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Spanish gold

By Andy Lush

Andy Lush has spent the last ten years visiting the huge reservoirs of Spain, targetting the super-charged barbel that patrol the margins with dry flies

Fly fishing is a fantastic way of catching fish, but for some traditional fly fishing has become a little too ‘safe’ and predictable. For those with a more adventurous streak targeting the ‘salt’ seeking bass, mullet, pollack and mackerel in the UK gives them a more exciting, ‘edgy’, unpredictable set of rules to learn.

In freshwater some anglers have already discovered fly fishing for pike and carp, with its exponents catching some truly huge specimens of both species. We shouldn’t forget that the process of catching fish on the fly is the most important part and it should always be enjoyed. We should not get too hung up with the “big fish” only syndrome that dominates coarse fishing at the moment.

Recently, Dominic Garnett has made us aware, through his books and articles, on fly fishing for coarse fish, in which he embraces other less popular species, that there are plenty of opportunities for anglers excited by the prospect of fishing for “wild” fish.

This sharing of new and exciting experiences is the key to recruiting a new generation fly fishermen. As always, the learning curve is the exciting bit. I always enjoy this journey, not wanting to arrive too soon to the point where I know what’s going to happen next.

Now let me tell you what particular journey has revitalised my appetite for fly fishing; an avid fly angler, with nearly 40 years’ experience fishing for stocked rainbows and browns in reservoirs, small stillwaters and occasionally streams in southern England. I, too, have been looking for something fresh and exciting to target with the fly. The appeal of fishing for wild fish has seen me dabbling at fly fishing for pike and zander on reservoirs with limited success. Some years ago, while “jig” fishing for barbel in Spain, which is another story for another time, I was informed of the possibility of catching these predatory fish on dry flies!

Immediately I was intrigued, and a plan was hatched for a return visit with my fly rod. My journey began some ten years ago, and some of you may well remember the article I wrote about that visit and what we subsequently discovered?
Having just returned from yet another trip, I can report that my journey continues and there’s still no end in sight, thank goodness.

My travelling companion, James Gardner, and I now visit the Extremadura region of Spain each year in our search for the several species of barbel that inhabit its extensive waters. These barbel are not the same species of barbel which we have here in UK, these ones behave more like our chub, sharing their catholic diet and being highly adaptable, feeding on algae, terrestrial flies, beetles, ants, aquatic insects and fish, but most importantly from our point of view, they will take a dry fly. 

There are five or six species of barbel in Spain and Portugal, the ‘Daddy’ of them all being the ‘comizo’, which reaches weights in excess of 30 pounds! We catch these along with ‘common’ and ‘Andalusian’ barbel which are also partial to dry flies.

The most exciting aspect of this fishing is its visual. Stalking the deserted shoreline of an enormous reservoir while searching for cruising, feeding fish gets my pulse racing. All this takes place in the most unspoilt part of Spain I’ve visited, and the crystal clear water is a joy to “wet wade” in, while the sun beats down. The barbel prefer it be hot and sunny and if they don’t mind, then nor do I! Often these fish are settled and ‘filter feeding’ on a diet of micro Corixae in the margins. However, believe it or not, with care and patience these fish can be induced to take a dry fly. On one reservoir we fished in the early years, grasshoppers were a major part of the barbels’ diet, but if they’re not present we’ve found trying black terrestrial patterns that imitate beetles, spiders or ants can work.

We fish large reservoirs, “embalses”, on both the Guadiana and Tajo river systems. These vast bodies of water provide hydro-electric power, and the water levels fluctuate dramatically due to this, so be aware that the reservoir levels are not as predictable as those we fish in the UK.

So far we’ve focused our visits in the spring, May and June, before it gets too hot, but September and October are good months, too. Our spring trips were intended to coincide with the hatches of grasshoppers, which can occur at this time of year.

On our first trip, all those years ago, we were incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time, catching post-spawn barbel that were feeding heavily on the abundant grasshoppers that were literally everywhere. Any idiot could have caught these fish as they went on a feeding frenzy. Fortunately, we were able to exploit this opportunity, and by the end of that awesome trip James and I had accumulated over 600 fish, mostly on dries!

