The Ribble rises in Yorkshire, and in a contrary way to the other rivers from that shire, it travels West for 75 miles to the Irish sea near Preston. It flows through some beguiling countryside on its journey to the sea; sometimes under brooding grey skies echoing with the plaintive cries of the sea birds that travel upriver from the coast, it has a most haunting atmosphere that makes the lone angler feel a very insignificant speck on the landscape.
The Ribble is a spate river that can be so dynamic at times it borders on dangerous. Rises of 3 metres in an afternoon are not unheard of, and I have witnessed a metre rise in an hour several times. The record high level is 6.4m at Salmsbury, a sobering thought for local residents, and wise anglers should be careful to put their safety first. Even with relatively small rises in level, fishing can become very difficult due to the debris that comes down, and casting across to the far bank swims is futile, however if you can find a nice nearside slack with the torrent rushing past forming a ‘crease’ you have an excellent chance of a barbel or two.
Ribble regulars will quote upper, middle and lower river, the divisions being Ribchester bridge and the Tickled Trout road bridge (A59). These are merely geographical aids as there is no discernible change to the river at these locations. The river is slightly tidal in its lower reaches, something to be aware of if you don’t want wet feet.
Anglers of all persuasions can find good sport here, both coarse and game have specimen fish to target, but I can only comment on the course angling as is my passion, particularly Barbel and chub.
There is some fabulous silver fishing to be had for those partial to a bit of float fishing or light feeder work, particularly good in the winter in the lower reaches where they seem to migrate. Some of the roach are notable and the species seem to be making a great come-back after a bit of a lull, I have witnessed several 2lb+ fish on the Middle and lower river. The chub fishing can be spectacular when you find them, and I have caught 5lb+ fish fairly regularly. Unfortunately one of the proper big girls that undoubtedly exist and are caught by other lucky anglers, has never graced my net but I expect it’s only a matter of time and location.
As for my favourite species, Barbel, the river record is 15lb15oz caught in 2009. I would be surprised if that fish was still about, but there are others of similar stature I’m sure. I love a good gossip and have heard many rumours of huge fish banked, but where no direct proof is available, and even though I am convinced many of these fish are genuine, I can only state here the sizes of Barbel I have caught and those I have witnessed myself. First let me start by clarifying that I don’t usually fish through the night, but will usually stay a couple of hours into dark, sometimes 3. I do believe the best chance of a monster specimen is to be had by the all-night angler, but it just doesn’t suit me personally. My Ribble best is a modest 10lb14oz and I have only caught 3 other doubles in several years, but I don’t exclusively target doubles (good job I hear you say!) Fish around 12lb are a realistic prospect and several turn up each season, just not to me!! If you are expecting a procession of 15lb fish you will be disappointed, try the Trent instead!
I am happier when my rod is getting wrapped over on a fairly regular basis and I often catch numbers of fish in the 3-9lb range. I set my stall out to suit, so this maybe where the answer lies, I prefer it to the ‘double or bust’ philosophy.
The Ribble, in my opinion, has to be one of the best ‘daylight’ Barbel waters in the NorthWest, if there is a touch of colour in the water all the better; low and clear it can still be a tough prospect, but if you approach it correctly there is no reason why you can’t catch Barbel and Chub regularly during the day, a refreshing change from many venues I fish where I feel obliged to stay through to have a chance.
So where to try for the target species, what features should we look for? There is a general harshness to the bedrock of the Ribble with a multitude of boulders ranging from fist size to enormous great things the size of a cow, scattering its course. The general topography of the river bed being deeper natural pools linked by gulley’s, often sharp edged, and these features are important in fish location.
Pools are an obvious and popular location to fish and easy to spot, but as I mentioned earlier one of the main fish holding features are gulley’s. Fishing from the inside of the huge bends in the rivers course there is often a gravel beach, the river bed gradually sloping away toward the far bank until a pronounced drop-off of a couple of feet. The main flow of the river always follows the outside of these bends and grinds out the gulley over the years. Barbel use these as travel routes and the flow also carries the food to them so are great areas to target, but beware, fish hooked here will often get their noses under the wall so to speak. I learnt a long time ago the worst action to take is to heave away trying to pull the fish free. In effect you are simply abrading your line where it crosses the lip of the gulley. Far better to relax the tension in the line and be patient, you will soon feel a few bumps as the fish swims out and you can re-commence the fight. For this reason alone I use strong forged micro-barbed hooks of minimum size 10, often 8’s.
Barbel are migratory in nature and move when the urge takes them, some of the drivers are;
- Procreation:- Spawning takes place over gravel and the spawning areas are well known to local anglers. I think it’s very bad practice to advocate targeting spawning fish, but once the process is complete the fish stay around, often for quite a while, and really get a munch on while they build themselves back up after their exertions. Look for the nearest deep water to the spawning grounds and you won’t go far wrong. These are the best areas for most of the early part of the season.
