A golden olive back porpoised in the wind rippled surface. Then another, and another. The surface was alive with barbel tucking into dinner. We had found them. Finally.
The small balbyter ant plopped near the action. Within seconds pale lips loomed through the surface film to sip it down. A light lift of the rod and line streaked off into the depths. Several more barbel engulfed the ant, but the drag screeching action stopped all too soon. We hiked out in darkness.
Tucking into ibérica ham, bread and wine, we reflected on the day. A foot grinding 26 km of rocky shoreline covered. It was a steep learning curve. Apart from the bay coming alive at last light, barbel had been sporadic all day. These golden ghosts are masters of camouflage.
They had a further edge under the murky wind rippled surface. The blanket of green was even tougher. I had read that algae could be a challenge, but had imagined floating clumps of algae in clear water. Instead we found a green health drink of suspended algae particles. Wind was essential for sight fishing here. On calm and windward shores these floating particles formed an impenetrable green blanket.
Watching a barbel calmly cruise over to inspect your dry fly in shallow water is heart stopping. Holding on as these freshwater bonefish tear off backing in a single run is exhilarating. A powerful cocktail when combined with great culture and food. We were completely addicted during a prior visit. Yet, what worked then was not working now.
Switching to a large olive zonker pattern almost changed the day. The 6wt ripped flat as the fly wiggled over a rocky drop off. A broad golden flank and tail flashed. Slack followed. Disappointment and excitement. It was small by comizo barbel standards, only 10 or 12lb. But a glimpse of the potential for huge 20lb+ piscivorous comizo barbel. Perched on a ledge we had the pleasure and frustration of watching one of these behemoths cruise peacefully below…
The reservoirs of Extremadura are huge. The largest, Embalsa la Serena has 500km of shoreline. They are all are home to largemouth bass, pike, carp and three species of Barbus.
Most golden shadows on the flats were the drag tearing sclateri (Andalusian/gypsy barbel). But the huge, long snouted and aggressive comizo (Iberian barbel) captured our imagination. The quaint microcephalus (shorthead barbel) also makes an occasional appearance. Hybridisation makes identification hard at times.
Pike, with their brawn and toothy smiles are the true rulers of Extremadura. And so we squeezed out every ounce of our budget baggage allowance to bring along our float tubes.
First light. Coffee and anticipation pumped up the float tubes in double quick time. The dark water looked icy and I regretted leaving my waders at home. Cold eyes. Cold heart. Cold blood. Pike don’t do warm and cuddly. Despite being late autumn, our legs dangled in a comfortable 18℃.
In search of colder water we targeted a deep point. A narrow ravine. Spanned by a small bridge, the gorge has depth, structure, drop offs and baitfish. A predator magnet.
And, as we discovered, a fishermen magnet too. Within an hour, two bass boats arrived. Vertical jigging. Within another hour, at least 6 boats had trolled through. By lunch time every resident pike, barbel and bass had seen the lures from a dozen boats and four float tubers.
Not a single fish showed. It was time to go big, bold and deep. Very big. Sonar followed the 25cm red-headed dragon tail fly into the depths. Down, down it went. 10, 15, 25 and, finally – to the bottom at 35m.
Nothing showed and so, dragon in tow, I paddled through the shadow of the bridge. A slow figure of 8 and occasional twitches kept the dragon alive ten to fifteen meters below. The line went heavy and a sharp strip set the hook. Line that had once travelled away towards the bridge now arrowed into the abyss below. Up, up and up it came. Head shaking all the way. A fat and healthy toothy submarine surfaced.
Elated that the efforts had paid off, we fished the clear waters for a few more hours. With the vast shoals of baitfish around there were definitely more pike present. Yet, nothing else showed. So we packed up and headed off to catch the evening barbel rise.
We hatched a plan for the next day while tucking into tasty lamb, chicken and pork dishes at a small local restaurant. Avoiding algae was the top priority and we picked a few locations based on the wind predictions.
We debated what fly gave us the best chance. We settled on three flies that also work well for several South African barbus species. Our go to pattern was a balbyter ant in smaller sizes, #14 or #16. It floats well and with a good presentation was rarely rejected. Even carp ate it. The second fly was a yellow Ed’s hopper in #10 to #12. This worked well on bigger fish. Comizo,in particular would speed up and smash it. And finally a #16 – #18 Harrop’s CDC beetle. This was our secret weapon for finicky fish when the sun was high and the water calm.
The high-water mark on the steep banks provided an excellent vantage point. We decided to hike along the high water mark. Once we spied a cruising fish, one of us would crawl, crouch and creep into position. The other would keep eyes on the fish and guide where to cast if needed. Leading the fish by two or three meters, the dry was usually spotted. If not, a light twitch would get them finning across. If the barbel was rooting on the bottom, plopping the fly hard onto the surface got their attention.
Hike, spot, stalk, cast. Fish on! We cracked the code, landing several fish in quick succession.
A favourite memory was a fish patrolling no more than a foot from the shore line, its back clear out of the water at times. It did not see the fly and we followed it down the shore. Several presentations later it spotted the hopper. With a burst of speed it ate in an explosion of water. Hooking itself it tore off the entire fly line with a single run.
Before heading back to the airport we stopped to buy some of the famous local ham. With gestures and a mixture of Spanish and English, Paul settled on a Paleta de bellota ibérica, 100% raza ibérica. The lady smiled, nodding at the choice and wrapped it up. Weighed and totted it left little change from 100 EUR. Paul’s eyes bulged and he pointed hopefully at the €20/kg sign. The lady smiled once again and lifted up a fallen over tag, €55/kg.
Caught hook, line and sinker, I am told that this was the best ham that has ever passed his lips. I would say the same…