One of Britain’s best known zander and pike venues, the River Great Ouse in East Anglia is the main artery draining the Fens.
The river begins as a small trickle, south of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire and only becomes truly ‘great’ around Ely where the wide path of the coloured water flows slowly and steadily towards the Wash. (The title Great was given to the Ouse to distinguish it from the Ouses of Yorkshire and Sussex).
Dave selects a swim on a stretch of the river north of Littleport, Cambridgeshire, off the A10. It’s peg 33, situated between two bridges with hardly any features either above or under the water.
In general, Stillwater zander often hole up off gravel points, above submerged islands and rocky reefs, and along sharp drop-offs, while pike are at home among the shallow weed-covered plains. If you know where the tell-tale features are, you can usually catch fish consistently. But in rivers such as the Great Ouse these obvious fish-attracting features aren’t abundant.
What you do have are weeds, ledges, flooded reeds, the odd boat mooring and bridge stanchions. They can all attract shoal fish — which in turn draw pike and zander. The only problem is that both banks have ledges and are lined with weeds and reeds for almost the entire course of the river, and bridges and boats are far too few.
Peg 33 isn’t important as a year round hotspot which Dave can rely on time and time again – but it is a possible hotspot. A friend of Dave’s had several big golden-flanked zander here recently. So if the fish are still around, there’s still a good chance of catching.
Word of mouth from friends, local anglers or tackle shop owners is the best way to get started. Otherwise in the featureless waters you just have to pick a spot and plug away, searching the river by leapfrogging the rods every 20-30 minutes. In large coloured rivers such as the Ouse, there are few, if any, areas which concentrate fish over a long period of time. Pike and zander have adapted to a nomadic life-style along the silty slow-flowing river, though you can often find small pike localized around bridge stanchions.
At peg 33 the river bank has been reinforced with a metal guard to keep erosion to a minimum. The bank-side depth is about 1.2m (4ft). There are weeds — especially lilies — growing along the edges of the river in depths up to 2.4m (8ft). The bottom is thick black mud which is dredged regularly.
From the bank guard the riverbed drops gradually to form a ledge or drop-off where the main current has carved out a deeper channel. Again the bottom is mud. The opposite side of the river has a similar ledge — with more weeds in the summer because the depth is much shallower.
Peg 33 — with its muddy bottom, weeds, sloping sides, ledge and main channel — could for the most part be peg 133, or 1033 for that matter. Without angling reports, your chances are slim.
After getting reports of where fish have been caught, you then have to deal with variables such as weather and water colour. Bait type is also important.
Season and weather
Autumn is the best time of year for pike and zander because they try to pack on weight for the oncoming winter. Ideally you want slightly coloured water with a bit of flow to it. According to Dave, you get the most runs before the first few frosts, usually in mid morning (9:00am to noon). ‘When conditions are tough in the summer – shallow, clear water – night is often the best time for zander. And certainly you’ll catch them in the winter at night. Zander are fun to catch, but I don’t think they’re that much fun that you want to sit out on a winter’s night. Anyway, I’ve found that during the autumn and winter, fish can turn up even in the middle of the day. ‘Big zander tend to feed well on the really wild days when there’s a virtual gale blowing – the wind probably helps oxygenate the water which can improve the fishing. But if the river is in raging flood – brown, swirling -you wouldn’t catch any pike. However, big zander often feed at this time.’
Often when you’re fishing for zander if you get one fish you may just pick up a few more.’ I don’t think zander are truly a shoal fish,’ says Dave. ‘They tend to group together into packs to chase fry. You know the old predator game – several predators you may just catch a pike or two.’
First he paternostered eel sections (good for both species) on one rod, smelt on the other (also good for both). Then he tried trout, then mackerel and finally a coloured half mackerel (mainly pike baits). He covered the river bed, trying different spots every other cast.
The orange deadbait at the bottom of the ledge, oozing its oily, tantalizing smell, was too much for an 8 lb (3.6kg) pike to resist. all going at the fry make them bunch up and then they can plough in — in a way the predator’s cooperative.’
Live or deadbaits
In Dave’s experience during a high pressure system with clear, mild weather, live-baits are more productive than deadbaits because both pike and zander are active and move about a lot. They’re likely to home in on the vibrations of the bait.
But on cold, rainy, windy days (late autumn and winter), when there is a low pressure system looming, deadbaits work much better—the fish are somewhat lethargic and reluctant to chase. They want an easy meal and don’t want to work to get it. ‘Interestingly enough, even with a boat coming through in deep water you may just get a run afterwards — I think the reason is that a boat going over a lethargic pike will disturb it —just make it swim off. As it does so it may just pick up a bait on its travels.’
Dave used a variety of deadbaits for both species. ‘Pike and zander co-exist quite well, so when you are fishing, try to keep both options open. If you don’t get zander, summer water levels are much lower and the flow sluggish, which means that there simply aren’t as many roach and dace as in winter. Secondly, in summer keen young rowers from the famous Shrewsbury School tend to plough up and down the river in what seems like a never-ending regatta!
The match length is permanently pegged and Dave’s choice is peg 35 in the County Ground-just downstream of The Veranda. (Peg numbers may be changed by the end of the 1992-1993 season.)
First and foremost it should be said that if Dave was looking for a reliable pleasure