but as we learnt more about the river and its moods we started to realise that the better Barbel swims were not in the stretches where we thought they were. and that to find them we had to look for the stretches where the bottom had regularly been cleaned by rains and floodwaters during the year and subsequently had more gravel on the bottom and undercuts among the tree roots.
Reading articles about using sit and wait tactics with large feeders and heavy leads will not necessarily improve the novices chances of catching Barbel on these smaller streams, so this article will hopefully help the Barbel novice who fishes the smaller streams and rivers and wants to catch their first Barbel.

My very first Barbel in 1975 (5lb 8oz)

Your First Barbel

You always seem to remember your first Barbel. I remember my first Barbel back in 1975 as if it were yesterday. I remember it was on the river Kennet at Newbury and it was just like a night fishing with Mr Crabtree: After scoffing at my 9ft spinning rod and cheap reel my mate 'Budgie' told me to leave them in the car and he lent me his Richard Walker MkIV split cane rod and Mitchell 300 reel loaded with 8lb Silcast line which he setup with a small 5 SSG link leger and size 4 specialist hook baited with a piece of luncheon meat. Budgie said "Just flick your bait about 3/4 the way across the river and wind in the slack, then with your finger on the line feel the bait trundling along the river bed until it stops" which I did, "You may feel the streamer weed brushing against your line" he said, which I did, "You will be able to feel the difference when you get a bite" he said; and at that moment I had a small tug followed by a strong pull which almost took the rod out of my hands and I had hooked my very first Barbel within 5 minutes of casting.

When I saw it in the net I thought it looked huge, but Budgie said it was only a small one of around 5lb and that I would catch a larger one later if I was lucky. I later caught another one of just over 8lb however I don't remember it as clearly as my first one. My first Barbel was 5lb 8oz and I was overjoyed with the exitement it gave me. I don't remember my first Carp or Tench or any other fish as much as I remember my first Barbel because the Barbel to me is a special fish that oozes power with its long muscular body and fights till it is exausted all the way to the net unlike a fat bellied Carp.

River Pigs

Other common colloquial names for the Barbel are 'River Pigs', 'Whiskers' or 'Beards'. Occasionally on a warm summer night you can hear them grunting as they turn over onto their backs to suck snails eggs and other things from the undersides of the streamer weed. some nights it appears that every Barbel in the river seems to be doing this and it sounds like a pig farm, perhaps that is where the name 'River Pig' came from?. I have witnessed this a few times on the River Kennet on hot summer nights when the river is overgrown with streamer weed. The Barbel also grunt occasionally when they are on the bank being unhooked.
The other names 'Beards' & 'Whiskers' come from the four barbules around the mouth.

What size do Barbel grow in our rivers

I don't think that it will be long before a 22lb Barbel is caught in the UK. I sometimes fish a stretch of the Great Ouse where several double figure Barbel up to around 19Żlb are caught each year by club members who swear they have seen even larger Barbel in the river but some days it is almost devoid of anglers because most of the members (including myself) live an hours drive away and have other Barbel rivers that are nearer like the rivers Ivel, Lea and Colne; however I am sure that the current record (21lb 1oz caught by Grahame King, Adams Mill Fishery, River Great Ouse in Bedfordshire) will soon be broken and if we are lucky; might even come from a little fished remote stretch of the upper Great Ouse like ours.

Most of my Barbel fishing is in the upper river Lea where the river is just a small stream, the Barbel there only average around 5lb to 7lb with the odd 8 to 9lb'er but even the smaller Barbel give a good account of themselves when hooked.


One of the easiest ways to locate the Barbel is to fish with someone who knows the river well and catches them regularly. However this is not always possible when you are new to a stretch of river and the anglers 'in the know' are not always willing to share their hard earned knowledge; and who can blame them?

I often hear people say that If you want to find Barbel just find a swim that holds Chub because they both like the same types of swim. This is certainly not always the case on the smaller streams that I fish. In a hundred yard stretch of the upper Lea there may be Chub in nearly every swim, but in the same hundred yard stretch there may only be two or three really good Barbel swims and in these Barbel swims the chub are often scarcer.

Likewise there are whole stretches of the river where you rarely see a Barbel at all although they can be found in other stretches above and below. There are stretches which only seem to hold small Barbel and don't seem to produce the larger Barbel very often which we call Nursery stretches'; and there are stretches where most of the the larger Barbel seem to be found.

