By John Costello
A Winter Dawn
I think it is widely recognised that the lower Severn is almost certainly the best zander fishery in the country, both for numbers of fish and overall maximum size. Somewhere like Grafham or the Great Ouse Relief Channel may turn up a huge unknown fish to break the record, but with the exception of Grafham nowhere else has produced an authentic twenty pound plus fish. Currently as I write (September 2012) the Severn has now produced five such fish. And it is not just the ultimate size achieved by some of these fish but the sheer numbers of big zander residing in the river that puts the river head and shoulders above any other venue. By big zander I mean fish of thirteen pounds or above, which are certainly not uncommon, and an achievable target for anyone regularly fishing the river.
13lb10oz Caught on a sunny day but with coloured water conditions
Going back to Ray Armstrong’s former record fish in the early 90’s the majority of big zander caught from the lower Severn have been caught by anglers fishing from boats, current record excepted. The advantages of boat fishing a deep wide flowing river, with heavily overgrown and steep banksides are obvious. Mobility is an essential ingredient to success on any river, whether pike or zander fishing, or chub or barbel fishing, and a boat makes it so much easier to be so. Not only that, but methods can be employed from a boat that are impractical or ineffective from a bank. I am thinking of such techniques as float or lure trolling, trotting live or deadbaits and lure fishing. You can also present baits in the middle of the river from a boat much easier than you can from the bank. Even in normal summer/autumn flows you need two to three ounces to hold any bait in the middle of the river when bank fishing. I emphasise the ‘middle of the river’ because at times a lot of zander do seem to be out in the middle of the river, whereas a lot of pike are active on the marginal shelves.
Given a choice I would rather boat fish for one reason only, and that is to be able to effectively lure fish. My eyes have been opened in the last three years as to how effective lures are for zander, and if I was restricted to one method it would be lure fishing. But try lure fishing from the bank of the lower Severn and it is a different story. I am not saying you hook any less snags boat fishing but the ability to simply be able to go the ‘other side’ of a snagged lure means most of the snagged lures come back. On the bank it is a different story, so much so that I very rarely attempt lure fishing from the bank these days.
But what of those anglers who either don’t have or don’t wish to fish from boats. I am thinking here in particular of anglers living some distance away or those who haven’t the fishing time available to justify boat ownership and its attendant costs. I hope that the following paragraphs will go some way in showing how you can effectively catch Severn zander from the bank.
It may seem like overstating the obvious but the most important aspect is location. Once you are in an area containing zander there are a number of methods which will work, but obviously none will if you’re in the wrong area. Before saying more about location what I would say is that unlike Severn pike, Severn zander are more predictable and once you find a good area which produces numbers of zander it is likely to remain so for some time. Some seasons such areas may not fish, or may only produce small zander, or may only produce zander under certain river conditions but over the years they will keep on producing.
It is around this point that I hear an echo in my head, namely that I have written much the same about lower Severn barbel. There are barbel swims on the lower Severn that have produced big barbel for nearly thirty years and are as good now as they ever were. Some years the barbel in the lower Severn do a disappearing act, but the point remains, that when it does fish, it is the same old swims that have produced in previous years that continue to do so. That doesn’t mean you have to fish with the crowds, like the barbel there are plenty of zander areas and swims that get virtually no attention from one season to the next. So please forgive me if from this point on I talk about both barbel and zander because I see more similarities between barbel and zander than I do between pike and zander, although obviously the methods to catch them are totally different. To me they are different aspects of the same river that has fascinated me for over thirty years.
First a little about the lower Severn, it varies between forty and over sixty yards wide. In most areas the depth drops off quite markedly about a rod length out from the marginal shelf down to anything from eight to fourteen feet. It then typically shelves gradually to the middle of the river which in most areas is twelve foot plus but can be as much as twenty-two foot. At normal summer level it flows fairly sedately but once there is more than a foot of extra water the flow picks up and could be described as heavy rather than fast.
So how do you locate zander in the lower Severn? Well initially there are a number of obvious areas to try, weir pools and the attendant lock cutting areas, river and stream mouths, built up areas where the fodder fish over-winter and such-like, the trouble is these areas see the most anglers. But there are a lot of zander throughout the river that do not reside in such obvious areas. You can start by looking around bends, no matter how indistinct, where the flow shifts from one side of the river to another, where the river narrows or deepens, but ultimately you need to go out and fish your way down a length of river until you drop on some fish. It does seem the case that some parts of the river are much more attractive to zander than others and you might find yourself fishing a mile or so of water until you drop on some fish. But once you do find these areas, they are very consistent. Obviously you can pick up odd fish virtually anywhere, but they do favour particular areas. These areas might be anything from fifty yards long to several hundred yards long. They will even prefer one side of the river to another, so much so that you could pass through a good area but be on the wrong side of the river and not be any wiser. You can fish baits right across the river in normal summer flows but with more than a foot of water on you will need 3-4 ounces to hold even half-way across. I have got a feeling they like to be near areas where the flow is relatively fast, but one area I fish has the best area on the side of the river where the main flow is and another area sees the main flow on the opposite side of the river to where most of the zander lie up. Probably the most important point to emphasise is don’t go looking for slacks, as far as zander on the Severn are concerned they are an irrelevance. They do seem to like a bit of flow, and even with two or three foot of water on will happily sit in the middle of the river. The only time I have had any success fishing slacks is when the river is in full flood.
