The barbel inhabiting Spanish reservoirs offer superb, sight-fished, reel-screaming sport.
I tread softly as I amble along the uneven sheep track trying not to stumble and stub my toe, making a stealthy approach some 30ft from the water’s edge. My focus is ahead on the water scanning for signs of fish. 20 yards ahead I spot a shape, maybe a fish, maybe a stone … I’ve cast at plenty of the latter over the previous few days! The fish are drawn to the margins in the hunt for food drawn by the lure of terrestrials, grasshoppers, ants and beetles. Slowly cruising along the margin, the barbel spots a hapless grasshopper, a flick of its tail and she engulfs her prize, rod buckling, reel screaming the startled barbel heads off at breakneck speed into the distance. Wow!
I replay this scenario over again in my head and smile. An accurate cast had caught this fish, but the stealthy approach had been vital in giving me the opportunity. Fishing in bright sunlight, peering into crystal clear water, trying to pick out any indication of a fish before they spot you and spook is reminiscent of fishing for bonefish on the flats, but here it’s just so much easier, because these fish have never seen an angler before!
Unlike bonefishing, this fly-fishing paradise is not thousands of miles away nor does it cost thousands of pounds to get there. Hidden in rural Extremadura, Spain, are several large reservoirs each containing these sporting fish, the Iberian barbel, christened the ‘Red Ghost’ by Spanish fly fisherman in honour of their wiliness and fighting prowess.
Fly fishing’s highly mobile approach allows me to ‘search’ for the fish, and this is aided by the crystal clear water which only adds to the magic of the method. Anglers who like to spin will think they have died and gone to heaven: the clear water makes it possible to not only catch barbel which readily accept a variety of artificials in the form of top-water plugs, trolled deep-diving crankbaits, spoons and ‘vertical jigged’ shads, but also the largemouth bass and pike that also inhabit these waters.
My experience is limited to fishing just for three of the species of Iberian barbel: the ‘common Iberian’ with its sleek bronze back having the appearance of a wild carp, ‘Andalucian’ which look similar to the ‘common’ but has a two-tone coloration their belly – being yellow contrasting with the bronze back. Then there’s the ‘Comizo’, with a long forehead and with its mouth clearly at the front not underslung like the other species, which in turn are not as underslung as our own barbel.
Methods in detail
Deep water ‘Jig’ fishing has worked for us in the winter when the barbel are tracking shoals of bleak, at this time of year the water temperature is very low so the bleak retreat to the deep water we located dense shoals at a depth of 80ft in two different locations.
The bleak shoal was 2ft deep so we suspended our lures just above them. We were fishing from a drifting boat and found that less movement in the lures seemed to be more attractive than actually jigging the baits up and down.
The most successful tactic is to leap-frog along the banks of the main river and its bays above the reservoir. We approach our chosen bank by boat. The first angler is dropped off onto the shore and he commences to fish his way downwind, the second angler motors downwind about two miles before beaching the boat and wanders off downwind fishing the bank ahead of him, the first angler will fish all the bank until he reaches the boat then he motors a further two miles downwind before mooring the boat and resuming fishing again, you can see how, in this manner, two anglers can cover vast areas of bank, you need to travel light carrying only the essentials, and a fly box containing mainly dries with a few weighted nymphs.
As you stalk the bank one is looking for active fish, those that are swimming along the margins looking for food. These are easy fish to catch and after a spirited fight they can be hand-landed. Also along the bank you will often spot fish that are hovering on the edge of the shallows where it drops into deeper water. These fish occasionally swim in towards the bank and then drift back to their original position. A more stealthy approach with an accurate cast is required for these fish as they are unlikely to move to the fly. In fact, they’re more likely to melt away into the depths. Occasionally, you will stumble upon fish that appear to be sleeping. These basking fish will have their heads right against the bank soaking up the warmth of the sun, a fish like this requires an accurate cast with a small hackled dry which lands lightly by its nose, a reflex take is to be expected.
The best banks are those that are grazed by sheep, these areas have more grass (and obviously more grasshoppers). Ideally, the wind will be blowing along the bank – means the fish will be swimming towards you and any grasshoppers you disturb as you mooch along will leap onto the water and stimulate a feeding frenzy. This is why you should avoid areas where the wind is offshore, because any grasshoppers landing on the water will drift away from the bank taking the feeding barbel with them and out of range!
