The majority of my predator fishing (although the term “predators” could be expanded to chub, catfish and eels, in this instance I’m talking pike, perch and zander) is spent on the banks of rivers, drains and canals. I have never done too much predator fishing on stillwaters, so rather than pretending I know something I don’t, I’ll leave that article to a more qualified person. That said, many fish-holding features are universal, so many that can be found in rivers, drains and canals can also be found in the margins of ponds and lakes. The relatively natural waters I concentrate on offer anglers a constantly evolving challenge, where fish can potentially move unimpeded for miles, making use of any features they come across, as safe refuges and ambush points. With the changing seasons and natural events such as floods, these features – and the significance of them – can change frequently. This offers anglers both a challenge and a helping hand when locating predators on such venues.
Predators can have very prominent feeding spells and often the only difference between a great day and a blank can be as simple and clichéd as being in the right place at the right time. So, understanding where predators will be at any given time, along with having experience on your chosen venue, is extremely important.
With the shorter day lengths during Winter, it makes it possible to fish from dawn into darkness during a 10 hour session, taking in all of the key feeding periods. If you are fishing all day, it’s always a good idea to arrive at your chosen water just before dawn, because in the half-light at either end of a winters day, shoals of roach, rudd and bream betray their location by rolling at the waters surface. During the colder months, it makes sense that cold-blooded predators will expend as little energy as possible to secure their energy requirements, so staying close to these shoals is a sure-fire way of locating an easy regular meal. As predator anglers, we can use this to our advantage; find the bait fish and somewhere nearby, you’ll find the toothy ones; present a natural-looking bait close-by and you might just tempt something.
In this situation, setting up at first light with a shoal of fish within casting distance, this is how I’d fish: For pike, I’ll usually opt to cast a paternostered deadbait and often also a small free-roving (suspended beneath an oversized bottom-end only float with a veined tip) deadbait, which I can manipulate around or even through the bait shoal. For zander, find these shoals at dusk and cast bottom baits towards the shoal and you’ll stand a great chance as the light fades. For perch, find the shoals of smaller fish and fish a suspended live or small deadbait and it may be grabbed as the perch dash in, mob-handed. Depending on the water and the day, perch may feed like this periodically throughout the day, but they nearly always will just before dusk. I caught my first twenty-pound pike on a session where I happened upon a shoal of roach rolling in the middle of a canal. I first cast towards the shoal and landed a couple of smaller pike, then as the sun began to illuminate the gloom, I spread my baits around nearby features, where I found the big one lay in wait.
Most features obvious above the surface of the water will attract fish beneath it. The irony of these features is that both predators and prey will use the same ones for their own reasons. Predators make use of the cover they provide to lie in ambush, camouflaged by the broken light. Prey fish meanwhile take confidence from being less visible in the broken light and also being able to out-manoeuvre a pursuing predator through – for example – a labyrinth of roots beneath an overhanging tree. These provide year-round shade and their roots provide a tangled mass of hiding places for both predator and prey. Fallen dead trees will usually benefit pike and perch more than they do bait fish, as they often have less branches and roots suitable for small fish to shoal around, but almost always a thick trunk with a heavy shadow cast beneath; ideal for a specimen pike or a shoal of large perch to congregate in.
If you are fishing early enough in the year, lily and “cabbage” beds are a prominent feature on many a drain, canal and slow-moving stretch of river. They provide not only shade, shelter and camouflage, but also provide a food source for smaller fish, through the invertebrate life they support. Even when the leaves and stems have died away, the root clusters still provide ample sanctuary for a predator to lie in, so get to know where the beds of these plants are when they are in bloom during the Summer so that you can cast towards them when they’ve died back in the winter.
Reedbeds – be they reedmace, rushes, irises, sedges or reed – are another feature which, between their vertical stems, offer perfect camouflage to predators. Perch in particular, with their stripes, are well camouflaged when nestled between reeds. Snails and other invertebrates cling to these stems too, so roach and rudd will also visit these for food and shelter. Reedbeds can really come into their own towards the back-end of the season, as pike and perch will begin to congregate close to their potential spawning grounds. Even over the winter, the dead stems and root stocks will remain in place until spring, so still provide reliable cover. That is unless your local water has its reeds cut back in the winter! I’ve been fishing on a drain before, as a tracked excavator with cutting attachment turned up and proceeded to mash through the reeds and putting every fish in the drain off the feed!
Less obvious features require a bit of reconnaissance work, or prior knowledge of the make-up of the riverbed, to help with locating predators. These include drop-offs, gullies and depressions, often caused by flow carving out the riverbed or silting up areas, or by dredgers. These features will naturally appear and disappear over time, so even on a water you know well, it’s worth having an occasional cast around with a feature finder. Any sudden depth change, no matter how small, can be a magnet for predators. How best to approach these depth changes depend on the venue conditions when you fish. If the water is coloured or there is cover nearby, fishing just on top of a shelf can have its rewards. If the water is clearer or if there are fewer features, it can be best to fish part-way down a drop-off, to tempt predators which are waiting to intercept bait fish as they move between deep and shallow water. Deep holes surrounded by shallower water will almost always hold fish, especially if they are situated close to another feature such as an overhanging tree.
Deep marginal slacks and back-eddies in rivers are worth targeting at any time, but especially when the river is carrying extra water. Shoals of small fish will use the lack of current to their energy-saving advantage, and it can be guaranteed predators will be found not too far away. There are two ways I approach these types of swims. The first is to trot a bait near the bottom, initially downstream with the flow, along the crease where the fast and slack waters meet, then work it back up through the eddy, covering as much water as you can. The second method is to fish static baits at the upstream and downstream end of the crease, then if these baits generate no interest, again cover as much ground as you can within the swim by recasting regularly. Unless the slack you’re fishing is particularly large, I wouldn’t expect to find more than one or two pike here, so leave your baits in place for no more than twenty minutes at a time before recasting and if there’s a fish present, you should find it. Adapt this approach by scaling down in hook and bait size to target zander, or scale down fully and present a worm or small deadbait and you should catch perch from this type of feature.
Recently I landed a beautiful 17lb river pike by methodically working through a large congregation of different features. Firstly there were many overhanging trees, in front of which were sporadic lily beds which were just beginning to die back. At the downstream limit of the swim, the water deepened off by a foot or so, into a slack beneath a large, lone overhanging tree. My bite eventually came as I cast into this deep hole. The fish may have even travelled from downstream, following the scent of my baits and chum loosefeed, then used the cover of the tree to wait for what it perceived to be the perfect time to ambush my bait.
In another recent session, I landed a big zander by fishing on top of a shallow marginal shelf; again casting just beneath the cover of a large tree. Despite catching the fish in complete darkness, I’m quite sure it had used the marginal cover to its benefit, searching for fish shoaled up for the night beneath the tree.
This article should at least act as an introduction into the kinds of features worth concentrating on when predator fishing and the approaches you may wish to adopt to fish them effectively. It is by no means a complete guide though – I’d need a few more pages to cover everything! – there are many other features which have their draws, from bridges to junctions to weirpools to moored boats. Your venue may have a unique feature which beats all others. I’ve caught plenty of pike, perch and zander from the features I’ve mentioned though, and you can never have too much knowledge when it comes to locating predatory fish.