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Barbel In The Blood - Oliver Harper

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Barbel In The Blood - Oliver Harper

Having been introduced into angling at a very young age, I've often found myself trying to understand many childhood memories and angling situations that I’ve witnessed. Most of these vague memories from years ago stem from my father's captures and, being so young, only added to the mystery. One memory stands out from the rest, not because I remember it particularly clearly but because what I saw that day obviously left a vivid impression and fuelled so many of my childhood dreams.

Being only four-years-old at the time I was too young to be left at home and my mother (pregnant with my brother at the time) had been called upon to walk across the Wensum flood-plain to photograph some big fish for my father. I probably didn't want to be dragged to the river but I remember seeing the Wensum for the very first time, gazing into the crystal-clear water, seeing fish there, and the spell was cast.

However, that evening my attention was soon taken by the sight of two very large fish. I was immediately getting in the way and wanting to have a closer look only to be told, ‘Be careful!’ Being so young, I didn't know the difference between a minnow and a pike and, as the fish were so big, I grew up assuming that they must have been pike!

As expected, my angling apprenticeship started very early. I was soon catching minnows, stone loach, bullheads and crayfish, with the use of a small net before progressing onto float fishing and catching my fathers live baits! When I was a little older I was allowed to join him out on the Wensum in his canoe, chub fishing on the river and, as a result, angling got its hooks into me. I began to get keener, more involved, and I started to accumulate my own tackle.

As soon as I was old enough to venture out on my own, my push-bike was put to good use. I would cycle to Bintree Mill and sometimes even as far as Costessey. Later, my teenage years were spent on local carp lakes, such as Booton Clay Pit and Ringland Day's Lake, where many valuable lessons were learnt. But the desire to head back to the river was growing and I was soon totally hooked in pursuit of the capture of my first barbel.

However, my first barbel encounter didn't pan out the way that I had envisaged. A trip with my father to the River Wensum in late June, saw us battling through countless stinging nettles before we finally reached the river. Eventually, we settled in our chosen swims and quietly baited with a few handfuls of halibut pellets.

Once my rig had been placed on a small strip of gravel I found it increasingly hard to sit still and resist the temptation to stand up and peer over the nettle screen that was doing such a good job of hiding me from my quarry. Temptation did soon get the better of me and looking through my polaroids, I quickly noticed the outline of a good-sized barbel standing out on the gravel. Its pink pectoral fins gave it away and then I could see its perfect golden flank, confirming what I was looking at. The anticipation as it moved closer to my hookbait was too much and I could no longer watch. I slowly sank back into my chair, hoping the rod-tip would violently wrap round and I'd be hooked to my first barbel.

After a nervous quarter of an hour, with no sign of the anticipated action, I was eager to take another look. Disappointingly the barbel had gone but I could no longer see any bait. Why hadn't I got a pull? Could he make-out my rig on the clean gravel? With doubts setting in, I decided to recast and check that the bait was still on. The warm water had whittled it down, so a fresh hookbait was added to the rig and placed, this time, tighter to the weed. Another handful of pellets were scattered upstream, to flow down into the swim and I sat back, hoping the barbel would return.

Before I knew it, the rod tip had slammed round and the rod started bouncing in the rests! I sprung from my chair and tried to control a power I had never experienced before. It tore line frantically from the reel and headed down-river at speed, eventually finding sanctuary in the thick streamer weed. As I started to panic, thinking the fish was lost, my father was at hand, instructing me to keep the pressure on and slowly walk downstream to get below the fish, which I did. With the direction of the flow now on my side, I was surprised how easily the barbel was freed from the weed.

After a few more spirited efforts to re-establish itself within the weedbed we soon had the fish recuperating safely in the landing net. I stared down at an unfamiliar but beautiful shape, monitoring the even pulse of the gills. After the camera and weighing equipment had been sorted, we brought the fish up onto the unhooking mat and my excitement immediately turned to disappointment. I'd foul-hooked the fish under the chin.

Maybe the fish had swum into the line as it fed on the free offerings, or perhaps the hook had slipped when easing her from the weed, or during the fight; but all I knew was that I could not claim my first barbel. We didn't bother to weigh the fish, estimating the weight at around 8 lbs and after another short rest in the landing net we let her go.


With my father now turning his attention to catching barbel on the River Ouse, it wasn't long before I put my student loan to good use and bought the gear I needed to join him. My barbel-catching crash-course had begun and I felt considerably out of my depth. The combination of high banks, wall-to-wall weed and having to fish blind for a species I'd never caught before was turning into a real test.

