One Historic Barbel

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Gavin Haig

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Gavin Haigh

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The day's incessant rain finally relented late this afternoon and I took a quick walk around the West Bay fields which yesterday yielded 52 Lapwings and some gulls. Still 52 Lapwings, but no gulls. However, flushing four Rock Pipits out of the soggy grass was a surprise...

Two of the four Rock Pipits this afternoon

I can only assume these were birds which normally frequent the seafront, but were forced elsewhere by the dreadful weather.

Anyway, I have nothing much else to say about today's birding, so I'm going to use the rest of this post to document a little tale of minimal interest to most birders. It involves a fish...

In this post I mentioned a boyhood angling mentor named Howard Matthews, aka Ginger. In about 1974 he kindly prepared a little document for me. It comprised a few pages of notes and hand-drawn maps, outlining some angling opportunities to be enjoyed on the River Colne near Uxbridge. I eagerly tried them out, catching the Metropolitan Line train from my local station at Preston Road to the Uxbridge terminus and walking from there. My favourite area came to be where the river flows beneath the elevated A40 dual carriageway, and just downstream of it. In those days that downstream stretch was leased by the Uxbridge Rovers Angling & Conservation Society, of which I was not a member. Still, poaching is par for the course when you're 15 years old, so that was no problem. One swim which featured in Ginger's document (and I can only assume he poached it too) lay just below a nearby weirpool. On the far bank was a large weeping willow, beneath which was a nice clear run maybe three feet deep. I occasionally caught a roach or two there...

A couple of decent roach from the Willow swim. I'm guessing this'll be 1975-ish. Forgive the dreadful photo quality.

I don't recall catching much other than roach here, though my old pal Ric reminded me that either myself or another lad who I used to fish with back then once hooked and lost a big, long fish in this very swim. Which may or may not be significant...

In the mid-'70s none of us kids ever considered the possibility that we might catch a barbel from the Colne. The idea would have seemed preposterous. Barbel were mythical fish which swam only in rivers far, far away. By the time the 1970s were done I'd caught barbel from the Hampshire Avon and the Thames, but certainly not the Colne. Neither had I ever heard of a Colne barbel being caught by anyone else. In the early '80s I stopped fishing and started birding, and that was that.

In early 1985 we experienced a big freeze-up. I had chosen 1985 to go for a London Area year list, and that period of bitterly cold weather played right into my hands, delivering all sorts of species which would have been tricky to see in a normal winter. By this time I was completely immersed in birding and quite unaware of what was happening in the angling world. I had no idea, for example, that anglers in the know were nowadays heading for the River Colne to target barbel. Barbel! In the Colne! Not long after the thaw set in, Ric got an early-morning call from one such angler, Jim Clavin. Could he drive out to witness and photograph a barbel which Jim had just caught from the Colne? Not just any old barbel either, but a monster barbel! Yes, said Ric. Yes he could...

Early 1985 - Jim Clavin with a stunning 12lb 1oz barbel from the River Colne

I think this is a super photo, and it deserves a bit of context. In his book 'Modern Specimen Hunting', Jim Gibbinson lists the biggest fish of each species reported to the angling press during the 1980/81 and 1981/82 seasons. In those days a 12lb+ barbel was extremely rare. Of just five reported in the 1980/81 season, the biggest was 12lb 12oz, and probably only two fish were involved in those five records. Just two were reported in the 81/82 season, the biggest 12lb 10oz. By the 1984/85 season things were not much changed, and a 12lb+ fish would still have been a barbel angler's dream. The fish mentioned above were all from the Hampshire Avon, or the Wensum in Norfolk. The notion that such a beast might be swimming in the Colne, just up the road there... Pah!

Well. Not only was it caught in the Colne, river of my boyhood dabblings, but more specifically the Colne above Uxbridge. In fact it was caught just downstream of the A40. And you've probably guessed already, it was caught in the Willow swim...