Zander—like the Vikings—came to Britain amidst rumours of ruthless slaughter. It has taken them a century to live down these accusations and become an accepted sporting fish.
The zander or pike-perch (Stizoste-dion lucioperca) is the largest member of the widespread perch family (Percidae) of fish. It is not, as some believe, a pikeperch hybrid, but is a separate species.
The zander is a native of Eastern Europe, but spread to the countries bordering the English Channel before finally arriving in England during the 19th century. In Europe it is a popular sport-fish and is ap-preciated as excellent eating as well as for its fighting qualities, but it has yet to be caught, or even seen, by most British anglers.
Many of the features of our native lack in size however, they make up for in the size of the teeth they con-tain. On both, the front of the lower and upper jaws are found pairs of large fang-like teeth. These fit into hollows in the opposite side of the jaws and are used to stab the prey, inflicting a fatal wound, and then to hold it.
The eyes are large and have a peculiar glassy look. This is because they incorporate a reflective plate or tapetum, which increases their sensitivity at night and in poor light.
Zander are not particularly vivid in colour, neither is there much variation from habitat to habitat as there is with other fish. The back is usually grey or brown in colour, with black dappling occurring in vague stripes. These are much less well defined than in the perch though they are clearer in the young fish, while often disappearing completely with maturity. The flanks of the young zander are silver, while those of the older fish have a greenish-gold hue. The underside and lower fins are white, although a hint of blue is sometimes noticeable. The dorsal fins, especially the spiny one, carry black spots over a grey and yellow background. The tail is speckled grey with white lower lobe.
Although a comparative newcomer to this country, the zander has spread quickly from its original home at Woburn Abbey. It prefers larger, open waters, rather than smaller, weed-filled ones. As they do not tolerate poorly oxygenated waters, zander do not thrive in smaller, stagnant waters. Unlike pike, they actually prefer to live in murky and coloured conditions. This undoubtedly has something to do with their excellent eyesight, which enables them to find the small fish on which they prey before their victims spot the looming predator. The distribution of the zander in Britain is fairly concentrated, the main area being, apart from a few lakes in Bedfordshire, the vast network of rivers and drains of the East Anglian Fens. The Bedfordshire lakes include the first British waters to be stocked with zander—Woburn Abbey lakes and Claydon Lake.
Location of zander
In the Fens, a pit near Mepal, Cam-bridgeshire, received zander and, shortly afterwards, they were in-troduced into the Great Ouse Relief Channel near King’s Lynn, Norfolk. It was these fish that spread throughout the Ouse system and even to the River Stour in Essex. The main zander waters in Fenland include the Relief and Cut-Off Channels, the Ouse and the Delph, Old Bedford Drain, Sixteen Foot, Middle Level and Roswell Pits, near Ely. A few other waters around the country are known to hold zander, some of which have been transferred illegally from the Fens, including lakes in Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Greater London, Warwickshire and Surrey. Zander are likely to spread and become established in many of our river systems.
Like the perch, zander shoal, often in large numbers. Usually, those in a shoal are of similar size and, probably, age. The larger the fish, the smaller the shoal and it is likely that big zander lead a solitary existence for part of the time. However, when there are large shoals of fry in a restricted area of water, zander of all sizes, and even pike and perch, will sometimes gather to take advantage of the food supply.
The zander is like a freshwater wolf, hunting in packs over large distances. They are very discriminating about feeding times, spending long periods hanging in mid-water or just off the bottom. When dusk or dawn arrives, however, they will move off to hunt, sometimes moving into shallow water, for this is where much of their food is found.
Sometimes, feeding continues into the night, especially on cold, starlit nights. During the day they feed sporadically but sometimes, when the water becomes coloured due to flooding or strong winds, they feed all through the day.
The diet of the zander depends largely on the food available. Any species of fish is fair game for the zander’s toothy jaws, even its own kind. They are particularly fond of the smaller fish species, especially the bottom feeders such as gudgeon and their own relation, the ruffe. They prefer smaller fish than pike do, and they chase and grasp their prey by the tail or any part of the body they can get hold of. They then swallow the fish tail or head first, not turning it in the way pike do. Any fish they cannot swallow is ejected and then probably picked up dead from the bottom. Zander readily take dead fish and have been known to join together with their shoal mates to dismember the corpse. Apart from fish, zander also eat freshwater shrimps and water slaters.
An Old Wives Tale, popular with some anglers, has it that the zander kills for the sake of killing. It is far more likely that because the species’ feeding methods are more ‘hit and miss’ than those of other predators, a prey sometimes escapes, to die of its wounds, suggesting that the zander has kjlled senselessly.
Another misconception that dies hard is that the zander will eat all the other fish in any water into which it is introduced. Every fish has to eat to live, of course, and any fish that ate every other would soon die of hunger. Nature does not allow this to happen and the zander flourishes without annihilating other species.
In March or April, when the water temperature reaches between 12° and 14°C, male and female fish pair off in preparation for spawning. The female matures at three years and the male a year earlier. The eggs number between 100,000-300,000 depending in the size of the fish. These are small—about nrin diameter —and are laid on sand, weed or sticks. In Europe zander are encouraged to lay their eggs on bundles of sticks. It is then possible to transfer the sticks to a pond for hatching. The male is unusual in that it guards the eggs while they are hatching. However, this is as far as parental responsibility goes. When hatched after 10—15 days, the tiny zander may be merely additional food for the adults.
The young zander is initially a plankton feeder, taking daphnia and cyclops, gradually progressing to larger invertebrates and eventually to small fish. Even when only 3in long, however, the zander is already a predator. Despite this, in Europe and America, fish farmers have managed to raise young zander and the related walleye on a diet of pellets similar to that used for raising trout. At 5 or 6in, the young fish are then removed to angling waters, where they are a highly prized quarry.
Big zander over 20lb have been captured in Europe. Whether they reach the size here remains to be seen. It is important to remember that many European waters, especially the lakes, are much larger and more fertile than our waters. European pike sometimes exceed 50 lb, whereas one of the biggest British pike recorded weighed 40lb. As regards the zander a 20lb fish is a rarity.
The male zander grows at the same rate as the female until four years of age, when the male’s growth slows and falls well behind that of the female. Males rarely exceed 7lb and take a good 10 years to reach this weight. The record for the species, 15lb 5oz, was broken in October 1977 by a specimen of 17lb 4oz. Both fish came from the Great Ouse Relief Channel in Norfolk, which is famed for zander.
Zander are said to live for about years, which gives two more years for the big fish present in many waters to exceed the record fish in size. It is possible that these could reach a weight of 20 lb, although the feeding would have to be very rich to allow such growth. The development of such monster fish also requires a water with only a few zander present. This is often the case when zander first penetrate new river systems. Obviously, the less competiton the individual zander has from other zander and predatory fish, the more likely its growth is to surpass the average.