River Fishing Techniques: Zander

A lot of water has flowed under bridges since that fateful day in 1963 when the Great Ouse River Authority tipped 97 zander fingerlings into the Ouse Relief Channel. Many zander have swum under those same bridges: those 97 fish multiplied rapidly and munched their way through the extensive small fish stocks of the Channel until, rich pickings depleted, they were obliged to migrate towards fresh larders.

Nowadays zander can be found, still munching onward, in river systems all over East Anglia, into the Midlands and beyond – wherever they have been able to penetrate through interconnecting sections of watercourse. Indeed they are found in some rivers that they could never have reached without a little help from an increasing band of zander fans. Doubtless their spread will continue by natural and artificial means until they are distributed through the country.

HABITAT AND BEHAVIOUR

Love them or hate them, zander are here to stay, for no amount of culling will make any serious inroad into the shoals. Higher survival rates in the young is the natural reaction of any group of threatened animals, and zander are no exception. They will do their best to maintain the right balance between their numbers, their habitat and the food stocks available. Probably the best way to cull zander is by thinning out the small fish they feed upon, and to some degree they are doing that themselves. By their own means zander stocks will achieve the same natural balance of population that occurs in Europe where they are a much prized sporting and table fish. Strangely enough, although zanders are prolific breeders they are not successful in every river. The Suffolk Stour is one such, outwardly providing the ideal habitat with plenty of small fish to eat, yet it produces relatively few zander.

Stephen Downes in his book The New Complete Angler tells of Russian research indicating a vulnerability of young zander to the fish louse Argulus, a small jelly-like, kite-shaped parasite which adheres to the host fish and sucks out its juices. These nasty little characters apparently cause little distress to other healthy fish, but the research suggests that four to six lice will kill a year old zander in six hours. I frequently note the presence of Argulus on the roach and bream I hook from the Stour, and they do seem more common than on other rivers. It seems possible that para-sitisation of young zander might have prevented overpopulation in the Stour, and perhaps explains the lack of fish in other waterways.

Some enthusiasts believe that the strange, glassy, opalescent eye of the zan- der indicates that it is predominantly awalleye, a close relative of zander, have nocturnal feeder. My own results andbeen shown to coincide with similar sub- those of friends do not altogether supportdued, but not dark, light levels. this idea, for in the right conditions weWeather plays a vital role in zander fish- catch more fish during the day. Moreing; so much so that now I do not bother to likely those weird eyes are adapted to bego unless conditions are just right. Anti- most efficient for hunting when the lightcyclonic patterns with clear skies, bright reaches a certain level – not completesun and calm or light winds are worst of darkness but perhaps a very subdued lightall, though the first couple of hours after such as the first hour of dawn, at dusk anddawn and the hour before and after dark just after dark. Foul, murky weathermay produce the odd fish, particularly in would produce similar levels of illumina-summer. Such weather in winter normally tion; and our experiences show that here ismeans freezing nights, certain to kill any the best time of all to catch the species,chance of good sport.

The main feeding spells of the AmericanIntermittent cloudy and sunny spells with a stiff breeze are better, and zander may feed at intervals throughout the day, takes usually coinciding with cloud cover. The last hour of daylight produces a steady feeding period. Should the skies clear towards evening in winter, the late feeding spell probably will not occur though that time is nearly always reliable in summer and autumn.

Winter or summer, the conditions that fill me with confidence are low pressure periods which bring strong or even gale force southerly or westerly winds with grey clouds scudding overhead often bringing rain. Early and late remain the best times but bites are likely to come throughout the day in these conditions.

Location

Zander are unlikely to be found in numbers in fast-flowing water or the upper reaches of a river. They tend to colonise the middle and lower stretches instead, living in deeper water where the light does not penetrate so far, particularly if the river is coloured. One of the best swims I know of in an otherwise clear river is where the flow is discoloured by discharge from a sewage plant. Snags, overhangs and weedy areas are not the attraction to zander that they are to our other major predators the pike and perch. Zander like open water free from weed beds. However, they do hang around shelves of gullies on the river bed especially where the bottom is reasonably clean sand and gravel. Deep runs alongside marginal belts of rushes are also interesting.

Sometimes on overcast, warm and win-. dy days, zander boil on the surface at dawn and dusk, or they betray their presence by leaving a flat spot in the waves as they swirl just beneath the surface. Zander boils are fairly leisurely, quite unlike the splashy surface strikes of hunting pike. I do not know why zander act like this; the action appears too slow to suggest that they are striking at food fish near the surface, but the activity is a good sign, first because it means you have found the fish, and secondly because a bait cast into the area frequently provokes an immediate take.

Finding the prey fish is as certain a way as any to locate zander. I do not believe that zander are always in the vicinity of their food; rather, they move in when they are hungry. But by fishing amongst the shoals of small fish you can be reasonably sure that before long zander will move into range. Find one zander and you will find others, for they tend to live in packs or groups. Smaller fish up to 2—3 lb generally hunt in packs, so when they arrive in your swim sport can be brisk. These little ones are nowhere near as shy as their bigger brothers and sisters. Big fish swim in smaller groups, but they still behave as a pack when they hunt. The very biggest specimens are often loners, or they hunt with one or two more zander of similar size.

