The Barbel

Order: Cypriniformes
Family: Cyprinidae
Genus and species: Barbus barbus

The Fish Shop Fishing for .... Cypriniformes Cyprinidae

William Yarrell (1836) in "A History of British Fishes":


Barbus vulgaris, Flem. Brit. An. p. 185, sp. 58.
" " Cuvier, Règne An. t. ii. p. 272.
Cyprinus barbus, Linnĉus. Bloch, Pt. i. pl. 18.
" " Barbel Penn. Brit. Zool. vol. iii. p. 472, pl. 82.
" " " Don. Brit. Fish. pl. 29.

Generic Characters. - Distinguished from Cyprinus in having the dorsal and anal fins short; a strong, serrated, bony ray at the dorsal fin ; mouth furnished with four barbules, two near the point of the nose, and one at the angle of the mouth, on each side.

The Barbel is said to have been so called from the barbs or wattles attached about its mouth. It is readily distinguished by these appendages, in conjunction with the great extension of the upper jaw beyond the lower.
This fish was well known to the older ichthyologists. The warm and temperate parts of Europe appear to be its natural locality, and it is abundant in the Rhine, the Elbe, and the Weser.
Near London, the Thames, from Putney upwards, produces Barbel in great quantities, and of large size ; but they are held in little estimation, except as affording sport to the angler. During summer this fish in shoals frequents the weedy parts of the river, but as soon is the weeds begin to decay in autumn, it seeks the deeper water, and shelters itself near piles, locks, and bridges, which it frequents till the following spring. The Lea, in Essex, also produces this fish.
The Barbel feeds on slugs, worms, and small fish: when boring and turning up the loose soil at the bottom, in expectation of finding food for itself, small fish are seen to attend it to pick up the minute animalcula in the removed earth. The Barbel spawns in May or June: the ova, amounting to seven or eight thousand in a full-sized female, are deposited on the gravel, and covered by the parent fishes. These are vivified in a warm season between the ninth and fifteenth day.
Mr. Jesse, when describing the habits of the different sorts of fishes kept in a vivarium, says, "the Barbel were the shyest, and seemed most impatient of observation ; although in the spring, when they could not perceive any one watching them, they would roll about and rub themselves against the brick-work, and show considerable playfulness. There were some large stones, round which they would wind their spawn in considerable quantities."
So numerous are the Barbel about Shepperton and Walton, that one hundred and fifty pounds' weight have been taken in five hours ; and on one occasion it is said that two hundred and eighty pounds' weight of large-sized Barbel were taken in one day. The largest fish I can find recorded weighed fifteen and a half pounds. Mr. Jesse, and other anglers, have occasionally caught Barbel when trolling or spinning with Bleak, Gudgeon, or Minnow for large Thames Trout.
"Barbel appear to be in a torpid state in very cold weather, so much so that they may be taken up by the hand. The fishermen provide themselves with a net fastened to an iron hoop, having a handle to it, which they place near the fish, and with a pole push it into the net, so perfectly inanimate are they at this season. Shoals of them also congregate under the lee of a sunken boat, lying one upon the other, and are often taken by letting a hook down amongst them, and then pulling it up."
The length of the head is, to the whole length of the fish, as one to five ; the head the same length as the longest of the caudal rays depth of the body not equal to the length of the head, and compared to the whole length of the fish as one to five and a half. The head elongated, wedge-shaped ; nose produced ; upper jaw much the longest ; under jaw very short ; upper lip fleshy, forming three-fourths of a circle round the under jaw ; opening of the mouth horizontal, admirably adapted to feeding on the ground ; one pair of cirri or barbules it the front of the nose, and a single one at each end of the upper lip, near the angle of the mouth ; nostrils about one-third nearer the eye than the end of the nose: form of the body elongated : dorsal fin commencing half-way between the point of the nose and the end of the fleshy portion of the tail ; the base of the fin shorter than the longest ray, the third ray the longest as well as the strongest, denticulated on its hinder surface ; pectoral fin half as long as the distance between its origin and the origin of the ventral fin ; the ventral fin commencing in a vertical line under the fourth ray of the dorsal fin ; anal fin commencing halfway between the origin of the ventral fin and the end of the fleshy portion of the tail ; the base of the fin half as long as the longest ray : the tail deeply forked, the longest rays three times as long as the middle short ones.
The general colour of the upper part of the head and body is greenish brown, becoming yellowish green on the sides; cheeks, gill-covers, and scales tinged with bronze; belly white; irides golden yellow ; lips pale flesh colour, dorsal and caudal fins brown, tinged with red ; pectoral, ventral, and anal fins flesh red ; the lateral line nearly straight throughout its whole length.
The number of fin-rays are- -

