Many anglers and conservationists are aware of the amazing story behind the regeneration of the river Wandle in South London. Once considered one of the finest chalkstreams in the country, the Wandle was up until thirty years ago classed as an open sewer as the Industrial Revolution took its toll on the City which grew bigger and faster than was environmentally sustainable.
The time and devotion of organisations such as The Wandle Trust has taken the river from an uninhabitable trickle of filth back to a thriving and healthy ecosystem. The Wandle model of regeneration is revered the world over and the hard work of the environmental groups involved has led to the little stream being highlighted as one of the great examples of urban regeneration.
The 17th century Wandle would have looked very different to the river as it runs today. Extensive culverting, diversion and run off flow has created a river that is in many places deeper and heavier than one would expect from a chalkstream. That isn’t to say there aren’t areas of outstandingly beautiful water – the angler who is willing to explore the area will encounter some spectacular, gin clear, ranunculus strewn water which is home to amongst other species trout, dace, roach and chub.
I’ve been fortunate enough to catch all of these species from the Wandle, but there’s one species of fish that has proven elusive to me, the barbel. This isn’t because there aren’t many barbel in the river, there really are. It’s because I’m a pretty bad barbel angler. There isn’t a freshwater fish in the UK I’ve struggled with more than barbel. I bungled a few small ones from the river Dove in Derbyshire but that is a river which holds a good head of fish and I always felt like I was under-achieving. When I moved to London I brought with me that same level of ability.
I made the mistake of not only bringing that level of ability but also the same tactics and methods and I plugged away for more than two years with my heavy bolt rigs and 3oz feeders. Granted these were only occasional trips but over such a long time it really grated on me that I couldn’t crack the Wandle code.
A good friend did however have the knack. Cheesepaste Pete soon got to grips with the river and with the barbel and was racking up fish for six months before I finally convinced him to show me the light. Cheesepaste Pete has a reputation, a reputation for catching fish on cheesepaste. He was catching them on his own home made baits but we decided that gold old fashioned luncheon meat should do just as good a job. The difference would be the technique of presenting it.
Instead of my method of fishing static in likely looking areas Pete spent time trying to teach me the method of “rolling” the bait along with the current, keeping it pinned to the river bed with plasticine moulded around split shot – simplicity itself. Whilst in the process of teaching me the technique we both came to a realisation – I’m rubbish at it. Ray Walton has absolutely nothing to worry about, and neither did the Wandle barbel for the first few hours.
I began to hone a technique that looked quite a lot like I was French Nymphing for trout or grayling. It probably doesn’t appear in any of the handbooks but it just about did the trick. I felt confident that I could find areas that should hold fish, if I could just hold the technique together for long enough I might be in with a chance. After three hours of running luncheon meat around weed beds, through deep channels and under trees my concentration began to wane and my faith began to fail me. One long run beneath some branches wielded no take at all, but as I wound in I realised that the luncheon meat hadn’t really moved much further than a few yards from where I had cast it originally. I assumed it was stuck n a snag. As I tightened down to free the bait from the snag the tip on my avon rod hooped round, line poured from the reel and I was connected to a powerful Wandle barbel. The swim was very tight and littered with three branches which made for a nerve wracking five minute tug of war that I eventually won. Mission accomplished.
At little more than 4lb the fish won’t win any awards but to me this small barbel represented closure on nearly three years of struggle and vindication for sticking with the challenge. Five minutes later Pete lost a fish from the same swim – we had clearly stumbled across a hotspot. We moved further upstream to a fantastic looking hole below a tree and first run through hooked another fish which spooked three much bigger fish as it bolted away. The target to catch a Wandle barbel was one thing but actually getting to watch a fish take was an amazing experience that I won’t forget for a long time.
Pete landed another barbel no more than five minutes later and we decided to call it a day. None of these fish were a victory of ability, my first fish was nothing more than a lucky fluke but it did go to prove that the best way to catch a fish is just to keep trying. It would have been quicker and easier to give up on the challenge but a mixture of determination, assistance and luck was enough to make the seemingly impossible happen.
The Wandle barbel was my last remaining London target. The 30lb fly caught pike was a victory for research and application, the 2.5lb Grand Union perch a fish caught on the back of being willing to throw myself at a new technique and wade through the thousands of smaller fish to find a specimen. Between the three fish I can look back at the last two and a half years as a vital part of my angling education, what I’ve learned from these challenges will stand me in good stead for more new challenges to come soon – challenges I’m excited to share with the world very soon.