19lb10 caught when the river was 6ft up
So in the absence of a boat and echo sounder/fish finder you simply keep moving until you drop on some fish. One thing in your favour is that in reasonable conditions you can expect takes very quickly if you are in the right area. Perfect winter conditions for me is with the river two or three foot on, moderate colour, and neither rising nor falling too fast. A fast rising river is often full of rubbish, making fishing difficult and a fast falling river is often accompanied by a falling water temperature. In either case I have never done much good for either zander or barbel. However a slowly rising river, particularly after the river has been normal for some time can see the zander very active. So much depends on how much rain falls in Wales. However unlike other rivers the Severn can remain in good condition for both zander and barbel for much longer than other rivers. Rivers such as the Wye and Warwickshire Avon run off much quicker than the Severn and the Severn will run a couple of foot above with a bit of colour for much longer than those other rivers. It is these sort of conditions that the zander thrive in and they will remain active for much longer, which makes the question of the timing of trips less critical. But I still get it wrong and can find myself looking out at a river almost bursting its banks, when reports the day before have indicated three or four foot of water. Still you can always barbel fish in these conditions!
I think river zander are similar to river pike, in that they are opportunists and will often take a bait within minutes of casting out in good conditions. In summer and early autumn, as well as times in the winter when the river is running colder and clearer, dawn and dusk may become more critical as feeding triggers, particularly for the bigger fish. I can’t really comment on after dark feeding because I have done very little zander fishing after dark. To be honest I am more likely to swap the deadbait rigs for a couple of barbel rigs and go back through the same swims after barbel, once darkness has fallen.
So assuming good conditions I would work down a stretch of river, moving swims every thirty minutes or so. I would fish a maximum of two rods and, depending on the height of the river, put one bait just over the marginal shelf and one up to half-way across. The rod on the inside would be cast out and left whilst the ‘middle of the river’ rod would be moved every few minutes, thereby covering an arc across the river. If there is a lot of water in the river, say five feet or more, fishing the middle becomes very difficult and I would concentrate on simply fishing the inside shelf. In this case one rod might be enough in most swims, unless you put another rod out for the barbel, which are usually very active in such conditions and can be often seen happily rolling mid-river even with ten foot on. Despite the temptation to do so, it does not pay to fish a second rod in adjacent swims. You will miss too many takes by doing so, I know, I learnt the hard way.
Nearly all of my bait-caught zander have been on deadbaits, usually roach. Livebaits are effective, although prone to jack attacks in clear conditions, and will help to produce a response in an inactive fish, but if mobility is the name of the game, then lugging a bucket along will just make it easier not to move. Besides which lobbing livebaits into the middle from the top of a bank, fishing them in a swim for thirty minutes and then moving onto the next swim is very hard on baits. So for this sort of fishing I stick to deads. The takes may be more subtle than livebaits but you will cover a lot more water. Most of the time I fish straight off the baitrunner, with the baitrunner set according to the flow. I sit on my rods and my main focus is the rod tips for initial indication. The rods are usually on buzzers but primarily I am watching the rod tips. At the first sign of a fish I pick the rod up and feel for a fish. If I am happy that the fish has got the bait in its mouth I wind down and strike straight away. By using smallish baits, up to a maximum of four ounces and size four or six trebles I am fairly confident of hooking most fish straight away. You can use various drop-off indicators which all work, but they all require the use of a back rest and to be set up again in each swim. So I just use a front rod rest which makes it easier to move from swim to swim. Most of the time I use a 36 inch net on a long extending pole, which is big enough for any zander and is a lot easier to handle than a 42 inch net. The banks of the Severn are steep and muddy and much of the time you need to be in a position to be able to net fish from six foot above the water. A smaller net makes it a lot easier.
Rigs are straightforward running legers which need no explanation. There are a lot of snags on the Severn and moving or twitching baits will regularly find them. You can fish leads on a weaker link, but most of the time it is the trebles that snag, so I tend to avoid super-strong trebles and rely on bending the hooks out when I snag. I like to have as much information coming back to the rod tip, or my fingers. If you’re looking for fish I want to see or feel any pick-ups and whilst there might be a place for bolt rigs with finicky zander I prefer to use running rigs. If I’m planning to barbel fish later I compromise on rods with two and a quarter test curves, but if I am purely zander fishing I use my standard 2 and three quarter test curve pike rods. The pike rods are better for setting the hooks if you’ve got a big bow in the line and striking through a four ounce lead in twenty foot of water, but sharp hooks and sensible bait size probably has more impact on successful hook-ups than rod test curves in this case.
Hopefully after a few trips some potential areas start to reveal themselves and one can concentrate one’s efforts in these areas. But even then I would be prepared to cover these areas as thoroughly as possible. There are many times when both zander and barbel will happily take a bait when presented on their heads, but may not move twenty yards to pick up a bait. Obviously if you’re getting takes you stay put, or if conditions are less than ideal it may pay to sit in what you think is the most productive swim until dusk or later. There have been plenty of days when we have wondered where the better fish were, having had a string of three or four pounders, and then at dusk we have been rewarded with often the best fish of the day. Dawn can also be good but is not so consistent, or maybe I’m not there early enough??
11lb8oz Caught at dusk on a clear river
One of the advantages of living relatively local to the lower Severn is being able to pop out for two or three hours at optimum times, mainly dawn and dusk. A lot of the zander that I have caught bank fishing have been on short afternoon trips in the winter months.
A short afternoon session resulted in this 12lb11oz fish
My work ties me up in the mornings but even with family commitments I can usually sneak out a couple of times a week for a few hours. Those sort of bright winter days with a clear river are usually not much good for zander, but if these conditions persist for a few days, then the chances are that a distinct short period of activity will develop at dusk. My particular favourite in low clear conditions is the first or second cloudy day after several bright sunny ones. I usually stay an hour or so into dark, but with very little success. As for what happens much later in the night I don’t know. I can go weeks in the winter happily catching barbel in the dark, and not seeing one in the daylight but I prefer to fish for zander in the daytime. I might be missing something but at the end of the day I fish to enjoy myself.
A 14lb2oz late afternoon fish