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Taking The Paste

 

So-called “designer” pastes are now starting to make up a large part of the barbel-fishers bait armoury. But are they largely an over-priced “con”? Reading much of the publicity, and articles written by some top anglers, it would be easy to think it was all but impossible to catch a barbel these days on traditional baits such as meat, corn, hemp etc. Certainly there have been some exceptional catches taken on these new baits, especially by Stuart Morgan and Guy Robb, with those record-breaking Ouse fish. Yet I remain unconvinced.


My first real experience using paste was on a three-day session on the Barbel Society’s syndicate stretch of the Teme in the summer of 1998. I deliberately set about feeding the same few swims over the three days with freebies, and spent a lot of time watching the fishes’ reaction. Only in one swim, on the final day, did the fish react in a truly positive fashion. Here, where the baits were fed around a sunken tree stump, the fish were performing all sort of antics to get at baits which had dropped into awkward places around the roots, and it was fascinating to watch.
 

However, elsewhere the fish were pointedly ignoring the baits. As the river was very low and clear, and the days bright, it could be said that they would probably be ignoring any other bait. Yet on more than one occasion, the introduction of some flavoured meat baits (those dreaded things that the paste advocates tell us the fish are supposed to avoid like the plague in these conditions) produced a more positive response. For example, in one swim on the second day, paste samples were introduced on a clearly visible patrol route where there were over thirty barbel present. The fish ignored them for over two hours, but when I lowered a piece of meat into the swim, it was taken within two minutes (hook and all!). In another swim, paste baits failed to draw any fish in, but the addition of some bits of meat saw fish suddenly arriving from over thirty yards away. Incidentally, the flavouring used on the meat was the same as I put into the paste, so it was not down to a change of flavourings provoking a different reaction from the fish.


For the 1999/2000 campaign, I decided that it was about time I had a “double“ from the River Loddon, which is not far from my home, but was a river that I’d not had much success on in the past. In company with one of my angling colleagues, Andy Pulley, we set about a pre-season baiting campaign on one stretch of the river which is lightly fished, but where we knew that fish in excess of eleven pounds lived. We used one of the leading paste brands, with its recommended flavourings.


It is virtually impossible to spot fish in this stretch, so the only guide we would have to how the fish were responding to our baits was in the number of bites we would get. Bearing this in mind, we baited the two swims we knew produced the most fish, plus a handful of others we suspected should also produce. I did achieve my aim of landing a double, and also had a number of other fish over eight pounds. Taking the campaign as a whole, though, I caught few fish, which were landed at an average rate of less than one per session, but the most notable factor with all the fish caught was that not one came before sunset, and the most prolific spell, in October, was when the river was high and coloured. In other words, all were caught in conditions when I would be very confident of catching on those dreaded meat baits.


The idea behind the pastes is that the fish are supposed to recognise them as a top quality food item, and therefore will eat them time and again, i.e. the bait will not easily “blow”. I doubt that the fish have this capability. We as supposedly far more intelligent animals, will regularly consume foodstuffs that are not that good for us (chips, cream cakes, chocolate - you know the sort of stuff I mean), and the reason we do so is because we like the taste. Our logic tells us we should avoid these food items, but our taste-buds override that logic. Can we really believe that fish are capable of making a more informed choice?


It is interesting to note that one of the original makers of a paste mix specifically designed for barbel has increased the range of his products with both new base mixes and new flavours. I also know that the anglers that are having success on the baits are varying their flavours. If the original versions were so effective, then we have to question why there is a need to “improve” the range with these new choices. It is tempting to suggest that maybe the base mix/flavour combinations blow more easily than the manufacturers would like us to know, or maybe that they were nowhere near as effective as claimed in the first place!


I once heard one of these leading anglers talking about pastes at a Barbel Society regional meeting, and it was certainly interesting stuff. He explained how he had conducted measured tests, baiting various swims on a stretch of water, each with a different bait, and fished them in rotation for an exact amount of time each. The baits used in the swims were varied for each session. The paste swims came out on top every time, which seemed to make for a convincing argument.


I believe there is one crucial factor missing from this test which can only be replicated over a period of several years. Barbel brought up in a river where they are fished for on a reasonably regular basis will have been caught on meat from the time they are big enough to get their mouths around a half-inch cube. By the time they get to six or seven pounds, they may well have been caught several times on the traditional baits. Naturally, they will learn to fear them, so when a nice new foodstuff comes along, they will not initially have any fears, and will indulge themselves accordingly.


Bearing in mind that we are encouraged by the manufacturers to indulge in pre-baiting campaigns, and to introduce plenty of free samples when fishing, the barbel will eat plenty of “safe” baits and very few dangerous ones (those attached to a hook). Thus it will take a substantial time for the barbel to learn the same fears with the new bait that they have from an early age with the old baits.


With the huge number of flavourings, additives and colourings available to the modern angler, I believe meat can still be a very successful (and much cheaper) bait just by varying the combinations. Also, with the wide variety of tinned meats available, you can experiment with textures. Incidentally, most of the flavours I use are made by one of the leading barbel paste manufacturers.


Taking all this into account, I feel that we should be very wary of falling into the trap of believing the publicity claims that pastes are the only route to success for the modern barbel angler. They are expensive, particularly if you indulge in a pre-baiting campaign. Without doubt they catch fish, and possibly they do so in conditions where other baits are not working, but the same could be said of the humble lobworm.