Record Breaking Fish Part II: How Colin Smithson caught the British record barbel

For anyone who thought that only the most die hard, single-species angler could break a British Record, the current barbel best makes truly inspiring reading. Dom Garnett caught up with refreshingly modest captor Colin Smithson, an angler who shows that with skill, determination and a little luck, anything is possible!

Colin Smithson’s 21lb 2oz barbel left the specimen fish world rocking in 2019.

First of all, thanks for being involved in this series, Colin. Perhaps you can start by telling us a bit about your fishing life. I think most of us would guess records tend to fall to specimen hunters who have an all consuming obsession with one species, but I’m told you’re more of an all-rounder?

Absolutely, I love all kinds of fishing. Over the cooler months I like to target perch, pike and roach. I also enjoy sea fishing. I try to keep a healthy perspective and although I love them it definitely isn’t just barbel, barbel, barbel. I think you’re missing out if you don’t vary the species you target because each offers a unique challenge, and when you come back to your favourite species you come back with a renewed enthusiasm.

Colin is very much an all-rounder, as this fine pike demonstrates.

Nevertheless, you’re no doubt a very dedicated angler and must be thrilled to catch a record. How does it feel, looking back?

It’s still really special. There are lots of records, but the barbel seems to be one that people are really, really keen on. Perhaps it’s nice because I‘m not a named out and out barbel hunter, and it’s an honour to be among some amazing anglers on the records list. I fish waters with some large barbel, so the chance is always there and I guess if  you’ve got a line in the water you’ve always got a chance. But at the end of the day, the fish is the record, I’m just the lucky bloke in right place and right time with the knowledge to do the right thing!

That’s a really refreshing perspective to have. Were you actively seeking out a record barbel, or was it more of a happy coincidence

Well, how exactly do you do go for a record barbel? You can’t. You hope and dream. I sensed there was potential. Our last club record was 19-8 so I knew there was the possibility of something special. But unless you net somewhere and you know for sure, you’re just really fishing for bites.
My local rivers have some great fish and I was hoping to catch one. That said, without knowing what would happen on the day I’d have been really happy with a big chub or a wild river carp.  

Carp also roam the rivers where Colin fishes and are a welcome, hard fighting bonus.

So tell us a bit about your rivers down in Sussex. I know there are some pretty formidable tidal waters down there?

They’re beautiful places, but not easy to fish at all. Barbel can be few and far between- so perhaps the low stock helps. Anglers can go whole seasons without catching one, but when you do succeed it’s usually big. Miles of these rivers are unfishable from the bank- there are huge swampy areas and reedbeds. We get massive floods and the fish travel huge distances between rivers. The fish I had has been caught four times across at least two different rivers!

People sometimes cotton on to the potential and come and try and fish, but it can be very challenging. In some ways, it’s like setting up to intercept a single car on a huge motorway; the odds might seem tiny, but if you can figure out when it might be travelling you have a chance. Local knowledge and determination help, because it would be quite easy to give up.

Describe your approach to river fishing. I heard you caught the fish on quite a small bait and hook. What else would surprise people?

I like actively stalking and travelling light, often with just a net, unhooking mat and one rod, which was true with the record catch. I think some would be surprised at the kind of swims that produce. I had the record from a swim just 18ft across! Two rods in such a spot are a risk. As one of my friends says, one rod fished well is better than two. You can miss a lot of subtle indications by dividing your focus- and of course you have to deal with that second line in the way if you hook a big fish!

My barbel was caught on an 8mm pellet to a size 12 hook, 8lb hooklength to 15lb mainline. The rig was really very simple, with a flatbed feeder.

Tell us more about the actual day of capture. Had you any idea what might be about to happen?

Well, I’m not sure anyone could predict that! But I knew the time and conditions were right, it was in flood and coming up an inch an hour. I knew what I was doing would give me a decent chance of a fish. The edge had doubled to six feet deep, so all I needed to do was fish right under my rod tip. Because of the low head of fish I didn’t add any particles into the swim.  I didn’t want to add a whole load of free food, but just get the smell and taste into the water. So I went with just a couple of big balls of groundbait plus my hookbait. In that scenario, where it might just be one or two fish, I figured that if there’s something around it will follow the smell but quickly find my bait.

It was actually due to be quite a short session. I’d gone at 10am and agreed to meet up with my daughter to take her out to lunch, so I didn’t have long! Out of the blue, I then saw a big mirror carp roll in front of me. After a few minutes, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t picked up, so I checked my rig, loaded the feeder again and said to myself “I’ll just give it a bit longer”. How often do we anglers say that?!
I looked to the heavens after casting again and said to myself “something special needs to happen in the next 25 minutes” because that’s all I had. I also thought of my late brother, who was a mad keen angler and once National Disabled Champion, and said “Help us out Roy!”

After another 10 minutes, there was a sudden bang; the tip hooped over and I thought it must be that carp! I could tell it was big, because I wasn’t able to control it well in the early stages- although by fishing close in, at least I was right over it and able to keep the rod high. It did several loops around the near bank and I was worried he’d find a tree. At this stage I was still thinking carp, but as I got it up to the surface I caught a glance at a scaly side and thought it was a double-figure common.

Seconds later, he got himself snagged under the bank. There were some anxious moments, but I managed to get him out again. This time he came up sideways and my jaw dropped- I thought to myself “Oh my God, it’s a massive barbel!”

The adrenaline really flowed at this point! Even at this stage though, I had no idea of the true significance. I was excited enough at the thought it could be a new club record.  

