Lure Blog #54
EXTREMADURA - RETURN TO BARBEL HEAVEN
As regular readers will know I love lure fishing and fly fishing equally, they are the methods I enjoy the most and I employ them whenever possible to catch a variety of species. I’ve been fortunate enough to catch several freshwater fish over the magical 100lb mark so I’m no longer motivated to catch big fish unless they full to methods I enjoy using. Nowadays my choice of venues and species of fish revolves around giving me the opportunity to use my absolute favorite methods, i.e. dry fly fishing or jig fishing.
What could be better than catching fish off the surface? Whether it’s surface lure fishing for Bass or Pike, seeing predators smash into lures is such an adrenaline rush! Dry fly fishing for Trout, Carp or Spanish Barbel is more sedate but still equally as exciting. Imagine watching fish picking morsels of food off the surface, before carefully casting your fly to intercept them. If you’ve not experienced catching fish off the surface I urge you to try, it’s so much FUN!
Fishing in Spain is another of my passions; I’ve been travelling there for close on 20 years. At first it was in pursuit of Catfish on the mighty river Ebro in the company of James Gardner and our Catfish guru friend Luke Moffat. For a few years James and I became obsessed with Catfish, but once you’ve caught as many as we did, the newness wears off and the urge to move on becomes irresistible. Not before we sampled the untapped Carp and Zander fishing the river had to offer at that time.
I’ve just returned from a short four day trip to Extremadura Spain, dry fly fishing for Spanish Barbel. My companion on this occasion was Mark Bryant, one of the “Four Amigos”. We were fishing a huge reservoir, one we’ve visited on several occasions. Our recent trips there had been in the autumn; algae had proved a major problem and had totally ruined our last trip. So we decided a spring trip was in order to avoid the “green stuff”, thankfully there was no algae present but the fishing was still rather tricky. We struggled to find good numbers of fish in the margins; possibly they were elsewhere, still spawning?
We were fishing from the bank, no boats on this brief trip so we had to walk the banks searching for feeding Barbel in the shallow, crystal clear water. Aided by the bright sunlight spotting fish wasn’t a problem, although distinguishing Barbel from Carp was. Avoiding spooking the Barbel proved very difficult too, we found they were very aware of our presence, especially if we tried to fish too early in the day. Typically we’d arrive at the reservoir at 11am, sometimes even later, allowing the Barbel to settle and start feeding, they’re less spooky then. Perfect holiday fishing for those who prefer a leisurely start to the day! We’d trek the whole bank we aimed to fish before approaching the water’s edge and starting fishing, working our way back to the car.
We normally take it in turns to fish, one goes ahead while the other follows, sometimes spotting fish or taking pictures but generally enjoying watching things unfold. In this relaxed manner we both get to savor the action and can reminisce about the successes and failures of the day and try to work out how we can improve our presentation in the future. As soon as a fish is caught the second angler takes over, on this occasion with the lack of fish available we decided to change over every 30 minutes or when a fish was caught, whichever came first. This gives each angler the chance to cover new water and fresh fish as we walked the vast shoreline.
The going was tough, 30 C° and no shade! The water level was down to 53% of capacity, so any shade was several hundred meters from the shore. It’s hard going, walking several miles a day over uneven ground, rocks, pebbles and sometimes soft sand but the rewards make it all worthwhile.
The fish were so spooky that we adopted a tactic that saw us wading out into the reservoir and casting back towards the shallows. By doing this we were less visible, no longer being on the skyline we were able to get much closer to the fish. The downside was being so much lower down we were unable to see the fish as well as when we were on the bank. The following angler now became the wading angler’s eyes, often walking on higher ground to help spot fish and direct him into position before the fish were aware of his presence.
It’s all about the deception
To catch your Barbel you have to cast your fly into a small target area about the size of a tea cup; you see the fish are in such shallow water that their field of vision is very narrow. We’ve found that by cutting our leader down to as little as 5ft helps to turn our fly over and improve our accuracy which is essential.
The problem is the wind often sends the fly into unexpected places, so being able to see your fly at all times is essential, as that’s what you’re aiming with. Sometimes your fly lands somewhere you’re not expecting, so now you’re frantically searching the surface for it while trying to keep half an eye on the fish, hoping your fly is within its field of vision, even if it’s not in yours! We add high visibility foam or fluorescent floss to our flies to help us see them. Sometimes however the fly lands on its side, or in an effort to force our cast against the wind we might drive our fly beneath the surface and it’s not buoyant enough to resurface and so becomes invisible to us. So when eventually you see a Barbel lift off the bottom and sip in your “Bob’s Beetle” it’s a mini victory, to be celebrated and relived with your companion.
