Hampshire Avon Pilgrimage

Our yearly pilgrimage to the Hampshire Avon is over for another year. I can’t express how much I look forward to it, or how much I enjoy it; and this year, to make it even better, we caught some big fish.

We’ve been coming to the Avon for five years now; originally inspired by generations of angling literature: Walker, Venables, Yates. Then really fired up by that most evocative of angling programs A Passion for Angling by Hugh Miles and featuring Chris Yates and Bob James. Any of you who’ve seen it can guess how much Pete’s capture of that 8lb barbel inspired us to try it ourselves. So after a bit of research we found a farm on the middle Avon near Fordingbridge that have converted some outbuildings to cottages and, more importantly, have a mile of that famous chalk stream available for fishing. Now the farm owners greet us like long lost relatives, and are always almost as excited as us when we report our catches.

The previous two years have been disastrous on both the weather and the fishing fronts. Last year the farm owner, who has lived there for all of his fifty or so years, said he had never seen the river that high in June. This year the weather forecast was for high pressure, and mainly fine conditions for most of the week. We had good omens when on our first walk along the riverbank we saw several lovely gravel runs; not too open though, and with plenty of my favourite weed ranunculus waving in the current ‘like pre-Raphaelite tresses’ as Roger Deakin describes it in his fantastic book Waterlog (God, I wish I had thought of that line). The omens got even better when a group of about six barbel ghosted up the swim obviously feeding as confidently and almost as enthusiastically as seagulls on some discarded chips. We spoke to the two other chaps who were staying on the farm, and who had both been coming for nearly as long as us, and I don’t know what they had been doing, but they’d been fishing that swim for days and not seen fin nor scale of a barbel. I find it hard to believe that as the fish were obviously feeding on the groundbait they’d put in, they hadn’t even seen them, and we’d been there literally five minutes and we’d seen a fantastic group of barbel, and at least three of them were double figure fish. Both of them are lovely blokes, and I’d dearly love them to catch a barbel, but it’s amazing what some people can’t see when it’s right in front of them.

Anyway, as they’d obviously been feeding and fishing that particular swim for a while, and neither myself or Matthew – my mate who accompanies me every year – thought it would be fair if we just jumped in as soon as their backs were turned, we explored further downriver where we’d seen and caught fish in previous years. Luckily we found some other swims that looked exactly like a barbel swim should though we didn’t spot anymore barbel.

It took us a couple of days to find anymore barbel, but I did eventually find another group of four fish about a quarter of a mile downstream. The fish being returned by Matthew is one he caught from the swim where we first spotted barbel; the other two chaps had moved on after another couple of fish-less days, and Matthew caught this stunning fish, which we guestimated at twelve to fourteen pounds, after losing one the previous day.

I had an even better few days at my swim further downstream; catching probably the ugliest barbel in the Avon, followed the next day by possibly the most beautiful barbel in the Avon. The first one (pictured right) was a ragged old warrior of about twelve pounds – though it doesn’t look it in this photograph. The second fish was again well over double figures, knocking on the door of Matt’s fourteen, but not quite as big. It is – I think you’ll agree though – an absolutely beautiful fish. If ever the term ‘scale perfect’ could be applied to a fish this has got to be it. The first fish had been in the group of four I’d originally spotted in the swim, but though I’d seen them moving through several times once I started fishing, they didn’t seem to be really getting their heads down. When you see them feeding confidently, they’ll often move up the swim gradually, before moving out towards the middle of the river, and then dropping back to the foot of the swim, and then start creeping up it again grubbing about amongst the gravel and sending clouds of sediment from under their gill covers. After a while though they disappeared completely, and on a whim I flipped my lump of meat straight out in front of me towards mid-river instead of about six feet out and just below me where I had been feeding my groundbait.
Well after about thirty seconds the rod was almost wrenched from my hands and the ugly one took off downstream at a rate of knots. My theory is that perhaps I’d given myself away, but because the fish knew there was still food there they had moved out to where they felt a bit safer. It’s something I’m now always going to consider because exactly the same thing happened with the third barbel I caught on our last evening.
The second was more conventional. I’d been feeding hemp and six mil. pellets along with a few grains of corn which is what I was using as a hook bait. The fish had been moving up the swim feeding confidently and the bite had again been that rod-wrenching pull-round that is so characteristic of barbel.
So ended another brilliant week of big barbel, a wonderful setting with the New Forest as a back drop, and nature in all its glory
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