As I’ve already mentioned this is a visual style of fishing, so be prepared to walk several miles in a day. It’s essential to have good quality sunglasses, my Costa del Mars are an integral part of my kit, as is a peaked cap to shade my eyes; another essential is a wearable water bottle – this is thirsty work.

I use a 9’ #6 for length and power with performance being a key factor in my choice. In addition, I pay attention to strength, and this is where the new nano-resins really come into their own – being so far off the beaten track, I want to avoid carrying a spare rod “in case of breakage”.

A weight forward floating line, loaded on a disc-drag reel with plenty of backing is essential: you will need it. I can’t emphasise enough the need for the reel to have a good drag because once hooked these fish take off like the proverbial ‘scalded cat’ on a high-speed, unstoppable first run. It’s not unusual for all your fly line and several yards of backing to vanish in seconds. Watching your line exiting your reel is an unnerving situation, one that has you wondering if you’ve squeezed enough backing onto your reel. You have to remember these fish have never felt a hook before, so their reaction is sheer panic. On occasions we’ve seen them leap onto the bank before jumping back into the water and then sprinting out into open water heading for the horizon. Leaders need to be short, 3–6 feet for accuracy, we use Seaguar fluorocarbon 8.8lb because it’s very hard wearing, important in this harsh environment, it’s the most dependable we’ve used, lesser material will see you retying after every capture, as the barbel’s rough mouth chafes the leader.

We use two different approaches; the terrain often decides which is the most suitable. Standing back from the water’s edge and casting just the leader onto the water’s surface is the best method, taking a few steps along the bank between each cast. By working slowly along the bank in this way you are more likely to spot fish that otherwise could be easily missed. Casting a constant length of line will enable you to be very accurate when presenting your fly to a fish. The only problem with this tactic is that often, on the lift off, the leader or fly snags between rocks, stones, weeds or roots.

The other method I often employ is to walk or wade along the margin aiming my casts along the bank. Again, it’s a good idea to keep casting with a consistent length of line, if a fish is spotted and out of range, walk closer to it rather than extending your line, this aids accuracy.

In the previous article I wrote for FF&FT several years ago, I mentioned how important grasshoppers were to our success. Well on that reservoir, Cijara things have changed, the appearance of shoals bleak (a small silvery baitfish – Editor) has, I believe, had a massive effect on the barbel’s diet. Previously, even when grasshoppers were not present there would always be barbel mooching around the margins hunting for food. Since the bleak have established themselves the barbel seem to have keyed into this new nutritious food source rarely visiting the margins anymore making dry fly fishing less viable. However, on the plus side, these fish can still be caught on fly tackle, casting Minkies and other fish imitations on sunk lines while boat fishing around shoals of baitfish. The other bonus is these fish grow bigger – much bigger – so step up your tackle accordingly. I would recommend an #8 outfit to tame these brutes that will exceed 10lb, but could easily attain 15lb, remember the Spanish record is much higher than this, at over 30lb. I’m not for one moment suggesting these sizes will occur on Cijara, but things are changing in Spain. With the spread of bleak into many reservoirs we are now seeing carp becoming more predatory too, it’s now not unusual to catch them on Minkies, as my friend Matt Boast did a few years back, and I have also caught carp this year on a soft plastic Shad!

