Tightlines Hunting Big Barbel in the Fish River - By Dr Gareth Coombs Part 2


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

Dr Gareth Coombs

Part 2

Gareth introduced us to the murky waters of the Fish River and focused on bait preparation and presentation to help us land one of the river’s big barbel. In this article he tells us more about the tackle needed to land one of these tough customers.

Terminal tackle for big barbel

The Fish River is relatively narrow and in some places you can cross it by walking in water less than 30 cm deep. Long rods are therefore not necessary, but when you target barbel you need a short (6-8 ft), stiff rod with a lot of backbone so that you can apply a lot of pressure on a fish heading downstream. I prefer short (7-8 ft), heavy-action rods such as the Shimano Nexave series, Loomis and Franklin, and the Shakespeare Ugly Stik.

The two rods that I currently use the most are the Shimano Nexave Ax 70H-2 and the Nexave 70HC-2. Both rods are 7 ft long and rated to cast weights up to 1 oz and line up to 30 lb. I am probably putting a bit more strain on them than what they were designed for, but I have not been disappointed thus far, even though I use a 2 oz sinker and large carp bait. Bear in mind that I do not cast far and that you could break this type of rod if you were to fish larger rivers or dams. Generally, they are not too expensive and quite tough, so they can withstand the relatively rough treatment often called for when fishing for barbel. You need to judge for yourself, but whichever rod you use, make sure it can cast a bait of up to 600 g and is relatively thick at the butt section.

Rod stands can be as simple as a forked stick or more advanced like the modern rod pods that can be disassembled and conveniently stored. Remember that, unlike the Vaal, the Fish River does not have manicured lawns or jetties right up to the water where you can place your rod pods. The ground is often uneven, calling for either simple, straight bank sticks or a rod pod with adjustable feet. One of the best rod stands when targeting barbel is a short, saltwater surf rod stand that can be stuck into the sand along most places. I do not use strike indicators when catching barbel, but using the modern bait alarms could be useful, especially at night. It is, however, a distinct advantage to be able to see the tip of the rod, and a good solution is to take a glow stick, activate it and tape it to the tip of your rod with electrical tape.

Reels and line

I use small centrepin reels when fishing for barbel over short distances. I can get the butt section right under my arm to apply maximum pressure more comfortably. The short rod grip also stays out of the way when fighting fish. Two reels that serve me well at the moment are the Daiwa Proteus Millionaire and Shimano Corvalis CLV 300. While they are relatively small, they make a nicely balanced rig when I fit them to my Nexave rods and load them with 9.1 kg Kingfisher High Abrasion line. I have found that line colour does not matter much, particularly since barbel are not that shy of brighter lines and the water is so dirty that they are unlikely to see much of it. These set-ups are not made to cast far distances, but that is not necessary when fishing here.

The only downside of the Corvalis is that it does not have a ratchet to warn you at night or when you are busy elsewhere with your back turned to the rods. Fixed-spool reels are equally good, but these need to be of very good quality when targeting big barbel. The Shimano Sustain, Shimano Exage 4000 FB and Shimano Exceler are brilliant choices as they can withstand continuous use under high strain. A reel must be able to take at least 150 m of 20-30 lb line and must have a smooth, non-sticky drag system. It must also be relatively easy to adjust the drag while fighting the fish. Do not adjust the drag too tightly when you think the fish is tired enough to be landed. When bringing the fish in to land it, tighten the drag just enough so that you can still pull off a couple of metres of line, but have to pull hard to do so without exceeding the breaking strain of the line. The reason for this is that most barbel I have caught in streams have a tendency to catch their “second breath” and swirl around right at your feet to make a last powerful charge away from you. Many good barbel are either snapped off or open the hook when they do this.

Leaders, traces and hooks

When fishing for barbel with large baits they tend not to be too fussy about line diameter or hook size. I usually have a fairly thick 30 lb leader at least one and a half times the length of the rod. I use a normal sliding trace with a 2 oz ball sinker, which is sufficient to anchor most heavy baits. The only downside to heavy sinkers is that due to the strength of the current they can often wash in between large rocks, causing you to snag in the rocks. My trace line is a 30 lb Maxima Ultragreen or Berkley Big Game. Whichever trace line you use, it must be very abrasion-resistant to withstand the sandpaper-like teeth that become increasingly rough in fish over 10 kg. Again the colour is not too important. A large, strong swivel is also a must. One of the advantages of the heavy leader is that you can handle the fish with it when it is ready to be landed.