- Hunger- Fish move to search for food, often a long way, travelling along regular routes. Remember the gullies from earlier? A bait presented on a travel route is likely to get eaten.
- Predation- I include us anglers in the list, along with mink, Cormorants, Goosanders and the ever more common Otters. As a great Barbel man once said, ‘If somebody keeps ringing your doorbell and when you answer they punch you in the nose, eventually you will move house’ or words to that effect. What I’m saying is fish will move when the pressure becomes too much.
- Floods- Fish have pre-programmed impulses to move to safe water when they sense floods are imminent. They don’t want to waste energy but still know floods bring treats in the shape of worms, slugs etc. and the opportunity to explore new ground, land previously above the water level. So look for slack water bordering the main flow, or steady smooth flowing water (walking pace) that indicates a smooth river bed. At low water look for cow drinks, cut-ins to the bank or protrusions out from the bank that will provide shelter from the flow in time of flood, because that’s where the Barbel will be. They are strong enough to be right in the thick of it but why waste energy when they can rest and wait for food to be washed to them.
I recommend a good walk along your chosen stretches of the river, get to know the features that will hold fish at low water, then try to imagine what it will be like in flood and think which locations the fish might head for. Consider the above and accept that sometimes you just have to put your bait in a location you think the fish will visit, and be very, very patient!
Tackle up for the Job
My general rule is to fish with tackle capable of extracting a hard fighting barbel from this abrasive environment. My advice, learnt the hard way, is to leave the high-tec hook-lengths at home, they are prone to failure under abrasion. Time to break out the good old mono, 10lb to 12lb breaking strain as a minimum, matched with hooks described previously. Alternatively you could try a coated braid of 12 to 15lb breaking strain. Couple this with 10 or 12lb mono mainline. Sure, there are some snag free areas where you might get away with a few liberties, but I wouldn’t risk it myself. There are snags almost everywhere on the Ribble, just take a walk with your polaroids when she is low and the evidence is there to see. Tackle up for trouble and you are mitigating chances of disappointment. Some advocate a length of protective rig tubing above the feeder/lead to protect the mainline but I have never felt the need myself and so far have never had my main line broken by a fish. I do advocate regular inspections of hooklength and mainline around the feeder/ lead, definitely after every fish landed.
Rod choice is a very personal thing, but for most of the year a 1.5lb to 1.75lb test barbel rod or heavy feeder rod will suffice. When the floods arrive you might find yourself under gunned. Paradoxically I tend to fish closer in when it floods, searching out nearside slacks and creases. It’s not the volume of water that’s the problem for lighter rods, but the build-up of weed and other debris for which the Ribble is notorious. Sometimes it is almost impossible to fish as the water becomes so dense with weed it resembles soup. Consequently a heavy lead is required, often coupled with a substantial backlead to pin the line down and minimise its exposure to the flotsam in the water column. For this reason I have a 2lb test barbel rod for the floods.
Reels need to be capable of holding 70 or 80m of 10/12lb mono, some pegs require a decent chuck across. I use baitrunners; if fishing mono mainline to the far bank sometimes the bites are gentle nods as the fish pick up and move the lead, the indications softened by the elasticity of the line, and then as if to confound the angler the next fish might give a ‘3 foot twitch’ and tear off 10 yards of line in a flash. Baitrunners just give a little bit of insurance should that happen.
Where to fish, Club or Day ticket?
If your appetite has been whetted, you will want to know where you can try. As this article is concerned with course fishing I will cover the river from the reaches above Ribchester down to the Shaws arms pub on London road, any further upstream is mainly game fishing and below I don’t have enough knowledge to comment.
For further information I would recommend having a word with the local tackle shop, Ted Carters in Preston is probably your best bet ( 01772 253476)
There are 2 main clubs controlling the majority of the course fishing, Prince Albert (PA) and Ribchester and district (RADAC). Other clubs have stretches including Warrington anglers, Southport, Wigan and St Helens. See my other blog regarding clubs for some contact info.
Thankfully, there are also one or two day ticket stretches available, which gives a visiting angler a chance to try this wonderful river before committing to a club. I don’t claim this list to be comprehensive as I haven’t fished day ticket for a long time, and sometimes a farmer may decide it’s not worth the effort, but as far as I know the map below gives a rough idea of whats what.
If you decide to try this gem of a river, good luck, and I hope you catch a good one. Enjoy your day and please respect the fact that you are in an agricultural workplace; close gates, don’t trample crops and most importantly take all litter home with you.