Bob’s Beetle works again, the pink floss aids visibility
Do they fight?
Once hooked you have to hope that nothing stops your line flying off the reel. Any line around your feet or reel, or tangles that stop the line flowing out through the rod at this point will see your leader “pop” like a cork! These “wild fish” have never felt a hook before so when they do they head for the horizon at break neck speed. In the warm shallow water there’s no stopping these fish on their first run, just let them go and enjoy the next few moments, before you start panicking, wondering if they’re heading for some unseen snag. It’s not unusual for a full 30 yard fly line plus 20, 30 or even 40 yards of backing to shoot off your reel as well on their initial run! The battle isn’t over then as a Barbel rarely gives up without further long powerful runs accompanied by severe head shaking. The fish may not be huge, maybe 6lb or 7lb, measuring 24” [60cm] but it doesn’t matter as they fight well above their weight.
We arrived on the North shore of the reservoir, by a water tower a popular feature for the few local anglers we see. The Spanish anglers are happy float fishing or ledgering catching anything that comes their way, they simply enjoy “shooting the breeze” with their friends while enjoying a relaxed day by the water.
We were relieved that the water was clear, so we started stalking the bank, Mark was on “point” and he quickly hooked but unfortunately lost his first fish. Although disappointing it was however very encouraging too. An hour or so later however after walking a couple of miles of shoreline we were still waiting to open our account. What to do next, should we continue here and hope we stumble on some feeding fish or get back in the car and drive to the South shore hoping things would be better there? We opted to change location, retracing our steps quickly we jumped in the car and drove to a large bay on the South shore.
This new area was less steep which made walking far easier and as a bonus there were a lot more Barbel here. Despite being mid-afternoon the fish were still very twitchy and we were still fishless, so we were getting rather twitchy too. I was on “point” by now but as time was running short we agreed to separate, so we could both fish. Mark left me two large bays and went on ahead in an effort to find some fresh fish. I very cautiously stalked the bank like a Heron, as soon as I saw a Barbel I sat on the bank trying to be less conspicuous, before attempting to cast. I hooked my first Barbel “at last”, only for the hook to snap! It was an old fly that had obviously been weakened by corrosion, “Andy nil Barbel one”. I tied on a new fly; one Gary Collins had tied for me which sported a pink foam back which showed up perfectly. I repeated the procedure, spotted a fish, sat down, cast perfectly for once and the Barbel sipped down the fly! Game on, the fish shot out of the margins across the bay. I could see a tree about 50 yards to my right, well away from my fish thankfully when suddenly everything goes solid! I’m no longer in direct contact with my fish, I slacken off but nothing happens, I’d hoped the fish would free itself by swimming out of the snag but I’m not so lucky, d’oh! I point my rod at the snag and my leader breaks off at the fly line, “Andy nil Barbel two”!
After these disasters I finally manage three fish, creeping along the bank and finally taking to the water. By wading I was off the skyline and hidden from the fish so I could approach them unseen. When I caught up with Mark he’d been more successful having bagged six fish, so we were both relieved to have avoided a blank!
Mark Bryant bends into a express train heading for Portugal
The lack of fish and their behavior had us both puzzled. We decided to fish an area we call “Atlantis” due to the flooded farm buildings there. We walked through the woods, a long way away from the water’s edge so we weren’t tempted to start fishing too early. We walked for over an hour to reach a distant bay that covers several hundred acres, it’s vast. The margins were mainly populated with Carp, which outnumbered the Barbel 20 maybe 30 to 1. The Carp had no desire to take our flies, plus they spooked as soon as we approached them, which alerted the Barbel to our presence. We had to keep well away from the water’s edge to avoid this, by keeping to the higher ground we were able to spot Barbel well before they knew we were there. As soon as we saw a Barbel we’d creep down the bank and wade out into the water before positioning ourselves within casting distance. It was slow going but at least we had plenty of water ahead of us, so we were content to carry on in this manner!
