Part I. Prologue
My time in England was winding down. With only a few days of summer vacation left, I had to get ready to head back to the US. However, in my final days here, I was determined to add one more new species to my life-list of fish that I have captured. Since lure fishing was my passion, it would have to be a predator, something that is highly limited in the freshwater scene in Europe.
The most common predators that are fished for in the UK are the Northern pike, along with the European perch. Less commonly, the River chub and Wels catfish are also be considered predatory. However, I had already caught a large amount of River chub in the past. On the other hand, the Wels catfish were almost nonexistant in the wild in the UK and could mostly be found in the rare stocked fishing pond as an exotic catch. This left only a single predatory species available to pursue, one with a highly checkered reputation.
As a non-native fish introduced around the early 1900’s to the UK, this predator has been highly villified by the EA and traditional anglers hoping to preserve the natural stocks of native fish from a voracious predator. However predator anglers across the nation rejoiced the great new angling target, with the new species providing a sporting challenge and growing well over 20 lbs! When first researching fishing in Europe, the information regarding this fish had always been difficult to come by; it’s whereabouts, it’s habits, methods for capture. However, this cloak of secrecy only served to pique my interest further, and I was awestruck by the beautiful pictures of captured specimens.
Part II. The Plan
Lovingly referred to as Zeds by it’s few dedicated anglers, the Zander is an enigmatic fish that continues to be shrouded in both secrecy and mystery. Found in the same family as the walleye and sauger of the US, the zander is the 3rd species in the family often referred to as pike-perch. With it’s elongated body and savage dentition, it’s easy to see where the pike reference was derived from, but the double set of dorsal fins places it neatly in the perch family. Like the walleye and sauger, the zander also possesses a membranous tapetum in their eye that confers high visual acuity in low light conditions, thus resulting in a predilection for residing in discolored water and hunting under the cover of night.
The exact hunting preferences of Zander are still not completely well known, probably because populations in different environments act differently. However, current trains of thoughts classify the Zander as an ambush predator that prefers slower moving or injured baitfish with very little reaction bite instinct for fleeing baitfish. In fact, many successful zed fisher capitalize on this scavenging hunting style using the traditional predatory fishing method of “dead-baiting” with freshly killed small prey items fished with a float or running sinker hard on the bottom.
Taking these cues from Zed preferences, most successful lure fishers tend to use lures that can reach the fish resting on the bottom and waiting for slow moving prey. Leadhead jigs with twister or paddle tail bodies are by far the most common method of taking Zeds, worked slowly and hopped along the bottom. A highly popular rig used in western Europe for taking zander is a slightly modified version of texas rigged plastics, the french derived Cochard plomb technique that bounces plastics along the substrate with a sliding sinker very similar to a bank sinker. Of course, deep running plugs also take their fair share of fish, but are usually utilized by trollers who deftly maneuver their small boats along UK waterways in search of elusive Zeds.
Looking at the arsenal of lures that I brought from the US, I was eager to see if any of my favorite lures would work. Along with an assortment of BH swimbaits and flukes, I was also eager to see if a slow sinking SPRO BBZ-1 would entice a Zed. With a 0.1 ft/sec sink rate, it would allow me to specifically target stratifications of depths in search of suspended Zander. Also, with a flashing action that is extremely effective and lifelike at slow speeds, it would give a hesitant fish plenty of time to stalk the prey. Lastly, I also had an assortment of suspending hardbaits that dove from 1 ft to 5 ft deep. When suspended, these lures would again give me the ability to entice the zeds who were looking for slow moving and injured prey.
With a cloudy day and scattered rain projected for my Zed day, I could not wish for better conditions. Firstly, due to the highly sensitive nature of zander eyes, cloudy conditions were preferable to high sun levels. Also, dropping pressure has been hypothesized to turn on predators. Finally, having scattered rain showers would keep bystanders to a minimum and allow me to fish is seclusion.
Boarding the train for the 1.5 hr ride to the Avon river, I pondered the plan of attack for the day. With only a few hours available to fish, I would have to make the most of my time. Throughout England’s extensive waterways an intricate method of water management exists which consist of a variety of locks and weir pools designed to allow boat passage as well as distribute water. These structures would provide depth and cover from the sunlight as well as a place from where ambush attacks could take place. Along with these permanent structures, boats often anchored along the sides of waterways, and these would provide the same benefits for predatory fish looking for cover.
