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Catching barbel on a flooded river

With the long, hot days of summer behind us, now come the colder months. This can prove very tough for barbel fishing, with low, clear, chilly conditions making bites very hard to come by. Never fear, though, because autumn also tends to bring heavy rainfall and flood conditions and nothing sparks the prince of the river into life more than flowing coloured water and a river bursting its banks.

Many an angler fears the flood, staying away in sheer panic and confusion. However, experience has taught me that, quite to the contrary, this can be the best and easiest time to catch, with heavy rainfall often meaning milder spells and higher than normal temperatures. Read on and you too will soon be landing your next pb and putting more barbel on the bank than ever before…

Relax…

The initial thought of many anglers when approaching a flooded river is how do I deal with this and how do I fish? I’ve seen many an angler park up, see the river in the fields, turn round and drive off again, dejected at the prospect of actually having to go home and finish those DIY projects. A giant moving sheet of water the colour of chocolate and full of floating islands can be an intimidating sight but the first thing is to remain calm and breathe. Take a few minutes, watch the water and the river will reveal its secrets to you.

…and put safety first

Absolutely the first most important thing when fishing a river in flood is your safety. Choose a venue you know well, maybe your local river, and use the watercraft you’ve developed over the warmer months to be aware of where the banks are. Quite often a flooded river can be deceptive with areas underwater that would usually be walkable bank. It pays to know where these are because, before you know it, you can be wading through water and off the edge, at best getting very wet and, at worst, risking your health and safety.

Use a prodding stick – your landing net handle is ideal – to investigate areas in front of you that you are unsure of. It’s also a good idea to fish with a friend so you can keep an eye on each other and, let’s be honest, there’s nothing like fishing with a mate and having someone there to net your fish and take the photos, hopefully for each other.

Tackle up!

When it comes to tackle ROBUST is the word. In my personal fishing I’ve never been an advocate of ‘fining down’ in any conditions for barbel in any regard, knowing well that barbel are not the shyest species and are seldom put off by heavier tackle and high diameter lines. There’s no need for quiver tips for indication and no need to fish fine diameter technical pre-stretched lines to get a bite. With plenty of debris from leaves to fully fledged branches and trees, the key is strength.

Rods and reels

I like to fish a rod of around 2lb test curve on my local River Nene, with anything from 1.75 to 3 lb and above usable depending on your venue and the conditions you are facing. To this I will add a reel of 4000 or 5000 in size so that I am able to load it with plenty of strong line. My personal preference is for front drag only reels but a baitrunner style reel is also very useful if you aren’t comfortable setting your clutch or you’re fishing multiple rods at the same time. I will load this with 12lb line. I’ve long been a fan of good old fashioned Maxima as it’s strong as an ox, will land a car, has great abrasion resistance and knot strength while remaining supple enough for a great presentation and line lay. A few alternative options are Daiwa Sensor, Gardner Pro Carp and Korum Barbel Line, with many other options available. All are good value basic lines at an affordable price where the focus is on being robust and strong.

Before moving on to the rig, I like to add a float stop on my mainline a yard up from the terminal tackle. In flood this small addition is used very effectively to gather debris such as weed and reeds and prevents them from running all the way down to your rig, masking the hook and making your bait ineffective. This simple tip can add a valuable few minutes to every cast and may well be responsible for getting you that bite.

Strong lines and balanced tackle help you land more fish in flood conditions.

Strong lines and balanced tackle help you land more fish in flood conditions.

The pointy end

Down to the rig end, this couldn’t get more simple. I like to use a standard lead clip for my floodwater fishing. We’ll be fishing straight lead tactics and, with the chance of snags and debris, the ability to drop the lead rather than lose or potentially tether a fish is key. With this I will use a size 8 flexi-ring swivel as I’ve found that attaching the hooklink to this ring allows it to ‘helicopter’ in flight, straightening everything out and preventing a lot of unnecessary tangles.

For the hooklink I like to use good old fashioned, uncoated, supple braid. Fluorocarbon has been a popular choice for barbel fishing in recent years but personally it’s not for me, as I believe the trade-offs far outweigh the advantages. I don’t find it particularly abrasion resistant and knot strength can be an issue and, as I mentioned previously, strength is key. I’ll start off with a 2ft length of braid and this is simply tied knotless knot style to a Size 6 straight point pattern hook (I’ll explain why when we move on to bait) with the tag end cut off.