What zander do when they are not hunting is anybody’s guess. Mine is that they lie inactive close to the bottom in a stretch that offers the depth and flow in which they feel comfortable. No doubt odd fish would be catchable if you found them, but the trouble is having caught one you cannot tell whether it is a resting fish or one member of a hunting pack. Thus, you can waste a lot of time waiting for more fish that never appear.

Bait

Zander prefer fish baits. I have tried most species of freshwater fish as bait, and caught zander on them all. My favourites are dace, chub and roach in that order. Small eel sections are good as well, as are fillets cut from a small zander. I must admit, though, that if I should kill a zander it is much more likely to find its way into my dining room than to be fed back to its cannibalistic parents. They are every bit as tasty as you may have heard, and the flesh is white and firm.

While I have taken zander on deadbaits that have been in and out of the freezer a few times, 1 have no doubt that fresh baits are much better – preferably they should be caught and killed on the spot. Dead-baits have outfished livebaits by about three zander to one, though in truth I have devoted more time to fishing deads. Based on my experiences alone, the theory is inconclusive. Certainly I can recount days when deadbaits were virtually ignored while livebaits produced plenty of action. Live fish also account for some of the biggest fish of all. Obviously it pays to keep an open mind until you discover what works better on the day. Trial and error is the best system.

Zander prefer quite small baits of about 2-4oz but occasionally they do take bigger ones. The big lone specimens are especially partial to a generous helping. I feel confident with baits about 5in long, anything much larger results in too many fish missed on the strike. If large baits are all that is available, cut them into sections. Head half, tail halves and mid-section cutlets are just as good as whole baits; sometimes they are better probably because the body juices escape into the water more easily to attract the zander. Zander home in quickly to the smell of blood, so always slit open or stab the deadbait before casting out. You may need to puncture the swim bladder anyway or the bait will float. Mind you, an anchored, buoyant bait can be a killer; more about that later.

Everyone knows that bait-sized fish do the disappearing act as soon as you need a few for a zander trip, so it is a good idea to have the freezer permanently stocked with fresh-killed baits which are thus readily available. Frozen baits float, thus a swan shot or two must be added to the trace tight up against the bait. Zander do not mind at all that the bait is frozen rock hard, and sometimes will snatch it as soon as it hits bottom.

Sea fish baits are a total waste of time. If they were the only baits available I would not bother to fish. You may have heard of the odd fish taken on herring, mackerel or sprat but they are the exceptions to the rule. Sprats, being about the right size, are often picked up and spat out straight away. Several years ago a few friends fishing an offshoot of the Suffolk Stour described a series of fast, short takes on sprats intended for pike. On retrieve, they discovered small dual puncture marks on the flanks of the bait. I was in no doubt about the culprits, and sure enough I caught a number of zander to 7 lb plus on my first visit to the spot with small freshwater baits.

The incident made me wonder how many rivers contain an unsuspected population of zander. They do not often show themselves, and spend most of their time in deeper water. River pike fishermen often restrict themselves to sea deadbaits. Putting two and two together, it would not surprise me if zander are more common than generally supposed. Often the first sign of zander is when a fisherman catches one by accident. If you suspect they may be present in your waters but have yet to be hooked, some experimental fishing might pay off.

TACTICS AND TECHNIQUES

Specialised zander techniques have been slow to develop, most anglers doing well enough with scaled down pike tactics. However, zander do warrant more thought on tackle sensitivity for they can be very cautious feeders, particularly when subjected to heavy fishing pressure. For both livebaits and deadbaits I favour a running leger modified to give maximum sensitivity and to avoid tangles which might prevent line running freely through the swivel when a zander takes. A float paternoster is almost as effective for zander as it is for pike but, although zander like a bait offered this way, a proportion of takes are dropped when the running fish hits the anchor lead.

By using a running paternoster, line can be freely taken through the swivel at the top of the lead link, but in practice the problem is only partially solved because after a short length of line is pulled through the fish meets the resistance of the float. In deeper swims the running paternoster is more viable because more line can be pulled through before the float is felt. Seeing the take as it develops and striking quickly is the best solution.

I have not found trotting particularly good, yet I do know fishermen who have done well. The stretches of river I normally fish are generally too slow for good trotting, and in any case I expect a prowling pack of zander to move into or through my swim sometime during a session, so I prefer to use more or less static baits on leger or paternoster rigs.

The fact that zander do not like sea baits, the need for fresh bait, the value of slitting open the bait to free its juices, and their preference for low-light conditions all back up the idea that much of a zander’s scavenging depends on a keen sense of smell. Always one to experiment, I have therefore legered with a swimfeeder rig filled with an appetising concoction of minced bream stiffened with fish meal -mouth watering stuff. A number of zander have taken freshly killed baits lying along side this ‘stink bin’ as one friend describes it. However, it is early days and I am not yet convinced that the same fish would not have been caught on a straightforward leger.