We finally exited the large bay, rounding a peninsula; there was a flooded gravel track here where a group of Barbel were foraging amongst the stones. They were lined up, side by side across the wind, with their backs out of the water, it was that shallow! Mark was on “point” so he had an easy target; the bar was downwind, which made accurate casting easy too. A few casts and the inevitable happens, Mark expertly hooks a lively fish, what a relief. My turn next and it only takes a few moments before I hook into a fish too. The next “mini” bay gives us another couple of fish each before we come up against an obstacle, a flock of sheep. Out here the Sheep are usually guarded by huge mountain dogs, to keep wild Boar and Wolves away, these dogs are very intimidating when they start to approach you baring their teeth. We were very wary as we couldn’t see a guard dog anywhere, there were however a few cattle, which included a very aggressive looking bull. We decided to give them all a wide berth because running wasn’t an option; the ground was littered with large rocks. We finally got a safe distance from the animals and resumed fishing. The shore was very shallow here so we now had to take to the water and wade, the wind was blowing onto the bank which aided our presentation. We caught a few more fish at regular intervals which was such a treat after the struggle we’d endured up until now. We proceeded along the bank taking turns, everything was working so smoothly now, it couldn’t last could it? It didn’t, at around 6pm something changed and the fish suddenly became very wary again. It didn’t matter what we did they spooked off before we could fire our fly towards them. We hadn’t covered all of the bank nor the broken ground and building around “Atlantis” so it looked like we could return the next day.
Plenty of space to explore
Back to “Atlantis”, we walked through the woods again but not as far as the previous day, thank goodness. We proceeded to wade and cast to feeding fish, they were obliging, never easy but catchable all the same if you placed your fly on the money. We reached “Atlantis” finally but to our disappointment the Barbel were absent?
As we finished earlier than expected we decided to scope out a couple of nearby locations, with a view of fishing them on our final day. The low water had left many areas neigh on unfishable, one of our favorite spots, “redemption bay” required a yomp of several hundred yards to reach the water’s edge and this was over the most difficult surface littered with stones, rocks and thick vegetation. We had to consider our last day’s location carefully.
We had decided to fish an area we call the “graveyard”. We drove down a dirt track, through an orchard, that leads to a small grassy bay where we left the car. We then trekked for an hour over a rocky headland and through a sandy gully and beach that was overgrown with “wild” Barley and some creeper type plants; it was hard going in the heat, thank goodness for our canteens of water, an essential bit of kit.
We finally reach our destination, the headland opposite a large island. This left a massive amount of sandy shore to fish as we worked our way back to the car. Only one problem, where were the Barbel? We quickly walked the shore searching for signs of fish, any fish! We were in a bit of a panic by now as we could only see an occasional lone Barbel, even the Carp were thin on the ground. We decided that we were wasting our time here, so where next? We quickly return to the car and drive to another area we call the “Golf Course”, its close by but it’s hardly any better, where are the Barbel? Time is running out it’s nearly 2pm and we know that it’ll be over by 6pm, if not earlier. So we hit the road again and drive to the other end of the reservoir, 40 minutes later via the motorway we arrive at our last location.
Mark’s on “point” but it’s looking like we’ve blown out! Half an hour passes and it’s now my turn on “point”, the only Barbel I can see is in deeper water with its head down and its tail waving from side to side, tailing as it forages for tiny items of food on the sandy bottom. While I stand waiting hoping for a target fish to arrive, I repeatedly cast my fly directly above this tailing fish. I make sure my fly lands heavily on the surface each time, as sometimes the disturbance this makes can induce a take. Well after about a dozen casts, to my surprise that’s exactly what happens? The Barbel slowly lifts off the bottom and rises, ever so slowly up through the water, finally rolling over my foam beetle! Wow, I’m elated after such a struggle, a fish at last! Mark’s scratching his head, “you lucky sod” or something like that. His turn next but he’s not so lucky, after another half an hour I’m on “point” again. Only one Barbel in sight and it’s facing away from me so I can get into position without it seeing me, the winds behind me so I’ve no excuses not to put it on its nose. Fortunately I put it on the money and it just lifts up and takes it, “simples”, why can’t it always be this easy? Mark’s starting to doubt his chances and struggles to find a fish that will accept his fly. I’m on “point” again and I fluke another fish that’s eating in the slightly deeper water, tailing. When your luck’s in, your confidence grows and anything’s possible. Mark’s on “point” again, far quicker than he’d hoped but he goes ahead while I try to catch another deep water fish, cocky or what? I see Mark disappear around yet another point, into yet another bay, but I’m just too tired to follow. I leave him to it; I decide to slowly walk my way back to the car. I know it’s rude, I should have told him I was going back but it seemed too much effort to go and tell him. Besides if I tread carefully enough I might just get another chance of a fish! That doesn’t happen but thankfully Mark’s persistence pays off and he bags his biggest fish of the trip, a just reward for his diligence.
Unspoiled, a far as the eye can see
And so ends another Spanish trip, it was difficult but very enjoyable. We’re already thinking about an autumn trip, this time to another reservoir and we hadn’t even packed yet!
Til’ next month “tight lines”.
For expert service and advice visit Andy’s shop The Friendly Fisherman in Tunbridge Wells [TN1 2PS] for a huge variety of freshwater, fly & lure tackle.