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Baits for Barbel

A taste of the exotic . . .
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Peter Stone controls a fine barbel in the weeds of the Railway Pool
on the Hampshire Avon Royalty Fishery. Photo from
The Fighting Barbel.

Baits for Barbel


These days the modern barbel angler relies heavily on pellets and pastes for his fishing, but catching barbel over the centuries has involved using some weird and wonderful concoctions. Baits for barbus are both many and varied and no doubt every wacky idea has taken a barbel at some time or other. Years ago it was the custom for well-heeled fishers to bait-up swims with thousands of lobworms over many days before fishing (actually, you would employ a local guide to do such a slimy job). Despite such preparations, erratic feeding behaviour is typical of the barbel, which will sometimes take anything you put on the hook, yet at another will eat one bait to the exclusion of everything else.

No single bait can be regarded as a good all-rounder for barbel fishing. At one time, worms were by far the best and most common hook bait until the taste of the barbel (or more likely, the angler) changed, first to Dutch Edam and later soft-cheese pastes. Even now, some waters go through a maggot or halibut pellet phase which makes it difficult to take barbel on any other bait. Regular Thames anglers used to say that while their fish would take normal baits like worms or cheese, they showed a distinct preference for sausage! In the lower Thames, upper Severn and Wye, luncheon-meat and spam used to produce more fish than anything else.

The changing feeding habits of barbel are usually blamed on two main factors. First, after being caught once or twice, barbel begin to associate certain baits as dangerous and leave them strictly alone, though the fish continue to feed and thrive on natural water life. The angler, in turn, looks round for a ’new’ bait and the whole cycle starts again. Secondly, when a good fish or a large catch is made, news travels far and wide (and in these digital days, instantly), with more and more anglers trying the new magic bait. As more fish are taken, the bait is used almost exclusively, which results in the barbel in a particular location becoming completely preoccupied with it.

The following is a list (not comprehensive by any means) of popular baits that have been used by barbel fishers over many years:

Made by cutting the crust from a four-day-old loaf and thoroughly soaking the remainder in water before kneading to a soft paste in a clean piece of cloth. Best fished on a static or rolling ledger.

Crust from a fresh loaf about the size of an old penny is another good rolling ledger bait. The distance between lead and bait should only be an inch or two to keep the crust close to the bottom; particularly effective in heavily-weeded swims or in shallow water at dusk. Put the hook through the crust from the soft side first to prevent the strike being cushioned by the tougher crust. A good bait for long-trotting float tackle, but make sure the bait is bumping along close to the bottom.

Flake pulled from the centre of a new loaf and pressed gently round the shank is used in much the same way as crust. Use really big pieces of flake, on long-shanked hooks. As the flake bait comes to rest on the bottom when ledgering, small particles are pulled off (by small fry or current) and these trickle downstream to make a very attractive groundbait.

One of the best barbel baits of all, cheese has been extremely effective in British rivers for centuries. Cut a small square from a slab of an Edam cheese (which has a suitable texture for a hook bait) and work the hook into it. This was a very popular method in the past and usually fished with the bright red rind left on. As far as cheese paste baits go, you can use a plain Cheddar, which is just the right texture to mould to a soft paste, mixed with bread. A stronger smelling cheese greatly increases your chances! The size of hook you use with cheese paste should be chosen to suit the size of the bait, and the correct method is to mould the cheese round the hook so that it just covers it.

Lobworms, red worms and brandling and other worms in all shapes and sizes are still widely used, though now less so than they were. Barbel love them, especially during hot summer days, and then a big juicy lobworm will often do the trick. And worms are effective at other times too - we once had a fantastic day on the Severn in a bank-high flood when everyone fishing caught barbel, all right under the bank! The real drawback with worms on some waters is the number of eels you catch. However, despite some drawbacks, worms are a good barbel bait and well worth using.

