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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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
A man was walking along the riverbank with
'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.
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.
owner was apologetic.
Duke ambled happily away - in
search of other fishermen, I suppose.
wasn't going to eat it anyway,' I said.
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
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
else was going to be an anti-climax. I packed up my kit and squelched
luck?' my wife asked.
luck; just pure unadulterated skill,' I said.
©2010 Gerald Vinestock
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