Down the drain with Barry Watson

12 Great Ouse zander fishing

Since the mid-seventies, when the British population of zander really took off, many have fished for this elusive, good-looking predator. For some anglers, the fear that this invader from the Continent would strip our waters of fish drove them to hunt and kill. For others, such as Barry Watson, the hunting is enough, with a big zander worth many days fishing.

The Fens in Norfolk around the Great Ouse are a prime spot for big zander but you can never guarantee a brush with the tooth-iest grin in British waters. You just have to pick your spot and hope.

The Delph is 16 dead straight miles cut eel section.

Barry chose this venue. Zander seem to like murky water – perhaps preferring to hunt by smell and vibration.

He sets up two rods to fish the drop-off on either side of the drain. They are through-action pike rods with a test curve of 2½lb . The softish action means that even a small fish can produce a decent bend, while the rod retains the power to deal with a monster. swivel bead through the flat Norfolk landscape, and only a cast away from a similar water – the Old Bedford river. They both start and end in the Great Ouse and are superb fisheries, but the Delph has the edge for zander. 7.00am Conditions are perfect with a good colour in the water—one of the reasons

Barry casts a 15cm freelined bream deadbait to the far side and on the near side he legers an eel section. The eels come from the Delph itself and Barry has found that on waters with a big eel population, three inch lengths are a zander bait The bream is rigged up to two size 10 semi-barbless trebles which are easier on the fish than fully barbed hooks, especially for unhooking. They also make it quicker and easier for you to remove the hooks. The eel section is hooked on a 10 single hook. This allows the point to rest well clear of the tough eel body, giving excellent hooking where a treble’s points might be masked.

Once you’ve set up, there are two approaches to fishing a drain. If you know that fish are in the area you can stay in your chosen swim. Or you can move down the bank, one rod at a time, until you get a run. Barry’s had a double-figure zander and several smaller fish from this swim in the last week, so he’s going to stay put. 7.30am The buzzer goes but it’s a false alarm. Barry has electronic bite indicators clipped to the line by his reel which react if the line is pulled from the clip. He then checks for further signs of interest in his bait before striking. 9.10am This time it’s a run on the bream deadbait, but it’s dropped. When Barry reels it in , there are tooth marks everywhere. A smallish zander probably picked up the bait and then realized that this mouthful was never going to fit. Barry changes to a smaller dead-bait, a 6cm perch, in case the predator’s still interested, but it has clearly decided to hunt elsewhere.

Then there’s a rather discouraging pause for a couple of hours. Discouraging, not because you don’t expect long blank periods when specimen hunting, but because if the zander were still in the area, Barry would have expected a fish by now. About mid-day he decides to move farther down the drain to another favourite spot. It really is time the fish showed up – even the usually plentiful baitfish are reluctant to 15m show themselves by topping and bubbling. 12.25pm Barry strikes into a run on the perch deadbait and after a nervous second’s pause, connects with a real scrapper. Dogged to the last, the fish tries to stay deep, suggesting a zander, but as Barry works it to the surface it’s a pike’s snout which appears. Still, at least it’s a fish.

Once it’s safely landed, he unhooks it through a gill cover, scratching his knuckle on the gill rakers in the process. He explains as he returns the fish, ‘It’s better to damage youself rather than the fish, and I don’t use a gag or gloves because this way’s quicker.’ Fair enough, and the scratch is minor.

He settles down to wait for more — after all, one fish of round about 4lb is hardly enough — and begins to explain his tackle. ‘On most waters… ‘ and there goes the buzzer again. 12.40pm A creeping take which doesn’t develop into anything. Inspecting the roach deadbait shows it has been savaged.

Barry reckons it’s mostly zander which drop baits. Pike usually finish what they start -unless it’s twice their size, of course.

Back to the tackle then. Even though zander are the quarry, Barry doesn’t go as light as the fish deserve. It’s no use being sporting when you might hook a 20lb pike. You can’t risk leaving two trebles and a wire trace in its mouth.

Although Barry does get one more run on the eel section, it is dropped. It can’t be his day – that’s the first run on eel section he hasn’t connected with since he changed to the single hook set-up. We’re going to need another go at the zander.

After the zanderless day on the Delph, Barry had a phone call from a friend. He had been fishing the Cut-off Channel where the A10 crosses it and had caught a sackful of zander. For the next couple of days there was a bit of a zander spree, so this was clearly the place to try. 7.00am Fishing frenzy Despite the attentions of some 20 anglers the zander won’t oblige. Barry uses a heavy swimfeeder filled with fish scraps to attract any passing fish to his hook — rather than the one next to it. Unfortunately, there are no passing fish. 10.00am There’s not a sniff of zander, so Barry decides to move on to the Ouse. There aren’t as many of these sleek predators there, but at least if he doesn’t catch one there’s a good chance of pike. It’s only 20 minutes by car, so Barry has his rods in the water by 10.30am.

While he waits, Barry explains that pike and zander usually patrol up and down the edges of the shelf along miles of these drains. Last week’s hotspot can be this week’s blank swim. However, even if you’re not catching, there’s always a chance that in half an hour they’ll be crawling up the bank. 11.20am There’s some movement, though not by the fish. Barry retrieves one set of tackle and moves it past the other along the bank. That way he explores a larger area of water without ever taking both baits out of the water. This method is especially effective if you fish with a partner as you can cover the shelves on both sides of the river at all times between your four rods. 11.55am A cup of coffee, and of course the buzzer sounds just as it gets cool enough to drink, but no run develops. The bait shows no sign of having been attacked so it’s back to the coffee again.

At least today there are plenty of bait-fish topping and bubbling merrily. Unfortunately, that’s all that seems to be going on. The only thing to do is to keep moving and keep trying. 3.30pm Time to go Barry’s covered about a mile of the Ouse without so much as a run – it’s not warm and the coffee’s running low. Barry begins to reel in the first rod and then stops. ‘There’s something playing around with this.’ He pauses. ‘No, it’s just wishful thinking.’ He starts to retrieve again, but suspiciously this time. The rod tip dips. It can’t be… can it? ‘There’s definitely something down there.’ Yes it is, at last. At the end of the second day, there on the surface is what we’ve been looking for – only smaller. A perfect, petite zander of about 1lb . It can barely fit the roach deadbait in its mouth. This fish is the future of these waterways, and Barry treats it carefully. ‘I love zander. They always look like they’ve just been minted.’

So the search hasn’t been in vain, and though no more are forthcoming, it’s enough. Getting to grips with these fish takes patience as well as skill, but once you’ve got the zander bug, you’ll never want to give up -just ask Barry Watson. two leased by the Norfolk Anglers’ Conservation Association , a group dedicated to restoring the river and its roach fishing to its prime. Barry can remember the days when two-pounders were two-a-penny and the shoals so vast that Ben Marks – a regular visitor – reckoned he could have caught them on pieces of his hat!