Learning from the fish themselves by watching their patterns of movement and feeding behaviour is always time well spent and prior to the start of the season on the rivers is one instance when time spent looking is invaluable. Where club rules allow, and where it is safe to do so, it also pays to get in and have a good look and feel under the water as well, there is so much to be learned and an hour wading with a face mask and pole is worth a season or more stood on the bank.
Spawning time is never entirely predictable but on my local rivers the last week of May and first week of June have always been reliable to witness the barbel getting down to business and, despite the delayed onset of spring, the rivers should warm rapidly and I would not expect things to be too different this year. In fact on my last river walk (on the morning of 06 May) I spotted several smallish male fish sitting on the shallows and in the streamy water below a weir, with a few bigger females grouped in smaller pockets downstream – definite pre-spawning behaviour.
Despite the fact these fish were highly visible – and the fact they will become even more so – few river anglers, unlike their carp angling counterparts, actually go out fish spotting and thus they miss the opportunity to observe the sizes and numbers of fish in various stretches and to work out the areas to head to for early season success.
Ok, I appreciate on the big rivers and in those that rarely, if ever, run clear opportunities for spotting are rare but on the smaller venues it should be an essential part of your close and early season preparation. In fact this morning I clocked one lump of a fish that was possibly 18lb plus – I would dearly like to meet her this winter!
Barbel fishing during opening week can be a bit on the patchy side as it can take a while for the fish to drift back to their normal runs in the post spawning period and many normally productive swims can be fishless during the opening couple of weeks. To make the most of your early season fishing it is worth targeting swims with a good pace of water close to the spawning grounds, the tails of weirs are a particularly good bet early on as are areas where bank restriction forces the water through at a slightly faster pace than normal.
In addition to watching the fish at this time of year I also like to get in and wade a stretch of river, particularly if it is new to me. From within the river it is easy to use a landing net handle to probe the banks for undercuts and the bed for depressions which will hold fish in the winter floods. I also feel the substrate and map areas of sand, gravel and silt. By noting the colour of the substrate I can also match my hook length material to blend in with the bottom. I also take a close look at the invertebrate life living in the river bed too. Some runs are packed with shrimp, snails and larvae whilst others are relatively lifeless. Current pattern and angling pressure will influence barbel distribution but when you have an idea of where the natural food is you have yet another piece of the jigsaw!