D. 11 : P. 16 : V. 9 : A. 7 : C. 19 upper half 10.

The Barbel, in the coat of Bar, forms one of the quarterings of the arms of Margaret of Anjou, queen of Henry the Sixth, and founder of Queen's College, Cambridge. She was daughter of René, Duke d' Anjou, titular King of Jerusalem. These arms are very beautifully painted in glass in the windows of a curious old manor-house at Ockwells, in Berkshire, near Bray, on the banks of the Thames; well known to antiquaries from the engravings in Lysons' history of that county.

Frank Buckland (1880) in "Natural History of British Fishes":


(Cyprinus barbus)

German : Die Barbe, Barm. French: Le Barbeau. Swedish: Barbfisk. Dutch: Barbeell. Italian : Barbolo.

THE Barbel may be said to be a water-pig, his habits in the water are so very like those, of a pig on the land. His leathery mouth is most admirably formed for routing about, and he lives principally by feeding upon insects which live among the plants (I do not call them weeds) which cover the stones at the bottom of the water. The poet Flood has recorded the barbel's grubbing propensities in the following lines:

"In they went, and hunted about,
Open-mouthed, like chub or trout,
And some with upper lip thrust out,
Like that fish for routing - the barbel."

To the anglers of London and the towns on the Thames, as well as to the fishermen of Nottingham, Sheffield, &c., the barbel is a very important fish, affording wonderful sport in the season. Barbel delight prin-cipally in the rapid water below weirs. He is also found in parts of the river where the water runs quickly, scours, and shallows. The barbel is not good food, nevertheless the Jews eat him during their holidays. The eggs of the barbel are said to be poisonous, and to produce the same symptoms as belladonna. Fishermen about Windsor have a horror of barbel's roe, so there must be something in the story.
When the weeds die off and the winter comes, the barbel, as it were, hybernates ; he goes into deep holes, and there remains until the warm weather returns. I once discovered the winter haunt of these barbel at Old Windsor ; a very large number of them lay perfectly quiet in a very deep hole under the roots of a willow tree. They seemed very torpid. I did not disturb them, nor did I tell anybody of their whereabouts. The head of the barbel makes a beautiful preparation when dried. Two heads should be dried, one with the pig-like lips shut, the other with the same expanded. It will be seen that he has four barbules at the end of his upper jaw, and two shorter attached to the orifice of the lips. The use of these, no doubt, is to enable the fish to find his food at the bottom of the deep holes where he lives, to which, I expect, very little daylight reaches. I expect the barbel is very nocturnal in his habits. Anglers for barbel tell me that the best sport at barbel catching is after dark, when the mills are stopped, and the barbel are hunting about in places where they could not probably get when the stream was running in full force.
When a barbel is hooked, he always endeavours to strike at the line with his tail, to break it. Now, if we examine the back fin of the barbel, we shall find that the first ray of it is cut out into deep notches just like a saw. The use of this fin I imagine to be to steady and steer him in the rapid currents and mill-streams in which he lives. If we move the serrated ray upwards, we find the whole fin follows it, and is kept tense by it ; let it go, and the fin again sinks down. In the mast of a London barge we find a parallel contrivance. The barge makes headway by means of this contrivance ; so does the barbel, only that his sail (so to speak) is opposed to water, not wind.
Most fish that live in dark places have scales more or less brilliant. The barbel's scales are of a pale gold colour edged with black. They are very numerous, and this will be seen if a portion of the barbel's skin be taken off and dried on the window-pane. It is not everybody who can catch barbel. They are very artful, and require to be collected by means of ground-bait.
A good day's barbel fishing is enjoyable above all measure, but it is most advisable to employ a professional fisherman to ground-bait the "swim," arrange the tackle, &c. The finer the tackle, used for barbel the more sport you get catching them. The bite of the barbel is a double knock a "rat-tat." I myself like to use a Nottingham reel. The barbel when first caught has the power of making a very peculiar noise, which is one of the many problems which I wish my readers to investigate and, if possible, explain. If the finger be placed down the throat of a live barbel, it will be found that it will be nipped very smartly by a set of very large teeth in the pharynx. These should be taken out, and the flesh removed either by boiling, or scraping, or both; it will then be seen they are very strong and crooked, mounted in three rows.