A variation of the swimfeeder rig also appears quite successful. Insert a foam tube into an open end feeder then douse the foam with various concentrated flavours like crab, mussel, pilchard, cod liver oil and seafood. Water soluble flavours are best.

Tackle

Many anglers claim that zander do not fight very well, and of course that is true of a fish hooked on heavy pike tackle. On more suitable gear they give a dogged, heavy, thumping resistance, sometimes kiting sideways and with lots of thrashing when they come to the surface. They do not have the same acceleration as river pike though. The power of a zander rod is thus more governed by the weight of the bait and lead it must cast. Even a chub rod will handle zander hooked in open water. A rod of 1 lA-l Vilb test curve with medium slow action is a good compromise, since it feels nice with a fish on and is powerful enough to lob baits the short distances necessary on the river.

Line strength is matched to the swim and the size of zander expected. I find 8 lb test suitable for most situations. More important than precise rod action or line strength is the sensitivity of the terminal set-up, for although the odd unwary fish may fall to crude arrangements most will drop the bait if they feel the slightest resistance from lead, line or bite indicator. Small tandem treble hook rigs are favoured, with the hooks size 12 or 10. Bigger hooks cause dropped takes when the zander feels the hardness of the steel against the softness of the bait. Small hooks take a better hold in the fish’s jaws anyway.

I have used wire, nylon and Dacron hook traces often side by side amongst feeding zander. I have no doubt that Dacron produces more confident takes because it is so limp. I have never known a zander to bite through a trace. They do not have the same cutting teeth as pike; rather, the teeth are wider spaced with prominent canines towards the front of the jaws for stabbing and gripping the prey. But wherever pike are likely to be hooked by accident (and realistically that probably means most places) it is irresponsible to use Dacron or monofilament. The result might well be a bitten-through trace and a poor old pike with a mouthful of trebles that could kill him. In those circumstances, use a light wire trace even if it does cost you a few zander.

Handling and Unhooking

Handle your zander with care, for they are very susceptible to damage. Unhooking can be done in the same manner as for pike. You will find that a zander’s jaws are tremendously strong and need a very firm hand. The tandem treble rig enables an instant strike so hooks should be in the front of the jaws.

Dorsal fin spines and sharp gill covers can draw blood if you are careless. The best way to hold a zander is with the hand under the middle of its belly. The fish is rough to the touch and not the least slippery. A zander held this way tends to stiffen and stays immobile except for a few wags of its tail. I see no reason to retain zander in nets except for a short time while cameras are prepared for a big fish. Zander are not the tough customers they appear to be – even if you must keep them, use a carp sack which is much kinder than a net.

A Zander Session

I fish for zander in winter more than summer, being occupied with other species in the warmer months. The awaited ‘right’ conditions were a long time coming last winter but mid January at last saw the arrival of a big depression bringing wild force 8 south-westerlies and squally downpours of rain that sent ordinary mortals scurrying for shelter. It was the second day of the depression when I made it to the river by which time the rain had added flow and colour – perfect conditions.

I set up two rods on a wide, deep bend. One with a leger rig to fish a static dead roach on the bottom at mid-river, the other with float paternoster to offer a deadbait just off the bottom in a gully close to my bank. I did not anticipate pike in the coloured river. They feed little in these conditions, so I considered it safe to use a Dacron trace on both rods.

I was soon in action. The drop-off indicator 1 use for piking fell from the line on the leger rod and I struck into a medium sized zander that subsequently weighed in at 53/ilb, nicely hooked in the front of the jaws. I am always glad that I nip the barbs off the hooks not holding the bait – the trebles come free so much more easily and do little damage.

Predictably, it was all action for the first two hours with takes on both rods, all from fish in the same bracket as the first – not big but fun. Just as predictably, takes became more cautious as fish picked up the bait, pulled off an inch or two of line, then felt the resistance of the indicator and dropped the deadbait.

On some rivers virtually every bite is a belter with line fairly hissing from the spool. But on others those shy little pulls and tugs at the bait are just normal zander behaviour. There are several ways to remedy the problem. One is to allow the indicator to hang well below the reel. At the first sign of a bite, unhook the line before it tightens, then feed slack line to the fish which thus runs more confidently with the bait. A second way is to hover over the rod, bale arm closed, and strike at the first sign of life. With a small bait and tandem trebles the fish is usually hooked despite the tiny bite.

If resistance has already caused the bait to be dropped, give the line a long, hard pull so that the bait jerks along the bottom. Zander cannot resist that and usually have another go. An excellent way to induce confident takes is to dispense with indicators altogether. The bait is either freelined with no lead at all or is presented on a leger rig. After casting, twitch the bait – live or dead – back along the bottom. Give a short pull, let the bait pause, then twitch it again, and so on. The rod is held throughout, pointed at the bait, and a spare loop of line is held ready to be quickly released when a take occurs.

At times a buoyant deadbait twitched along the bottom on a leger rig proves deadly. Tugging and pausing imparts a see-saw motion which encourages zander to attack. The bait is made buoyant by leaving the swim bladder intact, or if it still persists in sinking by pushing a chunk of polystyrene foam into its mouth. Frozen baits will float until they thaw – or until a zander nabs them.

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