Tackling Zander - Michael Hastings (PAC)

Without a doubt winter Pike fishing is my first love in angling. Early mornings, long drives, cold weather, it takes effort and it can be physically tough. I finish a days Piking knackered and in a way I'm glad when the closed season begins because I'm ready for a rest. Consequently the fishing I do in the warmer months is a lot more laid back and for me, Zander fishing fits the bill nicely.
Almost every time open a copy of “Pike & Predators” there seems to be another 'beginners guide to Zander fishing' so I won't linger long on rigs and other details. My way of Zander fishing will probably differ greatly to the approach of a serious “Zed head”. A session after Zeds typically sees a round trip of about 120 miles and a twenty four hour session. I'll usually only do this three or four times a year these days, so I don't often have any recent information to tell me where the productive areas have been. However over the years I've done enough Zander fishing to have learnt several productive stretches on a couple of the Fenland rivers. I especially like the quieter, out of the way places, usually found at the end of a long farm track.

I like to get to the water in the early afternoon and on arrival at my chosen stretch I like to take a slow walk along the river, looking mainly for signs of bait fish. If any one part of the stretch appears to have more than it's share of silver fish topping then that is where I'll settle down to fish. I like to see a bit of colour in the river when fishing for Zander. Low levels, slow flow and clear water makes the Zander fishing difficult in my opinion. Now this is going to sound a bit strange but I start a session after Zander by fishing for Bream. On one rod I'll float fish on the marginal shelf with maggots and on a second rod use a swimfeeder baited with sweetcorn or maggots. The idea behind this is twofold, firstly I'll be filling a keep-net with fresh bait, most important! Secondly I'll be continuously baiting the swim up with groundbait, maggots, corn and anything else left over from my futile attempts to catch Tench (my favourite summer species). The theory behind this is I'm trying to attract as many silver fish as possible into my swim; Roach, Rudd, Bleak, Skimmers and hopefully the larger Bream too. I'm hoping that a swim full of bait fish is in turn, going to attract the predators. More often than not, this approach works.

As the afternoon wears on I begin tackling up for Zander. The gear I use is simply the kit I use for Pike fishing from the bank. Some might argue that using 2.5 or 3.0 TC rods for Zander is over doing things but I'm fishing in the dark, usually with weed choked margins and I don't want to take any chances. All my tackle is standard Pike fishing gear but I do generally use smaller hooks, size 8 or 10, trebles for livebaits and doubles for deads. Many successful Zander anglers advocate larger hooks these days but I simply use what has always worked for me.

I usually use two rods, occasionally three depending on the nature of the swim I'm fishing. I won't go into too much detail on rigs themselves as this kind of information is readily available. My first rod will always be a standard paternoster rig on which I'll mount a livebait. This is generally dropped into the clear water at the bottom of the marginal shelf. My second rod will be a simple running leger rig, I usually use a livebait on this too and this I'll normally cast to the far bank shelf. If I use a third rod this is normally another leger on which I'll use a freshly killed deadbait.

As with all predatory fish, bite indication is critical. Once again I use the same kit that I use for Pike. Either Optonic style alarms mounted on the front rod rest combined with a good quality drop arm type visual indicator or the back biter style alarms mounted on the back rod rest. “Billy's Back biters” made by Steve Bown are without doubt the best available and are highly recommended.

Over the years I've found that livebaits produce far more Zander than deads. I have no real preference where live bait is concerned; Rudd, Roach, Bleak and skimmers are all equally productive, a bait of about 4ozs is ideal. Likewise deadbaits, all of the aforementioned species make good deadbaits as do Eel sections. Without a doubt, freshly killed baits out-fish those that have been frozen. I have friends who deliberately target Zander using large sea baits such as Herrings, others have difficulty believing Zeds will pick up a sea bait. I've caught several fish to 8.15 on Mackerel whilst Pike fishing in the winter, a good mate has had a 13 pounder on Sardine. It seems that if a Zander is caught on a sea bait it is almost always a decent sized fish. On balance though, if I'm targeting Zander my preference would be for a freshly killed Roach or Rudd.

I like to have my Zander rods in position as the light begins to fade, this can be a productive time and it's not unusual to have three or four quick takes as the light levels drop. Most of the time these are smaller schoolie Zander but I've had the odd better fish in the early evening period. I've found that most of my bigger Zander (i.e. 8lbs+) have fallen between 0100 and 0300, right in the dead of the night. It's not unusual to have another feeding spell as dawn breaks but these are usually schoolies on the prowl once again.

A few dos and don't s. Always use a wire trace, if there are Zander fisheries in the UK that don't have a head of Pike then I'm not aware of them. Anyone who recommends fishing for Zander without using wire should be ashamed of themselves. (NB This current trend for not using wire seems to originate at 'Old Bury Hill' and is in response to finicky feeding caused by fish getting hammered at an over fished day ticket water!) Always strike at the first sign of a take, just like you would when Pike fishing. Never retain a Zander in a sack, I learnt the hard way that the fish will die, don't take the risk. Don't fish for Zander when air and water temperatures are very high. This puts the fish at too great a risk in my opinion.

What I like best about Zander fishing is the pure relaxation. It's hard to beat sitting in a remote fenland location on a pleasant summer evening. It's good to have a few comforts; a stove for a fry up and a fresh brew. A bivvy and comfortable chair for riding the night out and maybe even a cold bottle of beer or two. As the daylight begins to fade, the anticipation begins to mount and we're often treated to a spectacular sunset in the big fenland sky. Bats zip along the river feeding on flies and Tawny Owls make themselves heard with their familiar call. When darkness falls on a clear night the stars come out and can be just as mind blowing. It's easy to get wrapped up in our surroundings so that when a bait is taken and an alarm sounds its pleasantly shocking!

There's always the chance of a surprise when fishing the fens for Zander. Over the years I've banked several double figure Pike that have given me the run around in the middle of the night. There have been times when Eels have driven me almost mad but this species is in decline nowadays. I've landed many Perch to just under two pounds on smaller livebaits and bigger specimens are a real possibility. When hooked Zander don't fight with the speed of a Pike, it's more like the tenacity of an over grown Perch with lots of head shakes transmitted down the line. A decent sized Zander of eight pounds or more will punch its weight and give a good account of itself. As you hold it up for the camera with the dorsal fins standing proud and the flanks glowing gold in the torch light, you'll agree that a big Zander is one of the most impressive sights in fishing.

Michael Hastings