Sunday 10 November 2013

Expedition Zander

I don't think I have written anything about zander to date. Certainly not much.  But of course, as I age, my memory remains just as  dreadful, certainly not getting anywhere near that instant recall that competitors on mastermind have. So I might have already written reams of highly entertaining stuff about zander...but I doubt it.

There are no zander anywhere near my home, but there is no doubt that zander are spreading about the country. I read that originally just 23 fish were taken from Woburn Abbey and transplanted into the middle level somewhere in the fens, in the early sixties, maybe late fifties.  Nothing was heard of them for a while, until "fishing" magazine, now a defunct publication, had some correspondence and maybe an article or two as well, about strange "V" shaped marks being found on livebaits. As I recall, again probably imperfectly, it was about another year before the culprits were found to be zander.   The original gang of 23 had evidently bred very successfully.  And zander now, fifty years later, cover a very wide area, including, as we all know, much of the Trent and Severn catchments, and the canal system in the Midlands.  Once zander start to breed in a water they seem to do so very successfully.   But of course there will always be the odd angler who helps them on their way, and I was informed this week that zander have now been found, by both anglers and the EA, in the Sankay Canal ( also known as the St. Helen's Canal).   This is a long way from their established bases, and will undoubtedly become another centre for the distribution and spread of the species.  The North West will probably not remain zander free much longer.

I am a little concerned about how genetically strong the UK zander population might be.   Just 23 fish, being the mothers and fathers of all our UK zander is a very small population of fish, even in the highly unlikely event that all 23 were actively breeding.   Any other species breeding with such low numbers would be causing grave concern amongst biologists, who would have fully justified fears about the amount of genetic variation in the species.  Especially so, as the original Woburn fish were most likely of limited genetic variability themselves.   How many individuals were introduced into the Sankay Canal?   It is highly likely that only one pair have successfully bred there, resulting in a mass of sibling fish, and more future genetic weakness.  Each new irruption of zander into fresh areas is likely to be degrading the genetic variability still further.  It may be argued that the EA, and others will not be overly concerned about how genetically weak any invasive species is, for it might, perchance, give them a crevice, a small window, through which a successful control or extermination method might be placed. Those who would like to see the zander genes more variable could easily campaign for the introduction of fresh genetic stock brought in from the continent.    The fish I see do look pretty healthy, and maybe they have got away with it.  I see far less zander photographs showing deformities than I do of barbel. Yet many of the barbel introductions have been legal, and bred at EA fish farms, where one might assume they know what they are doing. Deformed barbel are still caught with some frequency though, and I suspect that a lack of genetic variability is the cause.

My first zander was caught about three years ago, and came as a complete shock to me.  Having taken a 30 odd years sleep, well away from fishing, I had no idea how far certain species of fish had spread.   The numbers of carp I saw everywhere horrified me.  I had no idea that barbel were present in my local stream, let alone being so prolific in the Trent, until I caught one locally. And until I reeled in that very first zander, I had no idea that the Trent held them.  Even as I reeled it in, I initially thought it to be a somewhat oddball small pike. But there is no reason on this earth for a zander on the bank to be confused with any other species, despite frequent attempts to cause such confusion by naming them pike-perch.
Zander in Sharp Focus
  This picture shows the head of my first zander.  The teeth come as quite a shock at first sight, and although the zander's dentition may not come close to that of the magnificent tiger fish of Africa, it still has a sufficiently impressive set of teeth as to make me want to keep my fingers well away.  I kept this vampire fish pointing firmly North, whilst staying in the deep South myself. The teeth seem to be, in my opinion, well designed to grip and hold slippery, lively prey.  And so, although deadbaits are so very often quoted as the zander bait supreme, I am not so sure.  The other interesting feature is the eye.  Note its cloudy appearance.  A closely related species in America is known as the walleye, and it shares that same blank look in its eye.   It is probably due to the fish having a reflective retina, so as to improve its night vision, and it is this eye, above all other features that identifies the fish as being primarily a low light feeder.  

