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There's More To It Than Just Catching...
....Which in my case is just as well! At the start of the 2003/04 season I'd made three visits to the river, and had yet to even see a barbel, never mind catch one. There had been more than a bit of compensation for that, though, as all three sessions were located in lovely surroundings, and in the case of the third outing, also in good company.
The first two trips were to a stretch of the Upper Thames. This particular water is below a weir, very narrow (much narrower than say the Kennet or Teme), and is mainly shallow, gravel-bottomed and very weedy - a classic southern barbel water. It is also well away from human habitation, and pretty much the only man-made disturbance I've "suffered" is the occasional aircraft movement from Brize Norton RAF base.
While I've yet to see a barbel on the venue, I've seen many chub, some of them real clonkers in excess of five pounds. They've been feeding avidly on the bait samples that have been put in, and at times it's been fascinating to watch them. In one swim there were a dozen of them feeding in not much more than two feet of water right by the bank, almost literally under my feet as I sat there watching them.
But it's the wildlife that has been the real joy. A Buzzard has been a regular sight, crossing the fields with effortless ease in search of a meal, and giving out that characteristic "kiew" cry. A new ornithological sight (for me) was a Little Owl. This was still about two hours before sunset, so I had a terrific view of this bird, as it sat in a tree on the opposite bank, head bobbing nervously around for about five minutes (the owl's head that is - not mine).
On the second visit to the water, I decided to have a walk along the lower beat, which I'd not previously seen. During the course of this walk, I saw a couple of red deer, which of course soon disappeared into the woods as they became aware of me.
As I emerged from under some trees into an open field, I noticed an animal about five yards away, which at first I couldn't see clearly in the long grass. I stopped and looked closely, and realised it was a badger. It was unaware of my presence for a while, as it snuffled around, presumably looking for something to eat. Then I think it must have smelled me (knew I should have had a wash), because it lifted it's head and looked around. I'm not entirely sure if it actually saw me (is it true that badgers are very short-sighted?), but it decided after a few seconds that all was not well, and scuttled off to the safety of the trees. This is the first time I've ever seen a live badger in daylight (it was about half-four in the afternoon), and it was wonderful to see it at such close quarters, and to have that view for several seconds. When I think that some people go to the trouble of setting up hides and the like to see badgers, and probably still don’t get quality of sighting that I had, then I almost consider myself privileged to have had this experience.
My third outing saw a change of scenery, with a visit to the River Cherwell, in order to meet up with fellow Barbel Society member Kevin Plaskitt. Kevin and I have been communicating with each other by email since the previous year, when I posted a query on the Society's forum about the colour of the Cherwell. It turned out we’d been fishing the same stretch. We had wanted to get together on the river for quite a while, but various circumstances meant that we couldn’t both be there at the same time. We even managed to somehow avoid each other at the Society Conference.
Finally the day came when we could both make it. The stretch has a caravan field at the top end, and Kevin had brought his ‘van down for a few days. When I arrived, we sat outside the ‘van for a while, enjoying a couple of cold beers, discussing various barbel-related matters, and trying to stop Toby from licking me to death. Toby is a King Charles spaniel, before you all start getting funny ideas.
After putting the world to rights for an hour or more, we decided we really ought to wet a line – after all, that was why we were there! The plan was to work our way down the river, leapfrogging each other as we gave each swim a go. This worked quite well, apart from the fact that we’d forgotten to explain to the fish what their part in this plan was supposed to be. Kevin managed a small chub, but apart from that no positive indications were forthcoming. We did see a few more chub, but could not get them on the feed.
So it was back to the ‘van for another beer, and a reassessment of strategy. Kevin has a greater knowledge of the stretch than I do (which to be fair is not difficult) and gave me a few pointers on areas to try. A more static approach was adopted for the remainder of the day. I had a couple of knocks in my swim, which I suspect were crayfish, judging by the “chewed” state of the bait when I reeled it in. I had to leave quite early, and as I went up to Kevin to say goodbye, I found him in a rather agitated state, having just been smashed-up by a (suspected) barbel.
So there it is, a barbel-less start to the season, but time spent on the river in the company of natures’ wonders, and like-minded barbel fishers is always time well spent.