Shallow streams and rivers are ideal for spotting Barbel; and a good pair of Polarised glasses and the ability to move slowly and quietly keeping out of sight is essential. You can sometimes be looking straight at a barbel without seeing it but as your eyes focus on a small triangular object or a piece of different coloured gravel the rest of the Barbel slowly becomes visible and you realise that the thing that you first saw was just its fin or tail.

A good barbel swim in late Autumn where there is a swift current
running tight along the far bank with some overhead cover

The largest of three Barbel (7lb 11oz)
caught from the swim shown on the left

Features to look for include the outside of bends especially where there are undercuts and overhanging branches, or streamy runs between streamer weed where the Barbel can move out and intercept food drifting past before disappearing back under the streamer weed, or changes in depth no-matter how small, where the stream or river narrows slightly causing a slight increase in current speed and depth, or in the slightly deeper water upstream or downstream of cattle drinks, or below weir sills especially where there are undercuts underneath the white water or near to under water obstructions where food congregates.


I use four different rods for Barbel fishing; The first is an 11ft John Wilson Avon Quiver which has a 1.25lb Test Curve avon top section plus a quiver tip top section. This is the rod I use on small rivers and streams when conditions are low and clear and where the Barbel are no bigger than 5 or 6lb.

The Second rod I use is a 12ft 1.7lb Greys Prodigy Barbel rod which comes with a standard avon top section and a quiver tip section with 3 different strength interchangable quiver tips. This is the rod that I normally use when the river is running as normal and in good condition and where Barbel run to a fair size.

In Flood conditions I use a 12ft 2lb test curve Diawa Powermesh light Carp rod. This old favourite of mine which has caught me Carp over 20lbs is great for Barbel in flood conditions and is not like a poker and with its nice tip to middle action; is able to cope with Barbel at close range in flood conditions without fear of pulling the hook.

When I am trotting a Balsa/Avon/stick float for Barbel on a small stream or river I use a 13ft Drennan MKIV Tench Float rod which allows braid or nylon lines up to 8lb to be used and has enough backbone to handle a Barbel on the float.

There are many similar rods sold by companies such as Fox, Drennan, Harrisons, Diawa etc. which are all great rods.
A quick search of articles and reviews for 'Barbel Rods' on a site such as will show you many other write-ups of some great Barbel rods for all purses.


A medium sized reliable reel (eg. Shimano 4000 or 5000 size) is recommended with spools loaded with line of 6lb, 8lb and 10lb. Modern reels tend have excellent clutches, some economy reels are prone to have problems so ensure that you have a good reliable clutch which is set to give line before the line comes near to it's breaking point, but not set too light because if you end up winding the handle against a giving clutch you will end up putting unnecessary twists in the line and lose the Barbel. Although I love using a centrepin reel I don't suggest someone uses one until they have got used to playing and landing Barbel in a small snag ridden stream or river.

End Tackle

Barbel are strong fighters and you will need to be confident that there are no weak spots in your end tackle, I prefer fishing with the line straight through to the hook so that there is no more than one knot to worry about, which can be a potential weak spot, however sometimes if I'm using a barbel braid hooklength I have to have three knots (Unless I have braid on the reel); one knot on the hook and knot at either side of the swivel or small ring.

I usually use a short 4" to 5" hook length with a short link ledger with 5SSG shot or very small Żoz lead when fishing these small rivers and streams (see diagram on right) but if I suspect that the Barbel are getting wise then I extend the hook length up to around 3ft and use some heavy putty to pin my hook length to the riverbed. very occasionally I may use a back lead but I have witnessed someone elses backlead actually hanging off the bottom when the angler was sure that it was hard on the river bed plus I rarely find the need to use them anyway.


If I am using a hair-rigged bait I like to use relatively short shanked and wide gaped hooks such as the Fox Teflon Arma Point SSBP hooks which were designed to be used over gravel bottoms without quickly blunting, Another hook that I occasionaly use for hair-rigged baits is the Korum Teflon short shank hook with the tiny micro-barb. When I am using hook mounted meat baits I like using the Drennan Super Specialist Barbel hooks or ESP Talon hooks.
If I am using small 7mm pre-drilled pellets such as the Sonu Pellet-O's then I use the small Korum Quickstop hooks.

If there are lots of smallish Chub in my swim then I will usually use a hair-rig, this is because Chub usually (but not always) pick up a bait in their lips and attempt to move off away from other members of the shoal before swallowing the bait and a hair-rigged bait will often get pulled from the Chubs lips as it moves off leaving the bait behind for the Barbel.