Extra kit

There you go, no fancy rigs or additional components. It’s only a step away from simply a hook on line. Add to this your regular kit; a small bag with your terminal tackle and bait, rod rest, some drink and snacks and make sure to use a large landing net and unhooking mat so we can ensure our prize is looked after when on the bank. Take a weigh sling and scales if you’re going to weigh that new pb and any camera equipment to record your achievement, making sure in these conditions that everything is stored well and remains safe and dry. Equally importantly, don’t forget to wrap up yourself so you can be safe, dry and comfortable in the colder wet conditions.

As someone once said ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’ and this can be the difference between being on the bank catching or going home early and disappointed.

The bait game – or lack of

Continuing with our simple theme this is going to be a very short recommendation: meat. There is perhaps inarguably no better bait for barbel on a swollen, coloured river than simple luncheon meat, and all we have to do is simply bury a hook in it! This is the reason for recommending straight point hooks. A straight point is going to enter and exit your meat in a straight line, whereas a more curved point stands the risk of turning into the meat and may cost you a hookup. Many river anglers recommend ‘beaked’ points to avoid the point being turned over on hard gravel but, honestly, I’ve never found this to be an issue and, if I did reel in a blunt hook, I’m more than happy to simply change it for a new one.

Prepping your bait

You can buy Spam and you will definitely catch but I find it can be a little soft so I prefer to use the cheaper ‘bacon grill’ style alternatives as they tend to be a little tougher and will stand up to the cast and a powerful flow a little better. In terms of preparation I really don’t do much here, but what I will do the night before is take it out of the tin, slice into cubes of roughly an inch square, throw them in a sandwich bag or similar and cover them in a generous coating of coarse salt. I’ll give the bag a shake and then throw it in the freezer. Not only is salt a fantastic fish attractor because of its mineral content, this will also draw some more moisture out of the meat and make it tougher still. Simply then take out of the freezer with enough time to defrost before you go fishing.

Salted luncheon meat secured with a blade of grass is all you need.

Salted luncheon meat secured with a blade of grass is all you need.

Try adding spice and flavours to your meat, or just opt for salt.

Over the years anglers have used a variety of flavours to ‘pimp’ their meat for barbel and I’ve tried them all too so feel free to give them a try but, personally, I’ve never thought any have increased my catch rate over salted meat. YMMV as they say. Popular flavours include; garlic powder, paprika, curry, turmeric, pepper. Try them all and try them together, you never know what might get a bite on the day.

Choices

Because we all like options, I’ll offer an alternative. The only other bait I’ll take on a flooded river is a paste wrapped boilie. To do this, simply set your rig as above but leave a hair for your boilie instead of cutting it off. Stick to a big hook as before and use either a single big bait such as 18mm or similar or two smaller 12mm boilies and wrap these generously in matching paste. The paste will give off a great scent trail in coloured water with the added bonus of confidence that, even when the paste has washed away, you’re still fishing a boilie on the hair.

Although I haven’t found that this has the same instant attraction and immediate impact as meat but you still won’t go wrong. Popular flavours that have accounted for many barbel are The Source, Krill, Crab and other strong fishmeal flavours, but feel free to walk your own path and don’t be afraid to use fruity flavours such as pineapple as these will have a real punch in these conditions. When all is said and done, I’ve caught barbel on nearly every flavour available.

Boilie wrapped in paste makes a great alternative hookbait and can be fished with confidence if you're afraid of your meat coming off.

Boilie wrapped in paste makes a great alternative hookbait and can be fished with confidence if you’re afraid of your meat coming off.

Where to start?

Now we’re on to the important bit, as famously said so many times by so many people; location, location, location. Barbel are not a particularly shy fish at any time but in floodwater the colour of a strong cuppa they’re positively extroverts, dying to come out and say hello for the camera, the key is simply being in the right swim.

So many anglers in a flood head to the river with their collection of huge leads, dusting off the 5,6,8 and maybe 10 ouncers in an oft vain attempt to hold bottom casting to the middle of a raging torrent. If I could offer only one piece of advice in this whole article it would be this: take exactly the same leads you use in normal conditions and fish exactly where they will hold bottom.

I like to fish with a lead of around 2 oz but in the floods use whatever weight you normally use on your local river and fish where it will hold bottom. More than likely this is where the barbel will be holed up.

I like to fish with a lead of around 2oz but in the floods use whatever weight you normally use on your local river and fish where it will hold bottom. More than likely this is where the barbel will be holed up.