The first Ouse trip soon became the session from hell and the temptation to spend it asleep in the car was soon looking like the ideal solution. However, after a short pep-talk, the baits were cast back amongst the weed, where I hoped the barbel could find them. And soon they did! I opened my account with two double-figure barbel and the disappointments of the previous session on the Wensum were well and truly forgotten. In subsequent regular trips to the river Ouse I quickly learnt the basics of barbel fishing in a sometimes difficult river.

As I was studying to become a graphic designer I was lucky in that I had the freedom to take the occasional 'study day', and spend it on the River Ouse for short over-nighters, it just had to be done. Two seasons quickly passed me by. They were filled with many memorable catches and adventures. On one particular night, I even set the brolly up in front of a badger set. The grunting, thumping and rustling in the darkness was somewhat disconcerting and I did wonder if my father was up to his tricks, before deciding that a move might be a good idea!

The fishing on the River Ouse was exceptional, with several barbel often the norm for an all-nighter, but the two and a half hour journey meant that I could only fish there at the most once a week. The Wensum was so much closer. My father had very close connections with barbel fishing on the Wensum at Costessey, having pioneered it from as early as 1977 with his capture of the first Wensum double at 11 lbs 14 oz, and I was very familiar with the history of this famous barbel fishery in its heyday. However, things had changed and time had not been so kind.


When NACA added the Ketteringham's fishery to its portfolio it had already identified that there would need a lot of hard work, care and attention to restore the fishery back to its former glory. Since 1987 the over abstraction of the pipeline up-river, along with the devastating effects caused by decades of dredging, had really taken its toll. Most of the gravel that made up the vital spawning beds was now laying in the adjacent field and its fast flowing, crystal clear waters were all part of history, along with most of its famous barbel. With this huge task looming, the Costessey Point Project was born.

As soon as tickets became available, my father and I wasted no time in joining. We kept our membership through the years while we were still pursuing the barbel on the River Ouse but in 2005 I graduated from uni and had to quickly adjust to a normal 9-till-5 work life. Our mid-week over-nighters on the River Ouse soon came to an end and I had to finally look closer to home for my barbel fishing, though I knew fishing the Wensum would be a totally different story to my time on the Ouse.

Luckily, my new job was only minutes away from the river at Costessey and it became very easy to spend my lunchtimes and evenings walking the riverbank, fish spotting. I quickly learnt the where-abouts of its small head of barbel and found them enjoying the improvements of all the hard work carried out by NACA.

Not wanting to waste any of my lunch-breaks, I’d always pop down for a quick recce. On many occasions I’d find the fishery deserted, giving me total freedom to find the barbel and plan my approach. This gave me quiet an edge and on the first session, I had already formed an idea of where I wanted to target that evening, but before heading back to the computer I baited-up with a few handfuls of pellets and hoped they’d do the work of drawing the barbel into my chosen swim, ready for the evening.

My plan formed, all I had to do was put the final part into action and get a bait in the water. The few hours spent back at work that day seemed to drag by very slowly but the relief of knowing I didn’t have any competition was a great help and once the clock reached 5:30 pm, I was soon driving back down the dusty track, to find the river just as I left it.

Keeping as low as possible, I pushed my banks sticks in without disturbance. I set up the rest of the gear as quietly and calmly as possible and baited my tried and tested rig, ready for casting. The cast wasn’t easy and one I just had to get right. Luckily it landed 'bang on the money' and I sat back to watch the rod tip in anticipation. It soon signalled a violent bite and, once connected to the fish, I thought a chub was the culprit and my plans were ruined. Immediately I could see what looked like a small barbel fighting against the flow and trying to dislodge the hook. With my tackle set-up for much bigger barbel, the fish was quickly over-powered but soon regained some strength in the bottom of my landing net. Out of curiosity, I weighed the immaculate, small barbel at 2 lbs 8 ozs. It had to be a home-grown Costessey barbel and illustrated first hand the fruits of NACA's hard work. I slipped it back gently, hoping I might catch it again one day, a lot bigger, perhaps.


The rig was cast back to the spot and again I waited for an inquiry. Knowing I was on the right track and had feeding barbel in the area, made it hard work to take my eyes off the rod. The evening light was beginning to fade and the isotope became my focal point. My concentration was shortly broken by a chublet striking the surface to grab a quick meal but in the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the rod tip slamming round, signalling a bite. The rod was only inches away from my right hand so I was quickly doing battle with another Wensum barbel, this time it was much larger. It seemed like an age before I could stop the initial run but slowly I gained some line. With the battle turning in my favour, I eased her away from the faster flowing water on the far side and once this was done I reached for the net and had her in first time.

