One of Britain’s most mysterious fish, the char lives so deep and in such remote lakes that few people know it exists. Originally a sea fish that spawned in fresh water, it was stranded in lakes created as the ice caps retreated 10,000 years ago.
It has the adipose fin that distinguishes members of the salmon family and, like the trout, thrives in clean, cold water.
The female is generally greenish or a dusky violet-blue, sometimes shifting towards a sheen of lighter pearl. The male, especially in the breeding season, develops a sensational orange or crimson belly that sets off ventral fins edged in white. Both sexes are lavishly spotted with white.
These are the typical colours of mature fish. The char lives in the deep glacial lakes of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the Lake District. Over thousands of years isolated groups have developed their own colours, markings, shapes and even habits.
Char vary their habits quite dramatically according to the season. From mid winter to early summer most fish lie deep down in the loch in vast shoals, thousands strong. In the darkness hundreds of feet beneath the surface they drift with the currents, feeding on molluscs and small crustaceans. In the summer, as temperatures rise, the char spend more time in the upper layers, feeding on insects and very small fish. In the evenings they may rise to surface flies or venture into shallow bays to investigate weed beds. Shoals break up and groups of fish 20 to 50 strong strike off together. In the autumn mature char start migrating to their spawning beds, sited in the faster waters of any large stream entering or leaving the loch. They favour shallow, rocky ground, running the fast water from dusk through the night, then drifting back at dawn to the safety of the loch.
The brightly coloured males gather in the fast water where the larger, drabber females spray their eggs into depressions (redds) between the rocks and stones. It is a violently agitated courtship in which many fish break the surface of the stream.
Not all the char spawn at once. The process continues throughout September and October, with some fish appearing on the redds as late as February.
Growth is slow
Small char are heavily preyed on by eels and brown trout and grow slowly in most lochs, often only reaching 15-20cm (6-8in) at two to four years old. In many poor lochs the largest adult fish may be only 25cm (10in) long and weigh less than a pound (0.45kg). But growth rates do vary a great deal. In richer lochs, especially those with salmon farms, char have access to food pellets and pack on weight. In such places 2 lb (0.9kg) char are not uncommon.
Char aren’t easy to locate; you can see them occasionally in the half light of the short summer night, dimpling for gnats or small surface flies but most of their lives are spent deep down in dark, cold water where you need a fish finder to track them.