Common Barbel are beautiful fish with a reputation as fierce fighters once hooked. Many anglers regard barbel as one of the very best coarse fish to catch for their power.
It is one of our favourite fish too and it always amazes us how even relatively small barbel put up a huge fight!
Common Barbel (the scientific name barbus barbus) are a freshwater fish of the Cyprinidae family. Many of you will probably be familiar with this family as it includes carp, minnows and tench.
Barbel have many nicknames including “barbs”, “whiskers” and “river prince”, however in the UK the common way to refer to common barbel is simply “barbel”.
Common barbel are the type species for the genus barbus. This genus is found throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Members of the barbus genus tend to have one or more pair of barbs around the mouth and have bright, shiny scales.
The genus vary wildly in size, with some 2.5 – 5cm long and other, such as the Mahseer of India around 2m long.
Some species of the barbus genus are popular in aquariums due to their beautiful colours.
Varieties include cherry barb (unsurprisingly a cherry red colour), clown barb (pink with red fins and several dark spots), rosy barb (rose colour with a dark spot near the tail) and Sumatra or tiger barb (orange with black stripes).
Although common barbel are likely to have been eaten throughout history, nowadays they are seen as a sport fish.
Barbel roe is actually toxic when eaten by humans, and therefore the fish is considered to be toxic during the spawning season. Despite this, popular english journalist, Mrs Beeton wrote a recipe for barbel in her book (simmered with port and herbs).
In the UK the fish are caught for sport and returned to the water. Some of the African and Asian species such as mahseer are esteemed as food (in addition as a game fish). Sadly many of the species in other countries are endangered.
Distribution and Habitat
Common Barbel are native throughout Northern and Eastern Europe. They range from the north and east of the Pyrenees and Alps to Lithuania, Russia and the Black Sea. They are adaptable fish and have been successfully introduced to Scotland, Morocco and Italy.
Barbel are almost always found in rivers. They develop powerful muscles by swimming through and against the currents which makes them such a prized sport fish.
They prefer fast flowing rivers however they can be found in slower flowing ones too. They need clean, well oxygenated water to survive. If the river contains barbel it is usually a sure sign that the river is healthy and balanced.
Barbel inhabit the areas with gravelly, sandy or stony bottoms which they need to find food and to spawn.
Barbel have been successfully stocked in still waters and many fisheries now advertise the fact that they have stocked barbel.
Having spoken to some fishery owners, we have been informed that they are relatively easy to take care of but some have installed aerators to oxygenate the water.
Barbel can now be found in rivers, canals and fisheries across England, with the river Trent and Severn known to hold good quantities. The canals in which they are found will usually meet with a river and in these areas barbel are likely to be present.
Barbel are one of the most easily recognised species as a result of the barbels under their large mouths. They have four barbels in total which tend to point downwards, which they use to detect their food.
The shape of their bodies tends to be long, streamlined and elongated. You can tell just by looking at the fish that it is designed for speed. It has the look of a slender torpedo. The lateral line scale count is 55 – 65.
Barbel are usually a beautiful silvery bronze colour down their flanks, which fades to a creamy white colour on their belly. Their back tends to be a darker green or brown. Their fins are dark red or brown and can sometimes be a lighter orange colour.
Barbel can grow up to 22lb (approximately 10kg) although 6 – 10lb (2.7 – 4.5kg) is the average weight. A fish of 10lb (4.5kg) is though to be a specimen.
The British record stands at 21lb 1oz (9.55kg) from 2015. Unfortunately, there isn’t a record of how long it took to reel in, but we bet it put up one hell of a fight!
The maximum length the barbel can grow is 20 – 36 inches (0.5 – 0.9m).
Barbel can live for 15 – 20 years.
How They Feed
Barbel use their distinctive barbels (unsurprisingly) to locate their food. The barbels are incredibly sensitive to both touch and taste. They use this sensitivity to scour the bottom in search of food.
Barbel are bottom feeders and will move gravel and stones from the riverbeds to find their prey.
Their targets include insect larvae, crustaceans and mollusks. More specifically, known food include worms, crayfish (smaller specimens), shrimp and freshwater mussels. They are also known to eat the smaller fish around the river bottom such as loach and bullheads.
Barbel commonly feed at night, however you can also find them feeding during the day.
Barbel reach maturity at between 2 – 5 years for males and 5 – 8 years for females. Before spawning, barbel migrate up river (which can be several miles) to their spawning grounds. Spawning is determined when the temperate reaches 14 – 20 degrees Celsius which is usually in late spring or early summer.
Once barbel reach the spawning grounds, males will follow female to shallow areas where they is a break from the current. There is often a lot of splashing while they pursue the females.