Catching ONE zander was of course never going to be enough for me, especially as that first fish was an entirely accidental capture.  So a second trip, specifically for a Trent zander was planned, albeit a year later.  The results would show, a) whether my ideas for seeking zander would work, and b) whether there were many more zander in the river.  Pleasingly that trip did indeed result in the river giving up of itself another zander.  Not huge at about five and a half pounds, but neither was it tiny.   My wife has always moaned that we never eat the fish I catch, and so, knowing that zander are supposed to be very good eating indeed, I phoned her and asked her to look up a zander recipe.  Her enthusiasm for me as a hunter/gatherer crashed immediately, and she refused point blank to have anything to do with cooking the fish.  Women!  The dogma of many years reversed in an instant. Perhaps that is what they mean by being good at multi-tasking?  Maybe the teeth  in my earlier photograph had put her off?   So, the fish, which had been recovering in the landing net, went back into the river.   Recovering?  Well hardly, as the fish had not given any sort of Olympic performance when hooked.  It had limped effortlessly to the net. I was quite disappointed.   The lack of scrap has probably been a factor in my not having fished for them since.  
The Very Perch-like First Dorsal Fin
I watched an angler fishing for grayling yesterday, in a river that I thought was not at all in the right mood for the species.  It was high, very coloured, and flowing a little too fast for comfort.  In such unsuitable conditions I would go and fish elsewhere.  This chappie soldiered on.  He complained of frequent bites but no fish hooked.  I suspected he was having other problems entirely, and suggested to him that the "bites" on his leger gear were perhaps not from fish.  He disagreed and so I suggested that there was one easy way to find out.   Maybe it is symptomatic of the spoon fed modern angler, but he was unable to see, without my helpful "hints", that if he fished without any hookbait and still got similar bites then they were not from fish. I despair at times for the modern angler.  So many are little more than pre-programmed robots in their approach to angling.   The river was, and still is very high, and full of leaves swirling past in the current. The river is very coloured, flowing at speed, and not easily fished at the moment.
 This lack of decent river fishing for grayling during the last fortnight, due to the regular, repeated rainfall, and consequential highly coloured water, has left me with the need to look elsewhere.   I looked for pike yesterday along the local canal,  My lures were ignored, or perhaps did not pass anywhere near to the resident pike.  And it rained, rained in repeated heavy short storms.  Some decorated with added hailstones.    I wandered along the towpath with a standard gents' umbrella stuck down the back of my coat, in a very "look, no hands" manner, and was able to fish efficiently, if for no actual reward. I got some very odd looks from the four man ladies' rowing teams that were sculling up and down the canal.  But at least I was dry,  whereas they, in their team T shirts, looked absolutely saturated and were quite obviously, even to the untrained observer, freezing cold.  Never fails to amaze me how some people will quite stupidly go out in the cold and wet to do sports.  A couple of the young ladies must be anglers as well, surprising me with their enterprising storage of 12 mm halibut pellets.

So despite the very definite attractions of another day's local pike fishing, tomorrow I shall once again head off with a zander in mind.   The aim will be to intentionally catch a zander, any size, any shape, any colour. The target will be a new water for me, one I have yet to see, never mind fish. I have been assured that it is a day ticket venue.  So, small zander with luck, and maybe I'll play with the bigger specimens at some time in the future.

There will now be a short commercial break, whilst I bugger off with my rods and you slip into something more comfortable to watch Coronation Street.
OK.  I have returned.  All on the edge of your seats wondering how my day went?  Well not badly to begin with,  the 100 mile journey was made in darkness, early morning, as I hoped to be fishing by about 3am.  Clear empty roads, no rain.   Until the exit from the motorway all was fantastic. Apart from the extensive road works of course...and those average speed cameras.   My SatNav cut in and "Jane" said
"Take the exit."
I did,
"At the roundabout take the 5th exit."    
There was a fair bit of traffic on the roundabout, and so, by the time I realised that the 5th exit would take me back along the same motorway, but in the opposite direction, I was stuck,  and had no option but to rejoin the motorway.  Travelling the wrong way.  At this point I had one of my frequent conversations with Jane.
"Stupid bitch!  What on earth are you thinking, you idiotic woman?"
And as I looked at the screen I realised that if I followed her next instructions, we would be doing another U-turn at the next motorway junction.   And so on ad infinitum, except that the biting fleas would all be the same size!   In order to avoid going round that loop again and again, I reprogrammed the SatNav to avoid motorways, and with a few more cutting remarks to Jane, I reached the first of 4 possible fishing spots I had chosen with Google Earth.  
I often end up having arguments with Jane.   And when by myself I can get away with all sorts of misogynistic comments, without any danger of retaliation, or prosecution.   I can say exactly what I like to the silly bitch.     Not so back home, but, having had a massive disagreement with Jane, I can treat an argument with the wife very differently.  I can stay calm and quiet, not shout at all and just respond logically and sedately to any of her shouted accusations.   It might still end up as a "3-day no speaking", but I just pretend it is not happening and speak normally.   BUT, all our female friends say that my tactics are unfair, and that I should really be shouting back.   Unfair!   Unfair it may be, but shouting back would still get me that 3 day Coventry treatment.

The other game you can play with the SatNav is to choose the "use shortest route" option.   All those trucks that get stuck down tiny lanes have chosen the shortest route option.    They may well have saved themselves three and a half miles over a two hundred mile journey, but now they are stuck, and it has taken them an hour longer to get there as well.    By car you don't get stuck, but you do get to see all sorts of new and unexplored places:  " Nether Wallop in the Wold" and similar.    I have found two previously unknown tribes in deepest Staffordshire whilst on shortest routes.