Hooks must be relatively large to match the size of the bait. Barbel have large mouths, requiring the hook to stand proud and expose enough of the gape so that the hook does not slip out when you strike. Most modern hooks are strong enough. I prefer Mustad as their hooks tend to be very strong, durable, corrosion-resistant and very sharp. The Mustad Ultra Point series, particularly the Mustad Big Gun and Demon Circle, are good choices. Swivels need to be on the large side (size 6); those made by Kingfisher have been around for many years but are still excellent quality. In my experience, you will very seldom break a swivel on most freshwater fishes. Due to the inherently larger friction that knots are exposed to when fishing with bigger baits and bigger sinkers, I like putting a small bead between the sinker and swivel to lessen the chances of the sinker weakening the knot when it slides up and down the trace during a fight.

Lastly, always test your knots thoroughly before fishing and inspect your leader and trace after you have landed a fish. Check that there are no weaknesses created by the rough teeth of the fish or by the line chafing over rocks during the fight.

Landing nets and keeping fish

A large landing net is a must when targeting big barbel; due to the power of the fish it can be very difficult to lipland them safely and without injuring yourself. If you do not want to carry a large landing net with you, take a good glove to cover your hand with. I do not favour landing barbel with Boga grips.

Many people regard barbel as a pest, throwing them into a keepnet and leaving them there for long periods due to their reputation for being very hardy. This causes the fish to suffer unnecessarily; fish that are kept like that develop unsightly red inflammation all over the belly and underside of the head. Barbel should be treated like any other fish – once you have landed it, handle it quickly and keep it wet. Use a keepnet with knotless mesh that is softer on the barbel’s skin. Large fish in particular should rather be released immediately if you are not fishing a competition or if you do not intend eating the fish.

Fishing spots and other observations

Barbel tend to frequent strong-flowing water. When targeting them in a river, I always look for areas with a relatively strong current. Judging by the flattened shape of their heads, they must have adapted to swimming in strong-flowing water. I often catch them in this kind of water, so they obviously know just where to lie. Some of the best places to look for them are in deep pools with strong current at the head of the pool as well as behind large boulders, bridge pillars and rocky embankments.

I have found that Fish River barbell can come onto the bite at just about any time of the day, although better times are early in the morning, late in the afternoon and at night. Large barbel are particularly active at night and I have caught some of my best fish during the dark hours of the morning. The heat in the Fish River valley can be intense during summer; the best fishing hours for both your physical health as well as higher fish activity are from early in the morning up until about 10:00 to 11:00, and then again from 15:00 to 16:00 in the afternoon into the evening. The time period from about 17:00 up to 21:00 at night is also very good.

Seasonally, the best times to fish for barbel in the Fish River are from late August up to the end of May when the water starts cooling down and their activity reduces. Fish activity is generally very low throughout winter. They can be very easy to catch at the beginning of the spawning season, which in the Fish River seems to be from October to November. Due to the discoloured, brown water, fishing for them with artificial lure and fly is fairly difficult and time-consuming. However, if you persevere you might get one or two of the smaller fish on artificial lures.

Access to most of the Fish River is through private farms and you need a vehicle with relatively high ground clearance to traverse the rough backroads of the Eastern Cape. An off-road vehicle is an advantage but is not as important as having higher clearance. Most of the farmers are friendly but you must obtain permission from the landowner as you will be fishing on his / her property.

The author’s father, William Coombs, fighting a big barbel on the Fish River

A happy angler with a big fish. William Coombs with a hefty barbel (±14 kg) taken on light tackle. It took nearly 35 minutes to land. Note the strong musculature of the fish along the back and just behind the head.

A nice barbel of about 6 kg taken by the author at night. For bait he used karp tail and his tackle consisted of a short graphite rod (Shimano Nexave) and a Daiwa Proteus Millionaire centrepin reel. 

The author with another large Fish River barbel of ±16 kg, taken in a deep pool with strong-flowing water

A hefty Fish River barbel, estimated at 19,6 kg (Length-Weight). It was caught in a very narrow section of the river and put up an immense fight

Areas such as this one with deep water just behind a bridge pillar are always good spots to target barbel.

Another typical spot to look for big barbel in the Fish River is a deep pool just behind a dam wall.

When fishing along the Fish River, always be on the lookout for hippos, especially at night when they graze on the riverbanks. These spoor were photographed near one of the author’s favourite fishing spots where there is a well-used hippo trail, indicating that the animals move in and out of the water at night. 

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