Part III. A Colorful Start
Arriving at the Avon, I was awestruck by it’s beauty. The wide river was brimming with activity, however, and did not bode well for a meeting with the reclusive and shy Zander. Unlike the Thames river, the Avon was running clear and thick shoals of enormous roach were visible milling throughout the area. Although a beautiful sight, these conditions were again not optimal for Zander as they preferred to attack from murky depths where their excellent eyesight could be used to their advantage. After observing the conditions for a short time, I decided to walk along the river until I could find the first piece of structure to fish.
Coming upon a small lock, I decided to set up my equipment and do a few test runs of my lures to determine which one would work best. First up with be a 3 in sexy smelt BH swimbait. With the ubiquitous presence of pike and their razor sharp teeth, I was using a 20 lb wire leader that was directly linked to a ¼ oz jighead. Casting out to the deeper water, I mentally prepared to begin the consuming task of guiding a jighead along the substrate while being alert for pickups as the swimbait falls.
In a retrieve fashion very similar to targeting spotted bay bass, I dragged the jig along the bottom slowly, pausing every few seconds and punctuating the retrieve with a few bounces of the rod tip. Seconds into the first retrieve and I find my first snag. The jig is stuck onto something quite solid on the bottom of the river and even my braided line isn’t enough to pull it out. SNAP, lost my lure and leader. This is not a good start!
Retying another setup, I choose this time to rig up with a small silver fluke because I had brought more of those than the big hammers. Another cast out but this time with a bit more caution as I retrieve it, keeping it slightly higher off the substrate and away from potential snags. Bounce, bounce, bounce, I try my best to keep in contact with the jig especially on the drop as many species love to bite on the drop. Everything feels good on the test run and I’m ready to really start fishing, but I’m curious how the smaller silver fluke is acting in the water on the drop. So, I retrieve up tight near the bank and bounce the lure directly in front of me to see how it swims on the drop.
The water is relatively murky at this location, so I watch the lure appear and disappear as it crosses the threshold of visibility. I’m quite impressed with the way that the fluke twists and spirals as it falls. Just as I am ready to pull out the lure, I see a small dark shadow rush up from the darkness and snap at the lure! However, I managed to pull the lure away from the unidentified fish. DARN! It was definitely not a pike shaped shadow, and the squat body may have been a Zander! Is it really possible that I had managed to raise a Zander in my second cast?!
I quickly dropped the lure back down into the depth and jigged the little fluke back upwards. BANG! A nice solid hit and I feel a fish struggling against me. I can feel that it is a small fish, but I am on a species hunt, not a trophy hunt. Any size Zander would please me just fine!
However, the murky waters parted to reveal a medium sized European perch. A very fun fish to catch on light tackle, and especially fun when they get to larger sizes near 5 pounds! However, this pretty little guy was not what I was looking for today. Unfortunately he had engulfed the lure deeply and I had a very difficult time trying to get it back out. Using pliers, I had to rip out the fluke off the jig body just to see the hook bend, and then I was able to reverse the hook. After having spent so long trying to free the fish, it took some time to revive the perch before he swam off.
OK, back to the BH swimbaits then. Switching out to a bay smelt pattern, I worked the small lock some more in a similar fashion. Bouncing the lure in midwater with a very slow retrieve, bang! Another quick strike and up came a similarly sized European perch after a spirited tussle. This lightly hooked specimen quickly threw the hook soon after getting beached, and was released after a quick picture. This lock was turning out to be quite a productive spot!
Unfortunately, a longboat had made its way over to the lock and was preparing to make a transition through it. As the upper waterway began to drain through the lock, the water started to violently churn and I decided to go ahead and find another fishing location instead of waiting for the venue to settle.
