TightLines Hunting Big Barbel in the Fish River - By Dr Gareth Coombs Part 1


There is no doubt that these brown, murky waters hide some huge catches

by Dr Gareth Coombs

Part 1

It was just after 01:00 in the morning. The wind had died down and the moon was painting some ghostly figures through the reeds that reflected on the calmly flowing water in front of me. The Fish River can go really quiet like this sometimes, and it does not help much that there is still the odd hippo going for a night-time strol on the bank in this area!

Suddenly, one of my two rods, the short 7 ft Shimano Nexave, started to rapidly jerk forwards, indicating that Mister Whiskers had found the carp fillet on the other end of the line. I picked up the rod and pushed down the free spool release. Typical of barbel, the fish first gave a series of small knocks before it gradually started swimming with the bait, steadily taking more line.

I let the barbel run for a couple of metres, tightened down the drag and set the hook with a short, powerful strike. It was already late December and I had been fishing since about 16:00 in the afternoon to avoid the relentless midday heat of the Fish River Valley. I had been reasonably successful during the afternoon and had taken several smaller fish, the biggest close to 3 kg. Until now I had never caught a big Fish River barbel and my personal best was just over 5 kg. But that did not stop me from making a directed effort to aim to catch a big barbel in these waters.

Large it definitely was!

From the beginning I could feel the fish was hefty. As I started increasing the pressure to turn the barbel, it started to show more of its power by making longer and strong runs. I was really excited, knowing I had finally hooked a big boy!

After a while I could feel that the pressure was paying off as the barbel was slowly making less powerful runs. I applied side strain to bring it closer and for the first time it showed its broad, flat head. Looking at the size of the head, I could clearly see this was my personal best for the river. I slowly brought the fish closer to the side where I could lip-land it, taking care to leave the drag loose enough for an unexpeced final run. I slowly got my hand around its lower jaw and struggled to heave it onto the bank and place it carefully on the grass. The barbel was still full of fight and I briefly admired it, noticing its thick lower and upper jaws as well as the bulging muscles just behind the head. It was in perfect condition, barring a small section of the caudal fin that had been torn off previously. As luck would have it, my cellphone’s battery was flat and my camera was at home, meaning I could not take photo of this beauty, but large it definitely was! I estimated it to be in the region of 14-15 kg. Pleased with myself, I slipped the fish back into its domain.


Months later I had a repeat of similar events in terms of hooking big fish. However, this time luck was on the barbel’s side and I was properly shown how strong a big barbel in a small river can be. I was fishing one of my favourite spots on a farm owned by Paul Nel and had not planned on a long fishing trip, but quickly shoved two small carp in my small cooler and headed for the fishing spot.

I am lucky in the sense that living in Grahamstown, which is only 30 km away, I can afford to make short fishing trips for an afternoon or so. To my own embarrassment, I had not planned on targeting big fish and was going just to see and have some fun with the smaller barbel.

The river conditions were looking very good and the water was relatively warm. I quickly rigged a Berkley jig (2/0), rigged a carp fillet for bait, and sent it out across the relatively narrow stretch of the river. Due to the current, I let the fillet drift a bit until it settled on the bottom about 15 m from me and 3 m from the reedy riverbank.

Soon I landed a small fish of about 1,5 kg, followed by another two of similar size. Then another fish took the bait relatively hard. I struck and could feel this was a much larger fish. I have a tendency to fight my fish very hard (known as “horsing”), and had to put as much pressure as possible on the fish to turn it away from the reeds and hopefully tire it out quickly.

A most impressive downstream run

At first the fish responded to the pressure, came closer and swung around. I had no doubt that this was another bus of a barbel! The fight was becoming long as my tackle was too light. My only saving grace was that I was fishing with a Shimano Crucial, and the strong backbone of the rod allowed me to bring the fish upstream several times. The fight became a repetitive cycle of me fighting the fish upstream until it was about 10 m away, upon which it would swing around and take about 30 m of line or more every time.

At last it must have gotten fed up with all of this and swung around a last time, making the most impressive downstream run I had yet seen a barbel do. The ratchet of my double-handled Shimano Exage wailed in the backround but it was to no avail as the fish just would not turn this time. I saw a huge emerging V-shaped bulge on the water surface just before it snapped the 4 kg line. As if this was not bad enough, I hooked a fish of similar size on the very next cast. I fought this fish much more gently, hoping to slowly tire it. However, when it was quite close to the riverbank, it bent open the Berkley jig’s hook and was gone.

I can only estimate that both these fish must have been similar-sized to the one described in the beginning of this article (±15 kg). These events as well as the stories of fellow anglers convinced me that the brown murky waters of the Fish River hide some huge barbel!

Bait preparation and presentation

Any experienced angler knows the value of good bait preperation. When fishing for big barbel, I am lucky that my favourite bait, which is small carp, can be caught nearby in the dam of one of my farmer friends. While I have experimented with numerous different baits for barbel, experience shows that the most popular are chicken livers, sardine, earthworms, day-old chicks, carp or yellowfish. Of course not everyone can fish for small carp before going barbel fishing and city dwellers sometimes need to settle for more readily available baits such as earthworms, chicken livers or sardine. Chicken livers are nearly always effective but have a tendency to attract really small barbel; you can catch plenty of those almost to the point of boredom with this as bait. A solution is to put a large chunk of chicken liver in a piece of stocking. Sardine can be a very good bait for small and large barbel, as well as eel, and has the advantage of being readily available from numerous grocery stores.

My personal favourite bait for barbel is fresh karp or yellowfish (smallmouth). If you refer to the article by Dirk Hertzog in the May 2013 edition of TightLlines, the author discusses some very useful techniques for catching big barbel, thus I only give a brief description of my methods here.

Small carp should ideally be 20-40 cm (but you can use larger fish as well) and can easily be stored in a small cooler box. I usually catch a whole bunch of these and freeze them for later use. When doing this, it is advisable to either individually place carp in small plastic bags or wrap them in old newspaper to prevent them from freezing into one solid mass. The three carp baits that I use the most are demonstrated in the accompanying photographs and consist either of the whole head, which I cut off sideways, starting just behind the top of the head. I also use a broad fillet that is cut broadside across the width of the fish, and then also the tail section. A small carp rigged whole also makes a good bait. However, you need to remember to gear up your tackle to handle such a big bait, and this is also difficult to fish in the relatively narrow sections of the Fish River where drag is very high on a big bait. Although big barbel often eat bigger baits, I am not entirely convinced that they just prefer big baits. You will often be surprised at the size of barbel that picks up a small fillet intended for smaller fish!

When it comes to using dips and scents on barbel baits, I have not experimented much. However, some of the dips and powders that immitate blood can only improve the bait. The blood powder offered by Henkor should be an excellent bait scent and can only improve your chances, particularly when fishing a fast-flowing river where the bait can lose its scent quickly and good scent dispersal is key to success.

Readers, do not miss out on part two where the author empowers us with even more knowledge on how to land one of the Fish River’s big barbel – Editor.

Small barbel such as this one are numerous in the Fish River and can become somewhat of a pest when fishing with smaller baits. 

Some evidence of big barbel in the area. The sandpaper-like scrape marks on this small barbel shows it recently almost became the food of a much bigger barbel.

The author’s favourite size carp for barbel fishing. Carp of 20-40 cm are ideal. The insert (lower right) shows the bait presentations he has found to be very successful. Larger carp can be cut into fillets of about 4 cm thick

The strong front spine of the anal or dorsal fin of carp can easily be removed with a small pair of side cutters.

The author’s father, William Coombs, with a decent barbel of about 8 kg that was taken early in the morning using carp fillet as bait.

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