Tuesday 23 February 2016

Canal Zander and Other Stuff

We do not have any zander in the local canals. I can say that with 99.99% certainty. No zander, zilch zeds, zero...well near zero. That missing 0.01% is due to a single rumour I heard of one being caught a couple of years ago.  So far from any established zander populations though, that, if the rumour be true, it must have been a fish introduced by a zander angler, and caught elsewhere.  Since that rumour, all has gone quiet.   I mention this because I have read elsewhere that the Canal and Rivers Trust are seeking £5000 or so in order to try and eradicate, (or at least reduce the numbers of) the
A Tiny Zander From the Coventry Canal
species from the Coventry Canal. The Coventry Canal has plenty of zander, I even caught a few myself during a couple of day trips last year.  Nothing big, but if I can catch several without having spent much time down there, then they are present in good numbers.    I had been shocked a year or two before, when I caught my first ever zander, on the Trent. Never seen one before and I had no idea they were present. Thirty odd years away from angling and the grapevine withers.  A subsequent trip to the river with the specific intent to try for a zander was successful. So the Trent is another river in which they must be present in considerable numbers.

There is an infinitesimally small chance that such eradication tactics will work in Coventry. The species is far too well established for any control efforts to work.  Short of draining the canal, and/or killing all its fish, they will remain.  Even if removed, they will soon return from elsewhere in the system.  There are too many connections between canals ( and other navigable waterways) for that not to be the case.  It is far too late.  When those 100 or so fish were first introduced into the Great Ouse Relief Channel back in 1963, the wide spread of zander was guaranteed by their first successful spawning. It was an inevitable consequence.  I remember an article in "fishing" magazine some forty five or fifty years or so ago, wherein pike livebaits were being retrieved with V shaped marks on their flanks and no-one knew why.  I think that was on the Forty Foot Drain.  Soon afterwards the first zander were being caught, and held responsible for the marks on the fish.   Reactions varied from wild panic to gratitude that another predatory fish was there to be enjoyed.   The authorities were not happy, and a cull was attempted back in about 1980/81 on the Middle Level.  It was felt that silver fish were suffering badly. They reduced the numbers of both pike and zander, stocked roach, thus reducing the ratio of predators to prey, It worked for a while, but subsequently good breeding years allowed numbers of predators to once again rise.  An experiment doomed to fail long term, as will any new attempt to control the species.   I have no idea why the decision was first made to stock those 100 fish into an unenclosed water.   Looking back there must be those that have regrets.   The EA, the Canal Trust and others must regret that first introduction into the Channel.  The human race is unlikely ever to learn.   Cane toads, American crayfish, mink, balsam, hogweed, knotweed, wels catfish, topmouth gudgeon, ide, carp,  goldfish, all are chapters in a book that should be compulsory reading for anyone bringing any species into an alien environment.  And yes, I did say carp then.

We do not have zander in the local canals....but they sure as hell are on their way.  And as has happened with carp over the last forty years or so, anglers will be in the forefront of helping zander to spread. I don't approve of such behaviour, but the natural spread is unstoppable, and it matters little whether  I approve of that or not.   Uphill lock flights may help to delay the spread, but sooner or later, even these obstacles will be passed.    I once caught a flounder in the Shropshire Union canal.  It had come up from the River Dee, working its way uphill and through a number of locks in the process, probably quite difficult for a bottom living fish.   In a few years zander will find their way back down that same set of locks that the flounder had negotiated. And once here I will fish for them locally, and as with perch and pike, I shall return them alive.   It makes little sense not to.

Of course, zander are not the only thing that has happened to our canals over the last 50 years or so. My first serious fishing, from probably the age of twelve, was on a local canal.  It was very clear, and a hard water to fish.   Its clarity meant that you could watch maggots sinking.  Throw in a handful with your hookbait and you could see the roach and perch rush in, taking every maggot but one.   But I learned to catch those fish, and the canal in turn taught me how to be an angler. I mainly fished for the roach, catching many a fish between eight and twelve ounces.   Pound fish were rare, despite the bailiff claiming that he caught many a two pounder, and several over three.  My friends and I never believed him, never saw him fishing, never saw a photograph.  Had such fish been present we would have caught at least the occasional one.   But over several years I only had three fish over a pound, and was well pleased with the best at 1-6.   The bailiff sold the day tickets, probably on a commission basis.  Make of that what you will. I neither saw nor caught a perch of a pound or more: they just did not seem to be there.   
Another change is that much of our canal banking is now protected by metal shuttering driven into the banks.  It helps prevent erosion caused by the wash of boats.  I assume it is due to boat speed rather than numbers.  When the barges were horse drawn canals never seemed to need the metal shutters.  I feel that these metal edgings have contributed to the demise of the water voles: animals which I used to see daily.  There is no longer the bankside mass of reeds and rushes along both banks.  There is probably less food for the fish in consequence. The voles have nowhere to hide, little to feed on and no way of migrating along the canal system any more.  Mink may have had an effect, but I am sure they are not wholly to blame.