But, now two hours late, I finally cast in my two rods, each floatfishing with a starlight atop the float.   One close in, and near to a moored boat, the other near the far bank, and under a tree.   The location did not look at all like it did on Google Earth.   A series of apartment blocks have appeared since the aerial photograph was taken.  My eyes looked left and then right continuously monitoring both floats,  and after only twenty minutes the right hand float had moved a couple of feet.   I watch it slowly move a bit more, very stop-start, nothing definite, but my eventual strike made contact with a small fish.  It splashed briefly on the surface before shedding the hook.
In the dark I could only assume that it was a zander, and it looked not more than a pound or so.    Daylight returned, and I could see in detail a small footbridge over the water.   A metal sculpture was attached to the bridge, and featured birds and fish.   Surprisingly one of them appears to be a zander:  two dorsal fins, with the front one quite spiny. The photograph will pinpoint my fishing location to any local readers, but my meagre captures on the day are unlikely to have anyone rushing out there with their rods. The rain, which kept off during the journey, started as soon as I got out of the car.   Not heavy, but persistent.  I waited for a gap in the rain, brief though it was and then, after taking a small perch on a livebait and losing another 12 inch fish on deadbait, I moved a few miles down the road.  Here in the daylight the floats remained quite stationary.   The rain was a constant drizzle, not so fine as to be called mist, yet fine enough that it seemed not to fall, but to travel quite horizontally despite minimal wind.    The umbrella therefore did little to keep me dry, and the situation became thoroughly miserable.  Not many birds to watch either, although a female sparrowhawk flew by carrying a small prey bird in one foot.  One bright spot was provided by a pest controller, who was out trapping mink.   He was also not having any luck, which was a good thing, as he told me I was fishing an area which had a prolific population of water voles.   I didn't see one though.  Not seen a water vole for several decades.
There was some activity in the depths: a couple of deadbaits came back obviously suffering from the attentions of signal crayfish.   Finally a real  bite, and I struck into very momentary resistance.   Reeled in to find that my wire trace had given out.  A friend who has just stopped fishing had given me some gear, including some traces.   I should have checked them, for the wire had come adrift from the crimp, losing me the fish and a single hook. Memo to self: make up my own wire traces in future!
But eventually another run materialized, as tentative as the others and resulted in a zander on the bank. It almost seemed as if the fish had become exhausted dragging my very small float about  After catching a couple of the world's smallest grayling, and some minuscule pike in recent weeks, I can now lay claim to the nation's smallest zander too.
Tiny, but Already an Effective Predator.

Cute little fellow, taking a minnow deadbait half his own length.   I fished on three hours into darkness, but the lack of runs and the constant drizzle eventually took its toll, and I packed up and drove home.
So  200 miles driven, a day spent immersed in the drizzle, for a tiny perch and an even smaller zander.  Was it worth it?  Of course it was.   Was it worth you reading about it?  No idea.


  1. Was it worth you reading about it?

    1. Ian, thanks for your support. I would have enjoyed writing it even if no-one were to read it. Better though for an audience.

  2. Well I know exactly where that is! If I'd have known you were about I'd have joined you in the search for zeds and put you straight in the banker peg where not catching a decent sized fish is actually a rare occurrence. You were just a mile away from my home!

    Then again, I tried that with James Denison just recently in that peg but failed on that score. I thought it was an easy thing to do, but actually those who've fished it a lot have little tricks that get results that visitors don't understand. Then again, nor do we really. Some little details just make a big difference, it seems.

    You saw the local sparrowhawk too. I've seen her just four times and her mate once in five years. Water voles eh? Never seen one of those around these parts and if they were about I would have by now. And no mink either. I think the voles live a little further out in the sticks, or so I've heard.

    1. Hi Jeff, it came as quite a shock, having spent darkness looking down into the water for zander, to find one flying above my head. Really nice sculpture. I had intended to fish a few yards to the left, but the warning signs to say "no fishing" put me off.

      I caught the mini-z some two and three quarter miles further to the North-North-East at a junction. I am sure you will figure that spot out too. The water voles are in length just through the bridge there, and in quite some numbers said the mink trapper. I believe him. Although they don't hibernate, they do show themselves rather less at this time of year. I had quite a long conversation with him, about balsam, JKW, signals, grey squirrels etc. He said that the zander is not really considered as a major pest species. Not sure that the EA would agree with him. My take is that there is little we can do now other than fish for them.
      It was also at this second spot where I saw the sprawk.
      I did consider contacting you before driving down, but didn't, for two reasons. Firstly, I do not like to impose myself upon anyone, and certainly didn't want you to feel in any way obliged to invite me to fish with you. But mainly, I wanted to do the first z trip or two to the area entirely by myself. Had I been put in a banker swim by you and caught well, I would have felt that you had done much of the hard work for me. I didn't do great, but had the satisfaction of runs and will be better prepared next time.
      I realise that there are tricks of the trade, and I may have already picked up a couple myself. But I know that there is much more to learn. A couple of things I need to sort are: when to strike at these finicky runs from stillwater zander ( or are they typical just of small fish). Secondly I feel that, as a nocturnal species, they should be looked for near structure in the daytime. Canals don't have much structure, the odd overhanging tree, less effective in Winter, the barges, bridges and any length of bank near to the deeper channel. It all narrows it down. Even these are not so simple. Do I fish near a group of barges? Or do I fish near a solitary barge, on the basis that the local zander might well be concentrated there, rather than be spread out widely along a dozen adjacent boats? I would hate to know it all, to have no more snippets to pick up. Cheers.

  3. Wow, that zander is as close to "cute" as anything with teeth like that can be.
    Enjoying your blogging.

    1. Cute maybe....but it would still have your hand off given the chance. ;-)
      And thanks.