The fish then went down and snagged under the near bank again and I was thinking “no, no no!”, but I managed to get it up again and into the net. Just about! The net was only just about big enough but luckily it folded in. When I got it onto the bank, I was gobsmacked! I videoed some of the experience- and there is a fair bit of swearing. 

So what happened next? You must have been desperate for a witness?

 Well, I weighed it several times because I couldn’t quite believe it. I put it the fish in the weigh sling then and staked it to the bank where it would be safe. Then I had to find a witness, so I went running down the river like a madman! I did one of my knees in a few years back playing football, but I’ve probably never moved so fast in years!

The guy who I got to be witness and take the pictures was a very experienced angler himself, which helped. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing so we reweighed the fish again, and reset the scales a few more times just to be absolutely sure we hadn’t made a mistake.

He wasn’t familiar with the camera on my phone. So there I am cradling the fish, while giving this chap directions like: “Hang on, I think your thumb is over the lens!” and “Now press there!”
He then says: “ok, I think I’ve got one,” to which I tell him to snap away and take loads!  

He actually thanked me at the end and said he was so pleased he could be there, because it was a privilege to see such a fish. He’s a very good river angler himself, and we’ve remained firm friends ever since.

So, did you realise you had a British record at this point? How did that feel?

In a word, no! I was on a real high, but it was only later that I phoned a good friend of mine and said “I’ve had one hell of a barbel”.  I told him the story on the hands free in the car and he suddenly went quiet. The next thing, he said “never mind the club record, you have a British record there!”.  I nearly swerved the car off the road at this point! I then phoned the British Record Fish Committee and spoke to Nick Simmonds.

It actually turned out to be great timing, because Nick told me the BRFC had one of their meetings just two weeks away. Looking back, I can laugh because some people thought it was a bit of conspiracy at the time and were asking how a fish could be certified so quickly! The committee only meet twice a year, so it was lucky. They’re very stringent indeed- and it was a nervous wait as all my gear was tested. But it went through and when I got the confirmation, what can I say? I was quite emotional.

What was the aftermath like? I’d like to think it was very positive, but some anglers can be nasty on social media.

95% of the reaction was great, I have to say. There were some lovely comments. I was really touched. There were one or two people that asked how come it was ratified so quickly. And then you get the inevitable couple of people who’ll say they’ve had or seen a bigger fish but didn’t claim it! All I’d say is it’s very easy to say these things in the social media age, but harder to come forward and be scrutinised. 

The only other bit of criticism I got was for the picture. I had people saying it wasn’t a great pic. All I can say is that it wasn’t posed or held out to the camera at all. If anything, I was cuddling it very close because I thought it was a new club record and the last thing you want to do is damage it. I felt so lucky and didn’t want it to get dropped, so I felt quite protective at cradling such a special fish! Actually, one of the best moments of all was watching it swim off strongly. Record or no record, I think every true angler understands that feeling.

And did things go crazy afterwards? Did you have to be careful who knew what?

Definitely. I felt like I had a responsibility! Immediately the questions came in:  What bait? Which swim? Which river? I had to be very discrete, and before the record was widely announced, I had discussions with the local club because I didn’t want to blow it wide open!

The last thing I wanted to do is spoil the fishing for others. There’s an older age group, especially, who are not as mobile as they used to be and a lot of them fish swims fairly close to roads and access points. I would hate for them to have to walk miles to a swim because hordes of new anglers came along. 

Do you think your record is safe, or is there another twist in store

I don’t think it’s safe at all! Who knows? There must be other big fish out there. We’ve all heard stories of bigger fish that were never claimed. Maybe some were true, so who knows? It’s nice to know that my name will always be on the list of record holders, though.

Things can change quickly, too. For example, there’s a couple of seals now on the river system now, along with otters- and I’ve seen the effect this can have. It takes years for a fish to reach double figure size and only a momentary encounter for it to ‘disappear’.

What would be your advice to any angler out there trying to catch their own dream fish?  

Don’t be frightened to fish your own way but adapt and make subtle changes if necessary as you go – there’s no substitute for direct experience. Your local rivers could require very different methods so always tailor your approach to what’s in front of you and to the conditions of the rivers. As for catching a dream fish – well that’s usually down to putting in the hours! You can only catch what ends up in front of you.

Time spent learning your waters is never wasted wherever you fish. Find the deep holes and runs. Find the gravel bars and the slower spots out of the main flow. Talk to your fishing buddies and take time to walk the rivers and just observe. Low water levels reveal a lot of information.

Frankly it’s great to catch a good fish and fantastic to get a PB – but with dedication and a bit of luck ( or divine intervention!) I’m proof that anyone can catch the fish of a lifetime!

Do your own thing and learn your watercraft is very much Colin’s message for anyone looking to catch their dream fish.

Finally, how does being a record holder impact your current fishing? Do you still get the same buzz? Where do you go from there??

Almost the first question asked to me by a mate was: ‘What will you do now you’ve climbed the Barbel Mt Everest?’ Well, I’ve been fishing since I was three so I’m hardly going to stop now!  I have some great mates who I consider to be fantastic anglers so I know I still have lots to learn. I’m also lucky to fish some incredibly beautiful locations with amazing wildlife – whether that means herds of deer or kingfishers whizzing past. I always have a great time even though I may blank.

 So, for now I’m happy just to know there’s always another day and always the next bite. That incredible feeling will never change, even if I have caught a record fish. Very best of luck to everyone and tight lines!

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