The Barbel of Swale

by Gerald Vinestock



I fish the River Swale in Yorkshire, where the big fish are barbel. When you hook one, it feels as if you have caught a log. They run as strongly as salmon.

Well, so the books told me; I'd never actually caught a barbel. I tried - every day of my summer holiday I stood thigh-deep in the Swale, casting endlessly into likely swims.

But July 20th, 2009 was going to be different. On the 19th I had been in the tackle-shop buying my maggots. A customer was talking to the shop-assistant. 'I had about twenty dace, so I switched to bream,' he said.

Me, I just fish and take whatever comes on the end of my line, which is usually not very much.

The customer went on, 'Then I tried the barbel. Nothing. Maggot, worm, bread paste, nothing. So I took some luncheon meat out of my sandwich and tried that. They were fighting to get on the hook. Eleven I had, inside an hour.'

My wife was sceptical about letting me have good tinned meat to feed to fish. I argued that as a successful fisherman, especially a successful catcher of fish heavy as logs and running like salmon, I would be a better husband and father, a better man. Barbel would be a life-transforming boost to my self-confidence. My wife hid her face behind a newspaper. She must have felt cold, for her shoulders were shaking.

That evening I packed a tin of luncheon meat in my fishing bag, made sure the box of maggots still had its lid firmly in place when I popped it in the fridge. My wife and I do not see eye to eye on maggots. Even though I'd explained that you have to keep maggots cool to stop them maturing too quickly, the nearest we came to divorce was the morning my wife opened the fridge door and found that hundreds of maggots had escaped from their box and were crawling over the butter-dish and the remains of the previous evening's pizza. Since then I'm always extra careful about lids.

Next morning I left my wife sleeping, retrieved the maggots, made a cheese sandwich, opened the luncheon-meat tin and walked to my favourite spot on the river - hard work in waders. I arrived at about 6.30, set up my rod, attached my landing net to my belt and took out the luncheon meat.

I used maggots to bait the swim as appetiser, in the hope that the luncheon meat on my hook would be irresistible as main course. I squeezed a small piece of meat on to the hook, then I edged out into the river until the water was about six inches below the top of my waders. I cast out into the swim. As I did so, something flew off and landed on the opposite bank.   I reeled in my line. The hook was bare. What had flown off was my luncheon meat. I keep maggots in a little bag round my neck when I'm standing in the middle of a river, but I didn't fancy mixing my maggots with luncheon meat, so I had to plod back to the bank, re-bait my hook and wade out again. I cast again, gingerly, and was relieved to see my luncheon meat pop gently into the water at the head of the swim.

After a couple of hours of intense concentration and much plodding back and forward to the bank - when it comes to ability to stick to hooks, luncheon meat has much to learn from superglue - I had caught nothing. Once I thought I saw what books call 'the telltale swirl of white in the water', which meant a barbel was feeding, but whether it was tucking into a refrigerated maggot or a piece of fallen luncheon meat, I could not tell.

Then at about eleven o'clock I was rewarded. I trotted my float down the swim and into the slack water at the end. I was about to reel in my line in when I saw the float begin to bob. It bobbed again. Barbel are big fish. I struck hard enough to impale a shark.

Something flew through the air towards my head. I ducked - just enough to let the water flow over the top of my waders.   My float sped past my ear and landed in the water behind me. I turned round and plodded again to the bank, reeling in my line as I went. When the hook came out of the water there was something attached, a fish that would win no beauty contests, an ugly fish, a miller's thumb. A fully mature miller's thumb may check in at six inches. This was a mere infant - a fish about two inches long. It seemed none the worse for its aerial adventure; I took it off the hook and hurled it back in the water. I know, I know, I should have returned it gently to the water, but my trousers were wet and my pride was hurt.

Then I took off my waders and emptied them.

A man was walking along the riverbank with his Alsatian.

'Any joy?' he asked, as I started to re-bait with the luncheon meat.

'Just the one,' I said, hoping that he had arrived too late to see the size of the one.

I made my way back to the head of the swim and cast again.

As I did, I heard a frantic cry, 'Duke!'

I looked round to see the dog-owner running back along the bank towards Duke. Duke had the tin of luncheon meat between his paws and was licking out the last scrap of meat jelly from the bottom of the tin.

Duke's owner was apologetic.

Duke ambled happily away - in search of other fishermen, I suppose.

'I wasn't going to eat it anyway,' I said.

At one o'clock I gulped down my sandwiches, which fortunately Duke had failed to detect in my fishing-bag. I wondered about sacrificing the cheddar filling to try to tempt the barbel, but I knew I had to keep up my strength. I returned to my casting - with maggots as bait.

Shortly after four, I was watching my float as it edged downstream again. It stopped briefly, continued slowly, then dipped under the water. I struck. Another rock? No, the rock was moving and I realised I had actually hooked a fish.

All I had read about barbel was true. This fish ran, pulling out line as it went. I managed to reel it back in, but books said the fish would run again. It did. Some thirty or forty yards downstream. Once more I reeled it back. I could see the fish, perhaps six feet away in the water. It was huge, the length of my arms – well, the length of one arm at least. I stared at it. It stared at me. I reached carefully for my landing net, unhooked it from my belt, bracing my legs wide apart against the current, when suddenly the fish took off again, this time, not moving downstream, but directly towards me. There was an instant when I visualised what might happen, but it was too late to prevent it. The barbel hurtled between my legs like a train going into a tunnel.

So: me nearly up to my waist in the water; rod as near vertical as I can manage; line going backwards through my legs; barbel pulling hard on the line. I try lifting my wadered leg over the line. Discover I can't. Try walking backwards to the bank. Try the leg-lift again. Fail. Panic. Force leg over line. Drop landing-net. With foot I push landing-net to bed of river. Keep foot on net to stop it floating away. Realise only way to pick up landing net is to bend over and dip into water. Water deep. Get wet. Pick up net. Realise fish is still on line – joy! Reel it in some more. Edge landing net under fish. Hoist net and fish aloft. Try to look as if catching large barbel is everyday occurrence. Go to shore. Unhook fish. Release fish – gently. Drip. Not felt so happy since wedding day.

Anything else was going to be an anti-climax. I packed up my kit and squelched triumphantly home.

'Any luck?' my wife asked.

'No luck; just pure unadulterated skill,' I said.

©2010 Gerald Vinestock

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