NB. I intend to try using a weighted hook with a piece of heavy putty inside a piece of shrink tube along the shank of the hook which would mean that I could trundle a bait without having to use any weight on the line. Because the hook shank would be thicker it would also help to keep the luncheon meat on the hook better, but I have yet to try it. I read about this method in an article about trundling for Barbel written by the great Barbel angler Ray Walton.


Hook baits I use in the warmer months are Spicy flavoured Luncheon meat, Lobworms and Halibut Crab or Chilli flavoured Pellets or Boilies coated with some soft Halibut Paste which increases the flavour drifting down the swim. In the colder months I don't tend use oily or fatty baits like Halibut Pellets and fatty Luncheon meat and rely on the really smelly baits that leak well even in cold water like Spicy, Chilli and Lamprey. I occasionally use a sweet fruit flavoured bait which seems to score well on some more popular stretches where it is not generally used that much.

Feeding your swim

For feed I use hemp, small soft halibut pellets, sweet corn and broken boilies and the odd broken lobworm; cutting back on the amount of loose feed and changing over to non-oily pellets in the winter. In some places sweetcorn seems to make the barbel a bit edgey so I will only use it where it isn't regularly used as a bait.

I usually sit and feed two or three likely swims where I've spotted one or two Barbel for at least 30 mins to an hour before I make the first cast; if they have started mopping up the loose feed I will then cast a bait to them.

I don't usually use a feeder when fishing for Barbel in this type of water as the water is fairly shallow (2ft to 4ft) and usually quite clear with the occasional deeper hole and I have noticed the Barbel on the upper stretches of the Lea sometimes behave very agitated when a feeder appears in the swim even if the feeder was there before they arrived, fishing is about confidence and even if the feeder didn't spook the Barbel I feel better if I don't take the chance on these clear shallow waters, However I do occasionally use a small PvA stocking or small bait dropper if there are no Barbel already in the swim and I need to feed a tight spot.
A feeder is not essential in this type of water anyway and as long as you keep low and away from the bank edge you can easily lay a bed of loose feed at the head of your swim by hand or catapult; sometimes you don't even need to use a catapult to put feed out because you are fishing so close to your quarry.

Bite Detection

I like to touch ledger with the line across my finger to feel what is happening down by the hook,
Every minute or so I will twitch my bait a few inches and let it settle again, I often get a take while the bait is still trundling.
Although bites can take any form; the typical Barbel bite is a pluck or two as the barbel moves over your bait followed by a take away which can be quite violent. Sometimes you can feel a bite that feels like a rough file is being rubbed against your line, caused when the barbel moves over your bait and mouths your bait and if you strike then 8/10 times you hook a Barbel.

Whether I fish with the rod tip set high or low to the water depends on the features in my swim and how wary the Barbel are. For example; If I am fishing across to a narrow run between streamer weed or using an extra light link leger I might have it set high to keep in direct contact or to stop the light link leger from being moved by the current temporarily but if I am fishing a far bank undercut in a fairly weedless swim or need to keep my line low when the Barbel seem to be wary I will fish with the tip set low to the water.

The Fight

Use a line strong enough to enable you to land the barbel in as short a time as is feasible because it will usually fight until it is totally exhausted.
Try to get below the fish if possible and try to keep the rod tip high unless the Barbel is under overhanging vegetation when you will sometimes need to submerge the rod tip to prevent the line snagging.
The Barbel will usually tend to hug the bottom a lot during the fight so don't be in too much of a hurry to get it up on top because if it isn't ready a violent turn will sometimes result as it turns over and dives again sometimes losing the hook hold in the process.
When you think you can net the Barbel don't be too confident and prepare for a last minute dash as the fight is definately not over until it is actually in the net.

Returning the Barbel to the water

Lastly; because Barbel usually fight until they are exhausted don't just release the Barbel without letting it recover first. hold it upright with its head facing upstream so the water goes into its mouth and out of its gills. In a minute or two it will start to recover and wriggle free. If this is not done then the possibility is that it will surface bottom up further down your swim and most likely die. Never keep a Barbel in a keepnet unless it is especially designed to keep Barbel in and even then only for as long as it takes for the Barbel to fully recover. There are two main reasons for this; (a). the Barbel has a serated edge behind the front dorsal spine which can get caught in the mesh of your keepnet and damage the dorsal fin. and (b). If the the Barbel is kept facing downstream in a strong flow it can be starved of oxygen and literaly drown.

Once you have broken your duck and started to recognise the Barbel swims you will wonder why you ever struggled to find them in the first place, now the fun begins and all you need to do is hook and land them.

Tight Lines and good luck


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