It’s been two years since I was last at Burgate. That was a November, it was cold, the river was high and coloured, and I didn’t see a single fish, let alone catch one, and it was a couple of years before that I last had a barbel on the bank. This year I managed to get away for a week in October. The top stretch of the river was low, clear and weedless, and I didn’t expect it to be easy. After a few fishless days, I finally spotted two barbel way down at the bottom of the stretch where the water was deeper and there was still plenty of ranunculus to give them a bit of cover. I fed a swim under an ash, and sat watching them through its trailing branches, but I could not get either of them to take a bait. A couple of days before I had met another angler fishing the top stretch – the one I had discounted as being too shallow and not affording any cover. Walking back from an early morning session I stopped for a quick chat and asked him how he’d been getting on, upon which he broke into a cheesy grin and showed me a barbel of nine pounds recovering in his landing net. As soon as he released it, it swam right across the river to a narrow band of weed and disappeared under it.
And so it was, the following day found me in a swim opposite the same bank of weed perched high on the river-bank overlooking a ragged-tailed barbel of seven or eight pounds which several times mouthed the bait before shying away. I was feeding small handfuls of hemp just upstream which it kept coming back to regularly over a couple of hours, but it was clear it was just too canny to take the bait. After another hour or so it appeared again, inching up the swim, clouds of silt billowing from its gill covers, creeping towards the bait, when another fish appeared from absolutely nowhere and barrelled up the swim literally shoulder-barging ragged-tail out of the way. I had only had a quick glimpse of it and had no idea of its size until its first run ended about twenty yards downstream, and three-quarters of the way across the river on its way back to the weed-bed. I played it hard, with hindsight probably a bit too hard, but even so I could not get it back upstream for a good ten minutes, and three times when I thought it was beat it surged away from the net again and just hung immoveable about ten feet from the bank, angling itself away from me with the flow of the river. Finally, at the fourth attempt, it slipped over the lip of the net. It was only when I tried to lift it up the steepness of the bank that I realised just how big it was. Fourteen pounds exactly of utterly perfect, pristine Hampshire Avon barbel. It was worth the four year wait.