Alwyne Wheeler (1969) in "The Fishes of the British Isles and North West Europe":


Barbus barbus (Linnaeus, 1758)

NAMES Fr. Barbeau; Du. Barbeel; Ge. Barbe.

IDENTIFICATION A long, round-bodied fish with a long head and a pointed snout. It has four barbels, two near the snout tip and a pair at the angle of the jaw. The dorsal fin is short based, usually with eight branched rays and a heavy, strongly serrated, full-length spine. The scales are medium sized and firmly attached. The barbel grows to a length of 40 in (102 cm) and a weight of 13 lb 3 oz (6 kg), but usually averages up to 30 in (76 cm) and a weight of 6 lb (2.7 kg). The British record fish weighed 11 lb 6 oz (5.14 kg).
The colour is variable, usually brown or greygreen on the back, with greeny golden glints on the sides and head. The pectoral, pelvic and anal fins are green with reddish bases. The iris is golden.
D. III/7-9; A. III/5; lateral line 55-65; pharyngeal teeth in three rows, 5 + 3 + 2 each side.

BIOLOGY The barbel is found in swift-flowing, moderately deep rivers which have a bed of sand or gravel. Typically it is inactive by day and forages by night, but in the deep water in weir pools or obstructions in the river it may be active at all hours. Spawning takes place from the end of April to July on gravelly shallows. The yellowish eggs adhere to the stones and lodge in the interstices, hatching in ten to fifteen days. Sexual maturity occurs at from three to five years. Males have three rows of white tubercles along their backs, and tubercles on their heads during the spawning season. Before spawning there is an upstream migration, and great shoals of barbel have been reported during April and May heading for the spawning beds. Measurement of one such migration in a large European river showed a shoal to have travelled 190 miles in thirty-seven days.
The food of the barbel is composed wholly of bottom-living organisms, particularly aquatic insects (mainly Ephemeroptera larvae), crustacea, worms and mollucs. They mostly feed at night.
Barbel are prime sporting fish, although their relatively local distribution makes them of restricted value. Their good size and fighting quality in part compensate for this, and they have been introduced to some river systems (such as the Severn, the Medway and the Bristol Avon) by angling interests. Their flesh is said to be good eating, if bony, but the roe is poisonous. They are used as food only locally, and no commercial fishery for them exists in Europe.


Eastwards to the Danube basin. Subspecies B. b. bocagei Steindachner, 1865 and B. b. sclateri Günther, 1868 in Iberian peninsula. A closely related species, B. plebejus Valenciennes, 1842 in Italy.

Fishing for ....


Izaak Walton (1653) in "The Compleat Anlgler":

"Observations of the Barbel ; and directions how to fish for him"

Chapter XIV ; [Fourth day]