Hiking along, I dropped my lure alongside some longboats that were parked along the river, and picked up another 2 perch. These guys seemed to love the swimbait when it was slowly jiggled and retrieved along the margins of the river. Beautiful fish, and strong fighters for their size, but I was looking for something different today…
Part IV. Flashing Flanks
After a short hike, I come across the next lock on the river. This one was slightly bigger and was nicely shaded by overhanging trees. The lock opened up to a shallow stretch of the river where I could see small roach swimming leisurely in shoals that glittered in the patchy sunlight. Perfect.
I stood alongside the lock and casted out towards the opposite bank with my swimbait. Using the same technique that had bagged the multiple perch earlier, I let the lure sink to what I approximated as midwater depth, then began a very slow retrieve punctuated by short hops. No hits along the retrieve, and I began to pull upwards as the lure neared me. I watched as the dark water parted and the little white swimbait appeared with it’s paddle tail waggling gently.
Then time seemed to slow. I saw a slight glint in the deeper water behind the swimbait, that rapidly became a pair of glowing round circles. At about the same time that I realized that it was a pair of eyes, there was a sudden bronze flash as a fish flared it’s gills and opened it’s pointed snout to reveal a white snaggly toothed maw. The fish inhaled the lure and immediately turned showing off a broad flank with a lovely bronze glow. My heart lept to my throat. This was a Zander, and I had stared it squarely in it’s glowing eye.
I did a gentle but firm strike, and my rod tip bent heavily as the fish immediately ran straight downwards. This was no 1 lb perch! At such close proximity, I was worried about the strength of my initial hookset along with the ability of a fresh fish to throw the hook with such little space between us. The fish surged towards the depth but remained firmly hooked. The fight was very unique, with the fish utilizing it’s whole body to try and shake the hook which resulted in what felt like slow, solid headshakes. After a momentary vertical stalemate, I felt the fish tire, and the determined surges that the fish took back into the depths began to soften. Within moments, I had the fish at the surface, pectoral fins slowly treading the air. WOW! I had been hoping for a small foot long or so Zander for my first, but this one was clearly near 3-4 lbs; especially large if it were compared to the sizes that the stateside Walleye get.
I gently pulled the fish out of the water, intrigued by the rough texture of the fish’s scales. There was very little apparent slime layer, unlike the snot sticks that pike are. I was able to get a kind German tourist to take a picture of the fish and me… and it turned out to be a lovely picture of my foot. Luckily, I managed one more pic of the fish by itself before gently dropping it back into the water. The fish hesitated for a second, pectoral fins waving gently in the water, then quickly thrust itself back into the murky depths.
A small crowd of tourists had gathered around me, and there was a round of applause as they watched the fish disappear back into the water. A lady congratulated me, saying “Job well done, young man.”
As the small crowd dissipated, I threw my lure back into the same location. In all honesty, I had caught my target fish, and I really could care less if I went on to catch anything else. Working the lure in the same manner as before, nothing else seemed to be interested in striking. Still on cloud nine from the successful capture, I walked around the margins of the river to the other side of the lock.
Working the other side of the lock, I slowly bounced the lure mid level again. Nothing. I brought the lure back up closer to the surface, and watched as the lure wobbled right above the murkiness of the deeper water. The lure neared me and at just 4-5 feet away from me, I was struck again with the bronze lightning. Without warning, an enormous bronze head exploded open below my lure, flashing it’s gigantic pale jaws. Immediately it was apparent that this fish was quite a lot larger than the last fish. BANG the lure was taken and my rod was bent over hard. Upon feeling my hook, this fish fought in almost exactly the same way as the previous fish, just faster, longer, and harder. This fish was extraordinarily stubborn, and each time I raised him from the depths to the surface, he exploded with energy and powered back into the dark. However, within a few minutes, he had tired and calmly rested on the surface before me.
I was utterly awestruck. Not only had I landed two Zander within hours of starting to fish for them, but this second fish was clearly over 5 lbs, and maybe even near 10 lbs! In fact, when I pulled him out, the fish ended up measuring 26”, nearing my PB Northern Pike! However, with a significantly larger girth, this fish calculated out to have an estimated weight of 0.000228 * 26^3.180 which is 7.2 lbs! An absolute beast, with thick powerful shoulders giving it’s head a heavily sloping look.
