At some point, every fly angler come to realize that he/she dreams of targeting the elusive bonefish on the endless, sunny Caribbean flats. However, unfortunately for most of us, traveling a few thousand miles to a remote destination that offers this kind of fishery is not an option or beyond our budget. That is just understandable if you look at nowadays’ pricelists of listed outfitters – even a DYI trip can be quite costly with everything involved. This is why we have to look for other species and fisheries to expand our set of options with, maybe even something that is right under our nose in our backyard.
The European barbel – often referred to as „poor man’s bonefish“ – is one of the strongest fighting fish according to its size in freshwater – basically a torpedo-shaped carp on steroids. We got a little deeper into the matter to find out how accurate this statement really is. How much does this fishery really resemble that one for bonefish on the flats?
Our European barbel is a fish primarily targeted by coarse anglers in central European countries, however foremost being ignored by a big portion oft he fly fishing community. If you ever had the chance to observe these fish, you might have noticed that they pretty much stick to the river-bottom – given the morphology it has, anything else would evolutionary not make much sense. And yes, it is true: there are definitely easier tasks, than getting a stubborn bottom-feeder to eat you fly, but impossible? Definitely not. If you really think about it – bottom-feeding translates into a variety of water-bound insect-larvae, worms and clams. Hence, we are given quite a few options for potential approach in order to realize our mission, depending on water-level, weather and time of year.
Now when you take a look at the shape of the fish, you will see many similarities to the morphology of a bonefish: Body-shape, mouth-orientation, head-form, and social behavior. Like many other freshwater fish species, when spawning, barbels congregate in bigger schools and move upriver. In smaller water systems this can be observed in the months of may and june/juli – giant schools of several dozens and up to over a hundred fish can gather together to move to their spawning grounds in shallow and stony parts of the river, where the roe is dropped into the gravel. After spawning oftentimes the fish do not directly go back to their old locations, but rather stay near the spawning grounds for a while to get their strength back. This can last from a few days up to several weeks and is the right time for us to step in.
If you know the spots, it an be quite exhilarating to watch the fish look for nutrition under trees near the bank and in the shallow gravel, and this is a really unusual behavior and only witnessed a short period of time within the year.
Now we are coming pretty damn close to targeting bonefish on the flats: we are talking sight-fishing with long leaders and small flies, wet-wading in shallow, knee-deep water while looking for tailing or moving fish, since the main-nutrition is still located in the sediment and gravel of the river bottom. It is high summertime, mostly quite warm out and too hot for waders anyway.
Some of the bigger specimen will even show predatory behavior, adding leeches and small bait fish to their menu. If we take a look at the nutrition scheme now, it too has a lot in common to that one of a bonefish: Scuds instead of shrimps, clams, worms and baitfish.
This brings us to our tactic. Basically any time of the year, you will find barbel in deep runs, behind weirs, in tail-outs, and outer curves and you’ll be able to catch them with weighted nymphs on Czech- or French-nymphing-techniques. But obviously that doesn’t have too much in common with bonefishing. On the other hand, if we find our target fish in the shallows and after spawning, the way it eats and pursues the fly under certain circumstances it resembles the feeding behavior of its Atlantic cousin in many ways.
For instance the swung fly: This is definitely the most exciting method to catch a barbel, as we get an active bite on swung or stripped flies. This can be weighted nymphs, jigs, small streamers or un-weighted nymphs with split-shot. When you have spotted the fish (usually not that difficult, if you roughly know the areas), it is just a matter of presentation and angle of the drift. You want a good 45 degree angle and a lead of about 1-2 ft. If you estimate your cast right, and choose the proper weight according to the water depth, your fly will seductively bounce across the bottom and preferably into the vision-range of the fish – if so, most actively feeding fish will eat the fly as long as it fits into the nutrition-scheme. If you are able to see the fish, you generally also see the takes, and this can really be very exhilarating to watch – seeing a barbel break formation to go for a swung or stripped fly is something you definitely don’t see every day. Our fly pattern range from small emergers (Tungsten Emerger), over Rhyacophila/Hydropsyche, heavier jigs (Polyfitus or Red Tag) and caddis imitations (Peeping Caddis) to Woolly Buggers and Dog nobblers – these can be additionally weighted with a splitshot if needed. Generally: The lighter the fly itself, the easier it can be sucked in by the fish.
Luckily for us, barbels are generally very robust fish, allowing us to get very close without spooking and granting us many shots on the same school – something you wouldn’t encounter when fishing for trout or grayling. Thus, we can observe the fish closely and change our flies/tactics according to the fish’s response. If you eventually hook into a fish in the shallows, see the fish eat your fly and take you on a ride, you will come to understand where the nickname “poor men’s bonefish” comes from.