Pisc. The Barbel is so called, says Gesner, by reason of his barb or wattles at his mouth, which are under his nose or chaps. He is one of those leather-mouthed fishes, that I told you of, that does very seldom break his hold if he be once hooked: but he is so strong, that he will often break both rod and line, if he proves to be a big one.
But the barbel, though he be of a fine shape, and looks big, yet he is not accounted the best fish to eat, neither for his wholesomeness nor his taste: but the male is reputed much better than the female, whose spawn is very hurtful, as I will presently declare to you.
They flock together, like sheep, and are at the worst in April, about which time they spawn, but quickly grow to be in season. He is able to live in the strongest swifts of the water, and in summer they love the shallowest and sharpest streams; and love to lurk under weeds, and to feed on gravel against a rising ground, and will root and dig in the sands with his nose like a hog, and there nest himself: yet sometimes he retires to deep and swift bridges, or flood-gates, or weirs, where he will nest himself amongst piles, or in hollow places, and take such hold of moss or weeds, that be the water never so swift, it is not able to force him from the place that he contends for. This is his constant custom in summer, when he and most living creatures sport themselves in the sun: but at the approach of winter, then he forsakes the swift streams and shallow waters, and by degrees retires to those parts of the river that are quiet and deeper: in which places, and I think about that time, he spawns, and, as I have formerly told you, with the help of the melter, hides his spawn or eggs in holes, which they both dig in the gravel, and then they mutually labour to cover it with the same sand, to prevent it from being devoured by other fish.
There be such store of this fish in the river Danube, that Rondeletius says, they may in some places of it, and in some months of the year, be taken by those that dwell near to the river, with their hands, eight or ten load at a time: he says, they begin to be good in May, and that they cease to be so in August; but it is found to be otherwise in this nation: but thus far we agree with him, that the spawn of a barbel, if it be not poison, as he says, yet that it is dangerous meat, and especially in the month of May; which is so certain, that Gesner and Gasius declare it had an ill effect upon them, even to the endangering of their lives.
This fish is of a fine cast and handsome shape, with small scales, which are placed after a most exact and curious manner, and, as I told you, may be rather said not to be ill, than to be good meat: the chub and he have, I think, both lost part of their credit by ill cookery, they being reputed the worst or coarsest of fresh-water fish. But the BARBEL affords an angler choice sport, being a lusty and a cunning fish; so lusty and cunning as to endanger the breaking of the angler's line, by running his head forcibly towards any covert or hole in the bank, and then striking at the line, to break it off, with his tail, as is observed by Plutarch in his book "De industriâ Animalium;" and also so cunning, to nibble and suck off your worm close to the hook, and yet avoid the letting the hook come into his mouth.
The barbel is also curious for his baits; that is to say, that they be clean and sweet; that is to say, to have your worms well scoured, and not kept in sour and musty moss, for he is a curious feeder; but at a well scoured lob-worm he will bite as boldly as at any bait, and especially if, the night or two before, you fish for him, you shall bait the places where you intend to fish for him, with big worms cut into pieces; and note, that none did ever overbait the place, nor fish too early or too late for a barbel. And the barbel will bite also at gentles, which not being too much scoured, but green, are a choice bait for him; and so is cheese, which is not to be too hard, but kept a day or two in a wet linen cloth to make it tough: with this you may also bait the water a day or two before you fish for the barbel, and be much the likelier to catch store: and if the cheese were laid in clarified honey a short time before, as namely, an hour or two, you are still the likelier to catch fish: some have directed to cut the cheese into thin pieces, and toast it, and then tie in on the hook with fine silk: and some advise to fish for the barbel with sheep's tallow and soft cheese beaten or worked into a paste, and that it is choicely good in August, and I believe it; but doubtless the lob-worm well scoured, and the gentle not too much scoured; and cheese ordered as I have directed, are baits enough, and I think will serve in any month, though I shall commend any angler that tries conclusions, and is industrious to improve the art. And now, my honest scholar, the long shower and my tedious discourse are both ended together; and I shall give you but this observation, that when you fish for barbel, your rod and line be both long and of good strength, for, as I told you, you will find him a heavy and a dogged fish to be dealt withal, yet he seldom or never breaks his hold if he be once strucken. And if you would know more of fishing for the umber or barbel, get into favour with Doctor Sheldon, whose skin is above others; and of that the poor that dwell about him have a comfortable experience.
And now let us go and see what interest the trouts will pay us for letting our angle-rods lie so long and so quietly in the water, for their use. Come, scholar, which will you take up ?
Ven. Which you think fit, master.
Pisc. Why, you shall take up that, for I am certain, by viewing the line, it has a fish at it. Look you, scholar ! well done! Come, now take up the other too : well ! now you may tell my brother Peter, at night, that You have caught a leash of trouts this day. And now let's move towards our lodging, and drink a draught of red cow's milk as we go; and give pretty Maudlin and her honest mother a brace of trouts for their supper.
Ven. Master, I like your motion very well; and I think it is now about milking-time; and yonder they be at it.
Pisc. God speed you, good woman ! I thank you both for our songs last night: I and my companion have had such fortune a-fishing this day, that we resolve to give you and Maudlin a brace of trouts for supper; and we will now taste a draught of your red cow's milk.
Milk-W. Marry, and that you shall with all my heart; and I will still be your debtor when you come this way. If you will but speak the word, I will make you a good syllabub of new verjuice; and then you may sit down in a haycock, and eat it; and Maudlin shall sit by and sing you the good old song of the "Hunting in Chevy Chace," or some other good ballad, for she hath store of them; Maudlin, my honest Maudlin, hath a notable memory, and she thinks; nothing too good for you, because you be such honest men.
Ven.. We thank you; and intend, once in a month, to call upon you again, and give you a little warning; and so, good night; good night, Maudlin. And now, good master, let's lose no time: but tell me somewhat more of fishing; and, if you please, first, something of fishing for a gudgeon.
Pisc. I will, honest scholar.