One of the most popular of all the angler’s baits. Their resemblance to small aquatic life is obvious, and is further enhanced by using maggots of different colours. Maggots ledgered down fast gravel runs is a great way to catch barbel, but keep your swim baited up throughout the day. Long-trotting with maggots is another good way to take barbel - using such tactics it is possible to take fish all through the day even in bright, hot conditions. How many maggots you put on the hook is dependent on the mood of the barbel. Sometimes they are quite prepared to grab a bunch of a dozen or more, while at other times you can only get fish on double or single maggot bait.

This is a specialised bait, often only effective on waters which are regularly baited with hempseed. Heavy groundbaiting with hemp would probably work on any barbel water - provided it was not banned by some antiquated local byelaw! Prepare hemp for fishing by soaking overnight in cold water, then simmer it on the stove until the skins split. To keep the strong, sweet smell, take to the waterside in a plastic bag or container.

Sausage, Spam and Luncheon meat
In the sixties the sausage was termed a ‘modern bait’, when anglers first discovered its value as a hookbait to catch some enormous barbel. Skinless sausages, half-cooked in boiling water, are very good, though they can also be used raw. The meat can be mixed with bread to form an effective paste. Spam, luncheon meat and various tinned meats have been used with some success for many years (Chris Yates used to swear by Co-op Bacon Grill which he thought was a superior bait to the rest). It’s also nicer to eat as a bankside snack if you get hungry . . .

Fishing with silkweed is hardly practised nowadays, though the weed itself is easily gathered from the aprons of weirs, pilings and stonework. The bright green, extremely soft weed has proved itself an excellent all-round bait, and in weirpools it accounts for chub, roach and barbel during the summer months. Peter Stone caught many fine barbel with silkweed on the Thames but insisted you should never touch it with your hands!

The freshwater mussel is another good barbel bait that’s now out of favour, although it was never widely used.
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Baits from the past . . . non of which are (nor should be) used today;

Minnows and small fry were often used, as barbel are predatory all the year round. There is little doubt that barbel eat quite a lot of small fry, even up to gudgeon size. Minnows were lip-hooked for ledgering, or through the dorsal fin when trotting weedy runs. Small frogs were also used. The native white-clawed crayfish was a first-rate chub bait, but equally suitable for barbel fishing. It is Britain’s only native freshwater crayfish, and was once widespread in English and Welsh rivers, but has suffered severe population decline. It is listed on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species and is predicted to face extinction in much of its former range within the next few decades. Since the invasion of American signal crayfish and loss of suitable habitat, their numbers are now seriously diminished. The elver is the young of the European eel (
Anguilla anguilla), and historically they entered British waters in huge numbers in the spring. They have been in severe decline and were put on the Red List a few years ago. Being small and very much like an extra-tough worm, they were widely used for all fish and in particular barbel. Lampreys were also much used as baits in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In British waters there are three types - the Brook Lamprey, the River Lamprey, and, biggest of all, the Sea Lamprey. All are still relatively common but have declined or become extinct in some UK rivers.

And finally, the dreaded pellets . . .
Sadly the bait of choice for the modern barbel fisher - but what a choice they have. One company alone offers Marine Halibut Pellets, Pre-Drilled Marine Halibut Pellets, Meaty Marine Pellets, Meaty Fish Bites, Crave Boilies, Crave Tuff Paste, CompleX-T pellets, CompleX-T boilies and Robin Red Pellets etc, etc! I can’t vouch for their effectiveness, as I don’t use such things myself, but like salmon flies, they certainly catch anglers!

So there you have it, barbel baits in a nutshell (hey - maybe that’s one that’s not been tried). Despite all the concoctions listed above you could go old school and try the unusual. Caterpillars, grubs, elderberries, caddis grubs, beetles, cherries, bananas, strawberries, macaroni, crickets and slugs have all taken barbel, so why not give them a try and let me know how you get on . . .
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To find out more about barbel, barbel fishing and barbel baits take a look at some of our barbel books by clicking here.