In my experience

I’m fishing my local River Nene so, for me, a ‘normal lead’ is around 2oz but obviously this may vary for you, with larger rivers such as the Trent and Severn in areas requiring larger leads at a regular level. In dead slacks I could actually get away with less to hold bottom but I rarely go below 2oz as I like the hooking potential on a bolt rig of having a bit of weight behind it. I’ve watched barbel, and carp for that matter, in clear conditions pick up rigs with small bombs and 1oz leads, the hook failing to set and the rig being dropped after being moved an unbelievable distance.

Although torpedo shaped and seemingly designed for fast flowing water, barbel, like most species, don’t want to waste energy, nor do they want to sit facing upstream filling their gills with debris. Basically, look for slacks, back eddies, creases and anywhere you can fish with a regular lead. A flooded river, rather than eliminating swims as most anglers fear, actually provides a wealth of new opportunities, with cattle drinks that are usually dry filled to the brim and slacks behind trees and bushes that would usually be several feet clear of the water.

Aim for the slacks and eddies; behind the tree, in the near margin and behind the rushes. Keep the rod high if fishing the far bank, to keep line out of the flow.

Aim for the slacks and eddies; behind the tree, in the near margin and behind the rushes. Keep the rod high if fishing the far bank, to keep line out of the flow.

How to approach?

Continuing to keep it simple, and proving yet again that a flooded river can actually make it simpler still, there’s only a few things to say here. One thing not to worry about too much is depth. Let’s not forget the river is flooded and there’s water in the fields so, for the most part, everywhere is deep! It still pays to feel your lead down on a tight line, so try to feel that ‘donk’ so you know you’re on clean ground.

Upstream or downstream fishing isn’t really important with so much colour and you may well find yourself fishing from some unusual new areas, also possibly fishing a back eddy that means the water is heading in the complete opposite direction than it might normally.

Time to start

Find your slack, looking for steady, even pace and avoid swims that are ‘boiling’ or highly broken as this may indicate a lot of underwater snags and lead to a lot of lost tackle. Bury your hook directly through your piece of meat and out the other side. Now turn it a full 180 degrees and pull the hook tight, using a small blade of grass or a thin twig under the bend to secure the meat in place. This will help prevent the meat flinging off or the hook ripping through. Don’t worry, the bites are going to be fierce, so a barbel will pull the hook straight through when it takes.

Give each swim a couple of casts and about 45 minutes to an hour. This is ample of time to discover if there are any barbel in the area and, unlike normal autumn and winter conditions when the river can be cold and clear, you can get plenty of bites throughout the day, meaning that dusk and dawn sessions are less important, giving you more chances to catch. Don’t be shy about moving on and try not to be lazy. If you haven’t had a bite, more than likely they’re not there and these aren’t the conditions where you’re going to draw the fish in; they’re holed up in specific areas and they’re most likely staying there. You just need to find them.

Landing your prize

Whether you’re lucky enough to get a bite in the first swim or you’ve had several moves, hopefully eventually you’ll be into a fish. The bites, when they come, are more than likely to be violent and, even though you’re fishing the slacks, once hooked that barbel is going to head into the flow to get away. This is where the strong tackle comes in. The clutch should be set so that you can give line, but only begrudgingly. Line should start ticking off only when the point of the rod is at 90 degrees to the butt, giving enough slack to not get snapped off but enough tension to keep the fish under control.

After a short sprint you should be able to turn the fish. Keep steady pressure and ease it towards you, being mindful of lunges and late runs once near the net. Let these happen whilst maintaining control and eventually the barbel will be beaten, ready to slide your net under. Net the fish and take a few minutes to give it a rest. Barbel are notoriously hard fighters and need good recovery time before being released or taken out of the water.

Landing a barbel in the flood. Always helps to have a friend...

Landing a barbel in the flood. Always helps to have a friend…

Looking after the fish

Once this is done, get your prize on the mat making sure to wet it beforehand. Weigh and photograph it and put it back in the net for recovery. Barbel in floods tend to lose their pigmentation very quickly and appear a very silver colour, an interesting change from their regular bronze tones. Remember, this is the very reason you’re out in wet, muddy conditions in the worst half of the year so it pays to show the fish maximum respect in the hope that both you and future anglers can catch it again in the future, hopefully even bigger!