Luckily, another crowd of tourists had gathered, and I had one of them take a picture for me. In the picture, you can somewhat make out the distinctive and beautiful black vermiculate markings on the raised dorsal fin that morphologically distinguishes the Zander from it’s close cousins in the US. Unfortunately some people in the crowd were slightly unhappy about me handling the fish, and I heard someone muttering that I had killed the fish by keeping it out of the water and taking a picture with it. I quickly picked up the fish, and gently placed it back in the water. KERPLOOSH! The fish exploded into life spraying me with water as it made a mad dash for deeper water. So much for killing it!
Completely and utterly satisfied with the results of my trip, I continued fishing along the bank of the river simply because I had to wait a few more hours before my train would be heading back home. At this point, I had already stopped caring if I caught anything more. True, catching more fish would be great, but I had come and accomplished what I wanted to do, and now I was just happy to be out working on my luring techniques.
Interestingly, for the next few hours, I fished some extremely fishy structure including a few very deep pools of 15-20 ft deep without any more interest or signs of Zander. After fishing fruitlessly for the next few miles, I reached a point that I decided would be the furthest I could go and still hike back to the train station in time to catch my train. Wrapped around this point was a very shallow flat region of the river, bending around a deeper margin. Definitely a place where a predator should be. I cast my (now lucky) BH into the deeper water and began a series of retrieves that crossed the margin into the shallower water. Half a dozen casts later, I was abruptly stopped mid retrieve, right near the deepest portion of the pool. The slow initial response had me hopeful that I had hooked my third Zander. However, it was followed by a strong drag sizzling run told me that I had instead hooked a toothier cousin. After a spirited fight, I pulled up a decent sized Pike. It wasn’t my biggest pike, but it was certainly fat and healthy. Not only that, but by catching a Zander, Northern Pike, and European Perch in a single trip, I had managed the UK predator grand slam! A rare combination indeed!
I took a quick picture and was lowering the pike back into the water when disaster struck. Thus far, I had been careful with the pike, especially seeing how their needle sharp teeth had devastated the finish on my lures, and curli-cued my wire leaders. However, I think this fish was still very green when I was trying to release it, and as the fish neared the water surface, it kicked hard in my hands, bent around, and grazed my knuckles with it’s open mouth. No biggie, I felt no pain, and the fish landed back into the water. It angrily zoomed off into frothy water in the faster current. I looked down and saw a few drops of blood on my shoes and pants…
At first, I felt bad because I thought maybe I had hurt the pike when I was releasing it, perhaps injuring a gill raker. However, my hand began to sting at that moment and I looked at my right hand to see my entire proximal interphalangeal knuckle had a flap of skin opened up. In fact, on closer inspection, the fish had created what looked to be a textbook rotational fasciocutaneous surgical flap! Amazing, what those teeth are capable of! Unfortunately, being such a large wound, it would not stop bleeding, and I began worrying slightly how to dress the wound in the field without access to a suturing kit, butterfly tape, or even a bandaid! Luckily, I had my fishing supplies with me… No, I didn’t Mcguyver sutures from spectra and a straightened fishhook lol! I simply used flexx-wrap to place pressure on the wound, and it soon stopped bleeding. Whew! Now, where was I? Oh yes, fishing…
With barely enough time for a few “last casts” before I had to hurry back and catch my train, I put my lure back into the water. Two more casts, and two more fish. Back to back pike all from the same pool. One was a young jack still carrying it’s barred patterns, while the second one was slightly larger and feistier, kicking up sprays and splashes of water in the shallow flat that I was landing him in. This time, I didn’t even want to risk touching the fish at all, and each one was unhooked with pliers without even leaving the water. I realize that when catch and releasing fish, this is the most ideal method of safely handling the fish, but the landing conditions don’t always allow for such quick releases and I firmly believe that keeping a fish out of the water for
And with that flurry of excitement, my trip to the fabulous Avon River concluded. Traversing the river, I had seen schools of 15lb bream, 2 lb roach, and inumerable perch. What a healthy and beautiful stretch of water, and what a way to end my time in the UK. Having targeted most of the freshwater fish in the UK that interest me, my next trip may involve a saltwater excursion depending on if I can afford it. We shall see, but for now other fishing adventures closer to home await me…