New water, new problems to solve
My passion for dry fly fishing has seen me searching for other locations and I have now found another large reservoir that does provide me with the opportunity to pursue this method. Our first trip to this new location nearly ended in a fishless disaster; after two days of frustration we were ready to give up and come home. Finding fish was no problem, but getting them to look at our flies was an entirely different matter. As we observed them they seemed almost to have their mouths glued to the bottom in very shallow water. They slowly swam along the margins occasionally changing direction in a totally unpredictable manner. We cast everything we had at them: dries, wet flies, weighted nymphs, James Gardner even trimmed his Ant pattern down to sink slowly into the path of one of these frustrating beasts, it sucked it in with whatever it was feeding on without actually noticing his fly. Although a clever bit of angling, this did not solve our problem. We still hadn’t a clue as to how we were going to catch these fish consistently. That was until we noticed clouds of black “stuff” silhouetted against the sandy bottom. On closer inspection this seemed to be the food stuff that was causing the barbel’s preoccupation. But what was it? The barbel were, we noticed, filter-feeding almost mullet-style on this mystery food. My digital camera came to our rescue, scooping up water containing some of the “black stuff” it was possible to get an image in ‘Macro’ mode. This allowed us to zoom in and get up close and personal with this mystery food, which turned out to be microscopic beetles, possibly Corixae.

But how was this discovery going to help us? The fact is this food source is sustaining a huge population of fish keeping them foraging in the margins, almost everywhere we went. I made a call to a friend of mine, Martin Cottis an angling guide from Chew who had fished this water and he confirmed that his fish had taken Black Ant patterns. His Spanish companion had suggested that the barbel could be caught all year round on Ant or Beetle patterns, so black it was! 

The next day, with renewed enthusiasm, we rushed to the water’s edge. We selected an area where we had found a more uneven, stony bottom, which we felt would make it far harder for the barbel to simply filter feed, we hoped the fish would have to forage more having to move from stone to stone. If so, they might just be catchable?

With our new-found confidence, what had previously seemed mysterious behaviour now became understandable. We found it was possible to break their focus of bottom feeding by repeatedly casting directly on top of them. Occasionally, a fish would lift up slightly in the water and swim out from the margin, only to return shortly after. Now, once they were swimming these fish were very catchable, as they were no longer looking down. This gave us our opportunity, an accurate cast directed in front of them would appear in their narrow window of vision. It’s important to note that we aimed our flies at the fish, rather than ahead of them, you could not lead them “trout style”, as they were not looking for surface food!

If they saw our fly they would slowly rise and engulf it. These induced takes could easily be missed, sometimes because of our over-excitement, but also because the fish’s mouth is beneath its eyes, so at the last moment they cannot see the fly, so they can miss it altogether!

That last day was the turning point, “Redemption Bay” as we christened it, saw three very happy anglers leave its shores full of excitement. We were ecstatic with our success having caught over 60 fish using our newly discovered tactics. When relating our experiences later that evening it became apparent that both James and I had come up with the same solution to the problem of getting a fly in front of these fish. We had ended up fishing two flies 18” apart, which doubled the chances of our fly being seen, and worked very well. Later, as we refined our approach, we abandoned this two-fly tactic for two reasons, first to avoid the obvious potential of foul-hooking fish as they ‘limbo-ed’ under the leader, but more importantly to avoid snagging the trailing fly as a hooked fish ran through weeds or sunken snags.

Our next trip the following year couldn’t come round soon enough. We explored as much of the shoreline as we could by car. We drove ‘off road’, down many dusty tracks in our quest to access new areas in an effort to find more “Spanish gold”, these barbel are just as alluring, and just as addictive.

A new scenario occurred on our most recent trip, while drifting along a wind lane that passed under a large road and rail bridge we happened on a pod of barbel “head and shouldering” through the surface, taking beetles or emerging flies. We excitedly cast our Bob’s Beetles in the path of feeding barbel and, hey presto, “fish on!” In fact, we caught 25 fish averaging 5-6lb in an hour-and-a-half! Can it get any better than this? Who knows, but we have discovered yet another opportunity that can be exploited in the future. Wow!

We still haven’t solved all the problems: areas of flooded grass holds large numbers of fish but getting them to see our flies amongst the mass of stems and leaves is almost impossible and hugely frustrating. Another scenario that has us beaten is when we find fish in “skinny” water at the backs of bays with soft muddy bottoms. The water here is much warmer than elsewhere; there are always large numbers of barbel here. These fish are usually very settled, basking in the sun with their backs breaking the surface, sometimes even “tailing” like bonefish.

Our next trip is already planned when we hope the fish will be feeding off the surface. Watch this space...

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