Hold the net out in the flow and wait for the barbel to let you know it’s ready. Often they can remain very still or even turn upside down for a start, utterly exhausted from the fight. Try to keep the fish upright with some water running over its gills and eventually it will start to kick and try to swim away. Simply lower the net cord and let the barbel swim away, soon to have disappeared into the murky floodwater. Now, take it all in and move on to the next slack…

Conclusion

Autumn and winter can be a tough time of year and, in everyday low, clear conditions, barbel can be a very challenging target. Like many anglers I used to see the first floods and panic, writing my fishing off until the waters had subsided. Experience and a passion to catch then taught me that, far from being a negative, floods can provide some of the simplest, most straightforward and most rewarding barbel fishing you can experience and may well be the boost you need to kick-start your winter campaign.

Next time you see it rain and the charts show the levels shooting skyward, grab the barbel rods and get down the river. You never know, it could be the best fishing you’ll have all year!

A bristling barbel caught from a flooded Nene backwater

A bristling barbel caught from a flooded Nene backwater


FAQ

Where can I find barbel near me?

I fish the River Nene, a venue where I have caught barbel to over 16lbs and others to 19lbs+ but you can also find barbel in many rivers throughout England such as the Trent, Kennet, Ouse, Severn, Hampshire Avon, Wye and many more, varying from small intimate venues to raging bodies of water.

What about fishing the feeder?

Normally I would say go for it, I’m a massive fan of groundbait, hemp and small pellets to keep barbel feeding but in flood conditions, even fishing the slacker water and eddies I’ve mentioned, your bait is likely to drift into the main flow and simply get washed away, at best providing no benefit and, at worst, actually lowering your chances by feeding fish a lot further downstream. Stick to a big single high attract hookbait in the floods.

I want to try this floodwater barbel fishing, it sounds exciting, but I don’t own a ‘barbel’ rod…

I would always recommend the right tool for the job in most circumstances but, if it’s your first try and you just want to see if it’s for you, try to use what you have. I wouldn’t recommend a rod of less than 1.75lb test curve for barbel in any conditions, certainly not in the testing conditions we’re talking about here so put the feeder rods down but if you have a carp or pike rod anywhere up to around 3lb test curve it’ll do the job and will be more suited to the floods than normal conditions where stiffer rods may lead to hook pulls.

I’ve heard that barbel take a long time to recover and can die. I’m nervous…

Barbel can indeed take a long time to recover and, perhaps more than any fish, give absolutely everything in the fight but, in all the years I’ve been barbel fishing and after hundreds of fish I’ve never lost one yet. Follow the simple steps above and you won’t go far wrong. Barbel are more likely to struggle in summer when oxygen levels are low but, as long as you respect the fish and take adequate time to ensure full recovery, you will be absolutely fine. There are a wealth of resources available if you need some guidance and maybe none better than the barbel handling code.

There’s a lot of rigs out there. Seriously – just a hook?

Yep, that’s it. Barbel have an underslung ‘anti-eject’ mouth and, like most cyprinid species of the carp family, feed by inhaling. Ninety-nine per cent of the time once it’s in it’s staying in. I could count on less than one hand the amount of barbel that have shed the hook in over a decade of barbel fishing. Although different rigs do have their place within angling in different scenarios that isn’t here. No need for any pop-ups, hinges, spinners or combi’s. Tie that hook on and away you go…

How cold is too cold for a winter barbel?

Now this depends a little on how much you love your fishing and how eager you are to catch. Barbel can certainly be extremely difficult to catch in deep winter but milder spells and flowing water will always mean more opportunity. While I wouldn’t recommend it, I caught my coldest weather winter barbel when the air temperature was minus five degrees and everything was still frozen. The difference being the prevailing temperature had been minus eight and below for weeks and that slight increase had brought the barbel on the feed. There’s always a chance…

What else will I catch in a flood?

It’s not only barbel, many other fish in the flood will be on the feed, spurred on by the milder conditions associated with heavy rainfall and expending a lot of energy to hold in the flow. The tactics we’re using should rule out most smaller species such as rudd and roach but there’s every chance of big chub, bream, tench and carp in these conditions so, if you’re fortunate enough, you might have a bumper day!

Rob Harris
Written by Rob Harris
After a late start in angling, not casting his first line until his teenage years, Rob has developed a passion for life and is dedicated to ensuring that others, including future generations, have the same opportunities to enjoy fishing as he has. Primarily a specimen angler, Rob enjoys a challenge and is always seeking that next big fish, no matter what the species, from off the beaten track and away from the crowds, as well as exploring new and exciting methods of catching them.

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