Females can produce 8 – 12,000 eggs for each kilogram of her bodyweight. They can spawn many times with approximately 14 days between each spawning.
The eggs are a clear yellow colour and are the largest eggs of all coarse fish in the UK. The eggs fall into excavations in the gravel and hatch in 10 – 15 days (depending on the temperature). Barbel larvae are washed into the slower moving water and their yolk sac is fully absorbed in around 8 days.
Juvenile barbel are around 7-8mm and will feed on small invertebrates. They will feed on larger invertebrates as they grow and will gradually move into the faster moving waters.
Juvenile barbel can actually be easily confused with gudgeon and the amount of barbels (two for gudgeon and four for barbel) is the only way to identify them correctly.
How To Catch
Barbel are highly desirable fish to catch due to their strength and determination. They are not the easiest fish to catch and they will generally dart for shelter when hooked.
Barbel are easily spooked so keep well back from the water’s edge. If they won’t come to your bait so be prepared to move further down river if you aren’t getting any interest.
There are several areas in rivers which you could try. Keep moving around if you can’t find the fish as you have to be persistent.
Barbel like gravel runs which are usually found in weirpool runoffs and happily sit in the weir sill as they enjoy the turbulent oxygenated water so this could be a good location to fish around.
Barbel rest under streamer weed, as they will dart out to intercept food so fishing near to these can be successful.
Other locations in the river to look out for are the deep steady glides, deep water where the water is forced through a narrow section and the outside of bends which are faster and which keeps the gravel clear.
If you are looking for bigger barbel they are often found swimming around snags such as old tree stumps.
In terms of bait, the old style of catching barbel was to use hemp and spam or luncheon meat.
Whilst times have moved on, these tried and tested bait are always worth trying and should achieve good results.
Other baits with successful results include maggots, castors, fishmeal based pellets, boilies and lob worm. Be aware with some of the smaller baits here such as maggots as they could attract the attention of other, smaller fish too.
In France, many anglers still use natural baits and are known to collect caddis larvae from stones near the barbel’s feeding area.
Given the power of this fish, strong and balanced tackle is the order of the day.
There is a lot of tackle on the market which is bespoke for barbel fishing. In general, you should try to find an all through action rod as you would expect the rod to bend with this fish.
Barbel rods usually have 1.5 to 2.5 test curve. If you are fishing in faster rivers with larger fish, you will need higher test curve rods. Strong, durable fixed spool or centre pin reels are important.
For rigs, we use a simple running lead or feeder with a good strong hook with hair rigged bait.
Most anglers will wisely use hooks from size six to ten (depending on your bait). A knotless knot seems to be the most popular method for typing the bait to the hook.
You have a choice of hook length from monofilament, fluorocarbon or braid. We prefer fluorocarbon as it is invisible in most water and we mainly fish in clearer water. If you are fishing in rocky water where you could be snagged then braid is probably a better choice.
There are a number of ways to feed a swim. If you throw bait into the water it is likely that the current will drag it downstream so it is difficult to know where it has settled.
Feeders are a good idea to provide a steady stream of bait. Feeders come in many shapes and sizes so these are generally personal preference and depend on the bait you are using. We have found that groundbait, hemp and trout pellets make a good combination.
Another option for feeding would be to use a PVA bag, either mesh or solid, which dissolves in the water and would release the bait. One issue which you may find with this is that, although it will be released near your hook, the current may carry it downstream (depending on where you are fishing and the bait).
Always be alert when you are fishing for barbel, their bite is powerful and immediate. Try to leave your bait runner on so line can be taken and your rod ends are fixed into a gripper or tripod to stop them being dragged in.
Be vigilant – barbel will take advantage in any weakness in your tackle and broken tackle is common for experienced anglers and newbies alike!
Barbel are not particularly delicate, but like all fish they should be handled with care to ensure that their fins, skin and scales are undamaged.
Try to land the barbel as soon as possible as they use up a lot of energy trying to escape. Use a large, deep knotless meshed landing net to bring the fish in. A good fish unhooking mat should make sure that they are protected but make sure it is wet before putting the fish onto it.
Return barbel to the water as soon as you can after unhooking them. If you wish to photograph and weigh the fish (make sure to wet the weigh sling), try to leave the fish in the landing net whilst you prepare.
Never release barbel back into the main flow without recovering. Before releasing the fish, place it into the landing net and position it facing up river. Allow the fish plenty of time for recovery – barbel need at least 5 minutes but allow more if you think it is needed.
If they don’t recover they can turn upside down when it hits the main flow of water and will likely die. They are hardy creatures but it is our responsibility as anglers to ensure they are returned as strong and healthy as possible!
If you would like more information on how to fish for barbel, or would like some further information on angling techniques, check out our fishing tips page for more information!