I couldn’t resist having a quick look and with my grin now stretching from ear-to-ear, I called my father to let him know I’d caught another barbel but this time I’d need a photographer. He was soon on his way but I knew the drive down would take at least 20 minutes, so I gently reached into the net and unhooked her without disturbing her recovery. Having sorted a new rig and fresh bait, I couldn’t resist another cast and after checking, once more, that the barbel already in my net was still upright and gaining some strength, I quietly cast back to the spot. I remember thinking to myself that there wasn’t any chance I would be luckily enough to get another pull but having a bait in the water would pass the time until my father arrived.

Less than ten minutes had passed when my rod was signalling another violent bite. I was on the rod immediately and a sense of déjà vu hit me. The power from the previous battle was being matched and so was the direction of the fight. Their natural instinct to stay in the fast flowing current and use it to their advantage amazed me but I was also aware it was putting me and my tackle through a real test. I then remembered the first fish was still in the net and knew netting the second wasn’t going to be straight forward! I hoped my father would turn up at any moment but, with the battle slowing, I had to time everything to perfection on my own.

I gained full control and eased her closer, only dipping the net cord at the last minute. In she went and I couldn’t believe my luck. As I breathed a sigh of relief, I heard my father pull-up and couldn’t wait to see the look on his face. I kept quiet and waited for him to take the net handle from me and pear down at my catch. A quick grin, illuminated by his torch light, said it all and preparations were made to weigh and photograph the first barbel. The needle on my Avons swung round to 7 lbs 8 oz and, after a few quick pictures, we returned her to the net to catch her breath before letting her go.


The same care and attention was spent on the second barbel and once on the mat, it became clear they were nearly identical in size and shape. Only being half a pound bigger, they were certainly from the same year group and I was over the moon with how things had panned out. Knowing both barbel were back safe and still buzzing with excitment, I begun to relay the last couple of hours to my father. With a pat on the back, he drove home, leaving me to ponder over the question of having another cast. How could I not?!

A new trace was tied and cast back to ‘the spot’. I was dying for a cuppa and once the kettle was on, I grabbed my camera and couldn’t stop scrolling through the pictures! I kept a close eye on my isotope but never expected it to slam round again so I started packing things away. The commotion of catching three barbel, back-to-back, must have spooked the others, if there were any more to spook, well away from the area.

I still hadn’t been able to keep a bait in the water for longer than half an hour, not that I was complaining, but before heading home for some much needed sleep, I aimed to give my final cast the extra time. The barbel obviously couldn’t wait and before I knew it the rod was nearly pulled from the rests! Taken totally by surprise, my head was spinning with panic and excitement. Thankfully I was running on auto-pilot for the first few seconds and this gave me time to compose myself. I really didn’t want to end the session in disaster but this fish wasn’t playing ball.

The extra power was overwhelming and I knew straight away that this barbel would be the icing on the cake, I just hoped I’d get to enjoy it! I slowly begun to gain some line and feeling like I’d made some head-way, I reached behind me for the net. With my false sense of superiority the barbel soon put me back in my place, tearing more line from the reel than I had initially gained!


Keeping the rod low and the pressure consistent, I started to feel the barbel reluctantly letting her power fade. It still wasn’t plan sailing and she had obviously reserved some power in the tank. With line still being stripped from the reel, it became clear I wasn’t going to be allowed to have it all my own way but finally I eased her closer. I flicked my head-torch on and tried to catch a glance of just how big she was. As soon as my vision adjusted to the torch light, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Dwarfing the two barbel I’d previously caught that evening, my eagerness to get her in the net grew enormously! My first attempt was clumsy and rushed but, having the waders on, I repositioned myself a little further down and aimed to simply allow her to drift into the folds of the net. It worked a treat and the battle was over. Without hesitation, I found my phone and called my father. He’d only just got home and didn’t hesitate to bluntly answer the phone, ‘how big?!’ Laughing back I told him I’d just caught my personnel best and needed his assistance, again. He could obviously sense the excitement in my voice and set out regardless of me not having weighed the fish yet!

Mesmerized by her form, I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was perfect in every way and I had to break my stare just to let it all sink in. Soon I heard the sound of my father’s car driving back down the track and was met with another proud pat on the back. I couldn't wait to show him my prize. He agreed it looked like 'a good double' and it would soon take pride of place in my photo album.

The sling was still wet so the scales were quickly zeroed and the needle pulled round to 13 lbs on the dot. She obviously wasn't taking too kindly to this unfamiliar disturbance and stayed frisky the whole time. Just turning her round on the mat for a few pictures wasn't easy as her pectoral fins wouldn't lay flat.

I couldn’t stop smiling and had to be reminded that I’d already caught three barbel that night and topped the evening with one of the biggest barbel to come from Costessey in a long while.

My father left me to it but this time I didn't feel the need for another cast!

Oliver Harper

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