Zander can often be the most infuriating species to target but when things go right they can also be one of the most rewarding. The species has been the subject of my on/off six-year love affair which started when I first tried zander fishing, and banked my first zed, back in July 2000. It took many more sessions before I banked another zander and I never came close to the 6lb 4oz PB I had set myself with that first fish. Sometimes I would sit at a water all night, expecting something to happen – with the conditions seemingly “perfect”, yet never see a sign of a zander. Other nights the zander have made me aware of their presence with the odd strike and dropped run but, try as I might, I could neither hook nor land one. After failing to land a zander in my last 7 night sessions I had been starting to fall out of love with the species. But, like a teenager with a crush, I just kept on trying.
With my zander-catching confidence at an all-time low, I arranged a 2-night session on the Cambridgeshire Great Ouse with my two regular fishing mates – Matt and Craig. Being a venue I hadn’t fished before I was slightly apprehensive, but also quietly confident. They say a change is as goo as a rest, and trying somewhere new felt like a fresh start – injecting some life back into my rather stale love affair with my toothy adversary. After making the long journey down to Cambridgeshire in a van the size of a bungalow, we arrived at the river to find near-perfect fishing conditions. The river was running very slowly and fairly clear, with just a tinge of colour. The weather was warm, with enough breeze to create a ripple on the surface and, best of all, there wasn’t another angler in sight!
We had made the 3 hour journey after work, so the light was just beginning to drop when we arrived. We quickly chose our pegs and set about casting out our baits. Because there was such little flow I was only fishing with an ounce and a half of lead on my running leger rig, with 2 ounces on my sunk-paternoster rig. When zander fishing I like to keep my rigs simple and fish with as little resistance as possible. So on leger rigs I use a John Roberts Run Ring to attach my lead to the mainline. This goes straight down to a large bead above the swivel, with a supple wire trace of at least 18 inches in length. A sunken paternoster rig is also quite simple, but it gives me the option of using a totally different bait presentation, which can be fished at any depth. The reason I chose a sunken float is because the Ouse is navigable. Using a normal float would mean the line between float and rod tip would be above the water, limiting my fishing to the margins. A sunken float, however, can be fished well under the surface, keeping my line out of the way of passing boats’ propellers.
Zander can be very tackle-shy at times, so I scale down my traces compared to the ones I use for pike. For instance, rather than using 28lb Drennan Soft Strand (I choose this brand because it is extremely soft & supple and is also cheaper than most equivalent wires), I use 20lb breaking strain for zander. I also scale down from size 6 Owner trebles to size 10 Gamakatsu, and squeeze 2 of the barbs down on each treble. If conditions allow I fish with a drop-off style indicator and an open bale arm, but if there is a bit of flow or a lot of weed (as is often the case on the fens!), then I will use the baitrunner function. I have been happy with the Daiwa Regal Bite N’ Run reels for years because they’ve never let me down, but I recently won one of the new Shimano Baitrunners (in a casting competition at Chatsworth Angling Fair) which I was trying out for the first time, and I couldn’t believe how smooth and freely the baitrunner system operates! These reels are absolutely perfect for zander.
I had chosen the swim farthest upstream, and was in radio contact with Matt who was at the most downstream peg. This way we could each sit by our rods but remain in contact throughout the night, in case there was any action. On the first night it wasn’t to be. Matt had one dropped run, which was more than Craig or I had managed! Then when first light came I started casting around, looking for features I had not found during the night. I happened upon a deeper hole, two-thirds of the way across, and my first bait cast to that spot was taken quite quickly. In came my first fenland zander in almost exactly 3 years! It was also the first zander I had caught in bright daylight – a bit of a landmark fish despite it’s size, being somewhere just over 2lb.
I continued getting bites from around the deep hole I’d discovered for most of the morning, but I didn’t manage to connect with any. When I missed a screaming run around midday, I went over to talk to Craig, telling him that despite bright sunshine, the zander were still on the feed. Lo and behold, as I was stood talking to him, he got his first run of the trip, which turned out to be a zander of just over a pound.
Things quietened off after this, right through the afternoon and early evening. Then, shortly after darkness had fallen, I got a message from Craig on the walkie-talkie, “Come over quick, Matt’s landed a big zander. Could be a double!”…
Now Matt has fared much better than I have with zander. In fact, two years earlier he had banked a personal best fish of 9lb 13oz which blew our minds. A zander of this size is quite a sight, so I was eager to catch a glimpse of another such specimen and feed my fascination and yearning to catch such a fish myself. The zed was definitely large and in decent condition. When it came to the weighing, we all knew it would be close. Matt dared not look, as Craig and I verified the weight as being a PB-equalling 9lb 13oz! It was possibly the worst weight the fish could have been – agonisingly close to double figures, and a superb fish, but not quite heavy enough to set a new PB. However, this was not to be the last big zander we saw that night…
I returned to my peg and re-cast my baits, before clambering into my sleeping bag. I had been awake for close-on 40 hours and was desperately tired, yet the sight of Matt’s fish – and the knowledge that the big ones were on the prowl – was keeping me awake.
Suddenly, the line was yanked ferociously from the drop-off indicator and I leapt to my feet. I paid out several feet of line, just hoping that this fish would keep hold of the bait. When the line tightened once again and I felt the fish shake it’s head, I knew it was now or never. I wound down and pulled into the fish and, to my great relief, the fish pulled back quite hard! Zander aren’t regarded as a hard-fighting species but this one had a fair bit of scrap in it, giving me a few scary moments as it made successful lunges into the marginal lily pads.
When fishing in the dark I never turn on my headlamp unless I really have to, and knowing that a potential personal best zander was repeatedly heading into snags unnerved me enough to turn on the lamp. Immediately I caught a glimpse of an orange eye reflecting, followed by a flash from a long flank.
By this point Matt had arrived and I said to him “I think I’m going to lose this fish”, then it popped up to the surface so I quickly took my chance and slid it over the net to safety. On the bank it was obvious this was longer than Matt’s, but it didn’t seem to have the girth. It was a young, fit fish which still had the potential for further growth – yet the scales registered that the fish weighed 10lb 13oz! I had done the unthinkable and actually landed a double figure zander at last! Immediately, the terrible memories of blank after blank dissipated.
I know there will be some tough, slow nights ahead, for as long as I fish for zander, but for now my love affair with this great species is re-ignited.