As you work along the banks you will be surprised how much shoreline water contains just the occasional individual and then, around a corner, you will happen upon a bank where there are dozens of fish spread evenly in small groups of twos and threes. My tactic is to walk along sheep tracks to avoid tripping over loose stones and rocks, keeping well away from the water’s edge until I spot a fish. If I can, I’ll creep down to the water’s edge and cast just upwind of the approaching fish. If the fish are spooky then I’ll cast across the bank, keeping well back from the water’s edge, only allowing the leader and fly to land on the water. Most successful flies are Grand Hoppers, size 6-10 in chartreuse, tan and yellow, Carpenter Ants, size 10, foam-bodied Daddy Long Legs, size 10, in chartreuse, cinnamon or orange. Leaders are 9ft to 12ft Seaguar fluorocarbon 8.8lb/0.20mm or Grand Max 9.5lb/0.21mm.
On our first visit, my friend James and I had intended to drift fish ‘loch style’ but that didn’t work. We have, however, caught barbel out in open water, drift-fishing with the drogue attached to the bow of the boat – for less wind resistance – allowing us to fish deep enough and for long enough through an area of baitfish.
Casting sinking lines across the wind and paying out extra running line to achieve the required depth, our lines were marked with Tippex every ten feet. We would slowly retrieve our fly with long pauses allowing the fly to swim through a level for some time before gradually retrieving again. The retrieve wasn’t essential to get more takes; what it did was shorten the sinking line which meant less weight therefore less depth bringing our fly up through the water layers. With the aid of an echo sounder we had located bleak shoals at 40ft on a trip in October one year, so by paying out 70ft of fly line we were able to reach the barbel. We would retrieve until the 30-foot marker was reached before gradually paying out the line again until we got to the 70ft marker. OK, it’s not totally fly fishing, but try telling that to an angler catching big barbel in the 5lb to 9.5lb range by doing this, and getting takes which felt like being hit by an express train.
For this technique, the tackle we used was our stillwater trout rods (9ft 6in or 10ft #6/7) with Di7 sinking lines to match. Our reels have smooth drags but it’s not essential. The most productive fly without a doubt was a white Minkie size 4-6 which imitated the bleak closely. On our most recent trip we discovered, on the last afternoon, that larger than average fish could be caught using the same tactics using a Di3 line and casting towards the bank just off any steep drop-offs, as the fly left the margin it was allowed to slowly sink to half depth before a slow, erratic retrieve hovered the fly through the crystal clear water. The takes are unbelievably powerful. We feel that this tactic will eventually bring us the double-figure specimen we are still seeking. James and I have caught hundreds of fish from the bank and we have never seen fish larger than those we have caught, which leads us to believe that the bigger fish change their feeding pattern once they are large enough and predate on the larger baitfish.
On our next trip we will be focusing on steep drop-offs close to the cliff faces along the original river banks; we suspect that the larger fish patrol these areas frequently often when playing a fish from the bank in the areas our hooked fish has screamed off into the deep water only to be escorted by much bigger fish that have appeared out of nowhere! Our quest for a 10lb barbel ‘on the fly’ continues however the real appeal of this fishing is the pure adventure of it all not really knowing much about these ‘wild’ fish and learning a little bit more on each subsequent visit, long may it continue.
When to go?
Undoubtedly, this season is your best chance to catch a big fish. The best methods at this time of year are paternostered live or deadbaits fished from the bank into deep water close to steep drop-offs. Be warned, Spain can be very cold at this time of year, especially Extremadura due to its high altitude.
My favourite time to visit is spring, from early May through to mid-June. If the weather is right (by this I mean 20-25°C) then the barbel will be in the margins and looking to feed after their spawning activity. This can give you the most spectacular fishing you’re likely to experience anywhere with a fly rod. There will be large numbers of fish recovering from the rigours of spawning, feeding hard on the abundant grasshoppers which, in turn, are activated by the heat and lush grasses. With the heat the ‘hoppers’ get active and some will land on the water and bingo you have the perfect scenario for a bean-feast. My friend James and I experienced this situation on our very first trip to this location and boy did we make hay! It was spectacular. This must happen every year, but the weather plays a vital part in the timing, but it’s most likely within the six-week period I’ve already mentioned.
July through to August is very hot, in fact it’s too toasty for my liking. Early mornings and late afternoons would be the only comfortable time to fish, but I know that one guide prefers not to take clients at this time of year due to the excessive heat; expect 40°C or hotter!
Late September through to early November, my friends and I have visited once during this period. The barbel, being opportunists, can be feeding on several different food sources. I guess they’re preparing for winter and leaner times. We found numbers of juvenile fish around the islands that responded to a fall of flying ants in open water, yet at the same time there were fish patrolling the marginal shelf that could be caught on weighted nymphs and dries in the form of Shipman’s Buzzer and Daddy Long Legs. However, in yet another area around a road bridge where we were able to catch on white Minkies fished on Di7’s at 40ft depth, from a drifting boat, over 80ft of water, where the barbel here were feeding on bleak!
On all his trips so far Andy Lush stayed with Spanish Safaris for accommodation and fishing permits, as they are experts on the area. Go online to www.spanishsafaris.net