Zander (Sander lucioperca) are a species of fish that I have never encountered in my neck of the woods. Even with my trips on the Broads system and the rumours of zander being present there I have not been fortunate enough to come across this strange looking fish. So it was with great delight that I accepted an invitation to fish for them with Mark Philips. I’d hooked up with Mark via the Pike Pit. The plan was to be a trip to the Fens.
We had arranged to fish an afternoon/evening session on a river, as we felt this period of the day would offer us the best opportunity of finding one of these night time hunters. And would hopefully mean less chance of being pestered by the jack pike that are prolific in the river. I was advised to bring along fresh bait, so I had a quantity of fresh roach, rudd and skimmer bream in the cooler box; along with some lamprey.
I packed my tackle into the car and began the hour and a half journey to the fens. It was interesting to see the change from wheeled tractors to caterpillar tracked tractors working on the fields next to the road as I entered the Fenland area.
Mark and I had arranged to meet at a local pub, so as I had arrived early, (I drove a bit quick) I sneaked a quick half pint to settle the nervous excitement of the pending adventure. Whilst sipping the beer and looking over the river I was soon joined by a gent who enquired about my intended quarry. We engaged in a conversation and it soon became apparent that as a keen boater he had spied a couple of anglers landing a small zander only a couple of hour before. He didn’t know it was a zander at the time, but did describe it as a weird looking perch.
Mark turned up on cue and after a chat and a look along the stretch of the river near the pub, I followed him to his chosen swims. We parked up and walked up the steep bank leading to the river, after we have negotiated the newly installed sheep proof barbed wire fence. The river was running slow and was clear, not the best zander conditions I’m led to believe, so Mark was hopeful that any boating traffic might churn up the bottom and muddy the water. I was kindly given the prime swim on the inside of the bend and was soon setting up my two rods. My two rigs were standard pike rigs, but with smaller hooks size 8 on the AFW trace wire which is softer than the normal trace material I use for pike. The first rod was a running leger, baited with lamprey, and fished against the far bank and the second set up with a paternoster and baited with a 5 inch roach on the near bank marginal shelf -where the cabbage was dying off. Despite being fished close in the river was still a good 12ft deep, so the bait was present 5ft off the bottom.
In the crystal clear water vast shoals of year class roach and bream could be seen seeking shelter in the marginal reeds away from the open water predators. A single great crested grebe was diving frequently in the open water and its bow wave could be seen as it was chasing the fry just below the surface. It reminded me of pike chasing surface lures. The grebe came up more often than not with a small fish in its bill, so there were obviously plenty of bait fish in the water in front of us. Mark positioned both of his baits in the centre channel of the river where there was a good depth.
As the evening drew in and darkness surrounded us the sunset gave way to a clear sky and brought about a star studded night. Not being an astronomer I could not tell you which stars were which, but I can say that apart form in the Egyptian desert I have never seen as many stars so clearly as I did that night.
At 7:30pm, just when I was considering freshening up the baits, the rod baited with the roach was away and the BBB alarm was sounding. I tightened up and felt the 3oz lead lift off the bottom and I felt a fish on the end. Not a big fish, but a fish. It soon became apparent that it was not our chosen quarry, but a small jack that had snaffled the bait. This was soon netted, unhooked and returned back to chase the fry in the margins. It has to be noted that even though I was on top of the rods and was into the fish in seconds it had snaffled the bait and it was hooked in the bottom of its mouth. A fresh bait was mounted on the hooks, this time I went for a larger 6” roach and it was swung back out into the margins.
Luckily the night was not too cold and all we needed were hoodies and fleeces to keep out the night time chill. I had been pre warned that nights on the river can get cold, so additional layers were on hand, but tonight it was still and pleasantly warm for late September.
At 9pm, with discussion in full steam about all manner of topics, the lamprey rod’s alarm sounded although the spool in bait runner mode was not spinning. Mark suggested I feel for the fish. This I did and I could feel the lead in the mud, but with a bit of pressure it soon dislodged. There was no fish attached. The drop off was re-attached and the alarm armed again. We both then grabbed a hot drink and settled back resuming our conversation. During this chatter it became apparent that both of us were fishing Abberton in the early 90’s and we discussed our experiences and captures from the dam wall of this vast water.
We had agreed to say until 11pm as both of us had an hour plus dive to our respective homes and partners. The wind had started to pick up and river now carried an inviting surface ripple. The air temperature was dropping too, and the warmth had gone from the night. My hands were starting to feel chilled so yet another hot drink was consumed
.At 11:15pm, just as my hopes of any further activity were waning, the second rod’s alarm screamed out. I turned on my head torch on and silenced the alarm. Again the spool remained stationary and there was no sound from the baitrunner. For a split second I felt that a fish had dropped the bait but then the baitrunner gave a tantalising single audible click, followed closely by a second and third. In what felt like a life time the bait runner began to sound and the spool picked up pace. I tightened into a definite fish. The beauty of my paternoster rigs is that you connect to the fish and the lead is left free running. So I could instantly feel the fish moving off into the centre of the river. A short fight ensued with the fish staying deep and Mark asked me if it felt like a zander. God knows I thought, I’ve never caught one before!
Soon, my head torch beam cut through the clear water and caught the gleaming pearly coloured eye of a zander. With my heart pounding and the fish thrashing angrily in the margins Mark netted her for me and we shone our torches onto my first zander. I must confess to just gazing on this magical fish and running my hand on her flank to feel the texture of skin in sheer admiration. She raised her spiky dorsal for a moment in a last ditch show of defiance and I could see that those spines could cause serious pain if mishandled. Mark showed me the strength of the jaws and I could clearly see how this type of predator caught its prey by disabling it with repeated attacks rather than engulfing its victim. She had a number of battle scars along each flank and had clearly been attacked on more than one occasion, but had survived the attacks and healed well. The hooks had fallen out in the net, and as she was clearly not a double figure fish. I asked Mark to estimated her weight rather than put her in a weigh sling. He estimated her at between seven and eight pounds
Mark quickly got his camera setup to take some shots of her before we slipped her back into the river.
We stayed well beyond our finish time of 11pm in an effort to bag a second zander, but nothing was forthcoming. We then said our goodbyes and I thanked Mark for his time, his generosity and the benefit of his knowledge of this river system. I’m hoping we can fish together again in the future, because Mark is certainly good company to be in. Cheers Mark. You did me proud!