 There are now far more boats.  Fifty years ago "my" canal had about half a dozen boats clustered around a small boatyard. Last week I counted well over a hundred narrowboats and canal cruisers in the same spot.  A short distance away is another boatyard, one of several new ones that have been built.  As I fished last week, I admired the skill of one bargee, who turned his 60 foot long narrowboat through 135 degrees into his regular mooring.  He used minimal speed, few engine revs, but great control and slid in alongside his jetty beautifully. I was impressed.   Later a much shorter boat attempted the same process and made a right old signal crayfish of it.  The "captain" collided with other boats and jetties, surged to and fro, and gunned the engine at maximum revs for minutes before completing the task.  In doing so he churned the canal, or more specifically my swim, into large whirlpools, turning the water into a horrible black mess as the bottom silt was stirred and shaken. I moved.   But the end result of so many boats is that the canal is always a muddy brown colour, even in winter.     I used to see one or two boats pass by me during a summer weekend, now I see a dozen or so, even on a cold February day.  It must become unfishable during the summer months.

But is that muddy colour entirely a bad thing?         Maybe not:  over the last three years or so I have
A Canal Perch of About Two and a Half Pounds
fished five different canals nearby, none for  more than four or five trips.  Each of those canals has produced perch of two pounds or more to my rod, together with numbers of others over the pound mark.     My canal used to feel and look good, yet never produced perch of those sizes whilst the water was clear.  I understand many carp filled commercial lakes, churned muddy by the activities of those carp, also produce very big perch.   Can it be mere coincidence, or does muddy water allow perch to better ambush their prey, and hence grow much
Chunky Canal Roach
bigger?  I even had a roach of 1-4 from my canal this week!

Noisy Canal Nuthatch
All those local canals also hold plenty of ruffe, a species I never caught from them years ago. Ruffe must have used the canal system as a highway, and spread into my area of the country over the decades. One angler I know suggested that having ruffe in my canal was a sure sign there were no zander.  Another bemoaned the lack of gudgeon in the Coventry Canal.  Are zander predating so efficiently as to be eliminating these minor species form the waters?  The zander are now using the same highways as did those ruffe. Are my local mini species going to get a rough, sorry, bad deal in the future?  

I hear pike are less common in canals with zander. Is that competition between predators for limited food fish?  Or is it that young pike are also getting snaffled for a zander's brekkie?
Canals are indeed changing, but they are still greatly underrated as fisheries these days, and regardless of their mix of species, will probably always produce some worthwhile sport for those willing to spend time on the towpath. But apart from the odd lure angler, I see no-one on the banks.


  1. Gudgeon are 'known' to be the first species wiped-out by zander when they pioneer a canal so ruffe would seem to occupy the next logical niche on the agenda. Your thought about pike had never occureed to me before by why should pike-lets not be the perfect sitting target of the Z-mob as they sit motionless, unaware of the threat posed by their ambushers having evolved without them?

    Fascinating piece, as always!

  2. Thanks George, as you probably know, I rather enjoy your blog too. There has been an interesting sequel to "my" canal over the last couple of days. In my youth I fished for the pike quite often, and remember riding my bike home one day, aged about 14, "well chuffed" having caught a new PB specimen Esox of 7 pounds 6 ounces. It remained my best canal pike until this week, which has seen 7 pike take my baits, 4 of which broke that old canal record. Best was 13 pounds, but the most interesting was one of about 7 pounds that took my lobworm, aimed at the perch. Three pound line, centrepin, light rod, and a passing barge made a very hard fighting pike even more interesting. Knowing it was a pike with those teeth and my 3 pound line.....Phew! It bit through the line when in the landing net! Good fun.

  3. So maybe the muddy water (or the crayfish) have helped the pike grow bigger as well?