Saturday, 25 October 2014

Canal Zander — We Don't Think So!

I enjoyed a long conversation about zander the other morning with Danny Everitt while we fished the Coventry Canal just round the corner from my home. Now, Danny and myself are pretty experienced at the canal zander fishing malarky and though we have never fished using the same rigs in all the time we've practised the sport, we've somehow converged over time and arrived at the point where what we both have dangling from our rod tops is superficially different but technically speaking pretty much identical in every respect. Small but buoyant cigar shaped floats — because there's no need for big ones when the bait is just yards distant — enough weight to cock them, and a wire trace armed with a large single hook.

The approach we use is similar too. No need for rod rests and all that. We sit out back with our rods lain on the strip of grass between towpath and water, often at a forty-five degree angle in tight swims, with their butts out of the way of Robocyclist, who we see from time to time as a silver/black/spandex/carbon-fibre blur, hurtling through the gap against his handlebar mounted iPhone stopwatch. Each to his own. He has his hobby, we have ours. It's for the best they're kept apart by a few inches. Also, the gear we carry about is pared down to the barest minimum. A seat, a bag, and a net, is all we have besides our rods. Canal zander fishing is not a static pursuit and moving along, and you might five or six times over in the one session, is far easier when you aren't entrenched in a mess of unnecessary tackle.

The only difference between Danny's current practise and my own is in bait choice. I use small slices of dead roach, he uses small live perch. But the emphasis is still on small bait size and for good reason.

Wrong hook — fifteen runs — two fish banked.  No wonder zander are thought a tricky customer...
Now, we've both experimented with hooks down the years, starting off with tandem trebles,  progressing through every conceivable combination of this and that before arriving at the same conclusion — that single hooks in sizes so agricultural they'd make the average coarse angler's eyes water, are the very best tool for the job. You have to understand that using the wrong hook for zander results in head-banging frustration with run after run missed and lightly pricked fish getting off far too easily. When you only net one fish from every three hooked and hook just six from fifteen runs in one hectic hour (as I did one December night back in 2010) then you become acutely aware that something is very wrong at the business end.

The Gamakatsu 'Finessse Wide Gape' in size 3/0
Last time I fished with Danny after zeds he was using O'Shaughnessy hooks size 1/0 and I was using the Mustad 'Ultimate Bass' in size 2/0. Today he was using a carp hook, and it was the biggest one he could find on the shelves, while I was using a hook under trial as an alternative to the Mustad — the Gamakatsu 'Finesse Wide Gap'. This is a hook only available in America and was kindly thrown across the pond by Steve Dedrick (Steve in Colorado) on recommendation as a great hook for walleye and therefore the closely related zander. 

Apart from the straight point of mine and the in-curved point of Danny's, they were, to all intents and purposes, identical. And just as large as each other even though his was a size 1 and mine a 3/0 according to the packets!

General hook size chart.  Perhaps my 3/0 is not nearly big enough for double figure fish?

We agreed. They weren't that large at all. Not in the jaw of a decent zander, but certainly not in the gob of any size of pike. What was 'large' about them was only that they were in use for coarse fish. We then agreed on a second point — that many coarse anglers lack sea fishing experience and have therefore developed something of a fetish for small hooks and are always looking at ways to reduce size. Which, as we also agreed, is a nonsense. Hooks should be the right size for the job, big or small, and these huge hooks of ours were spot on. 

For bass in this size range sea anglers routinely choose hook sizes in the order of  4/0 - 6/0

That's a great deal larger than a size 6! 

About ten times the size...

Use such a hook at Bury Hill, though, and you'd be frogmarched out the gates by the owner. Trebles are banned outright there and single hooks a must. But he enforces tench hooks on his predator hunters. Size 6 is the maximum allowed. Because Bury Hill is the country's zander Mecca, this ruling has forced intelligent anglers who fish the place to refine small hook/small bait rigs to get the best from it. However, using such small hooks results in false data. You are going to get very many 'dropped' runs and many lost fish before you bank one. The upshot of this is the reinforcement of an old myth originally perpetuated by pike anglers fishing for zander with pike gear. And that is...

That they are 'finicky'.

A size 6 circle and a strip of trout. Looks all wrong
but what is the essential difference between this
and a single maggot on a size 18?
We don't think so! 

Danny doesn't have dropped runs and neither do I. They just don't let go of a bait once they pick it up, in my experience. When I caught a one at Bury Hill, it messed with the bait for a full minute before deciding to move off with it. The float dithered on the spot, but it didn't run. I knew it must be zander picking it up because the bite was typical of many I get down the cut and such bites must be struck when the float moves away in one direction (no matter how slowly) because the fish is solo, not in a competitive pack, and is mouthing the bait, not eating it beforehand. Sure enough, when it did move off, I struck against the direction of the run and hooked it. It was a near twelve-pounder, but I would have never had hooked it at all if I'd struck early.

I was very lucky to bank it though. Very lucky not to be thrown off too, because I used a size 6 circle hook that day. At least that's what it said on the packet...

The reason such large hooks as we both currently employ work so very well mechanically is because the gape is very wide. The reason the bait is hooked so that it dangles off the bend rather than being impaled upon on it, is that the gape must not be clogged with flesh otherwise it is rendered ineffectual because it is the bend of the hook that banks zander, not the point. That wide unimpeded gape is critical because there's the bony plate of the upper jaw to contend with and it must wrap around it. Use anything smaller and you are merely hoping to hook up by finding some little bit of flesh inside the mouth and there's precious little of that, hence the reputation zander have for falling off. 

The Gamakatsu and its typical hook hold.  Zander should always be hooked like this so far 
as I'm concerned because if not it's the wrong hook for the job in a very bony gob. 

The Gamakatsu is almost as wide as it is long — nearly a circle hook but for the lack of a sharply inturned point. Fish are almost always hooked cleanly in the scissors through the thin membrane between the bony plate of the upper jaw and the skull but for some reason are never hooked down the throat and that's a blessing because unhooking the fish is a formality, not a surgical operation. Big wide gape hooks avoid all that, in fact I'm so outrageously confident in them that I don't even check my bag for forceps before I go. Can't remember when I last had to use them, actually.

The Mustad 'Ultimate Bass' cleanly hooked through the scissors of a small zander. 

But even with the long-shanked Mustad, it is the large gape that makes it work so well. I refer you to Mick Newey, who was having a horrible time of it when he began trying for the zander in his local canal. He was experiencing exactly what Danny and I had encountered years ago. Lots of runs, few fish. I recommended the Mustad bass hook and what happened then was he hooked and banked almost every single one thereafter. He didn't catch any large ones though, so the hook looks enormous in their mouths, but hook a five-pounder or better and that size discrepancy vanishes, and five-pounds plus is what we fish for, after all, is it not?

The only downside we agreed upon was that such large hooks might once in a while impale small zander through the orbit of the eye.

Well, little zander make for a very tasty fillet, don't they?

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Avon Zander & Barbel —  Should've

I'd caught many hundreds of zander in my long and illustrious zander career. Sometimes, it'd seemed, with the rosy hindsight provided by a half-price bottle of middling plonk and the irreverence of spirit a roaring fire on a cool October night induces that once upon a time I'd caught a hundred in the one go. It was ten or so, and half of them were lost, but it seemed ten times that sum on occasion such was the feverish all-action nature of that memorable night round the corner, down the cut.

But I'd never caught one from the Avon, ever. That's probably because I'd never tried very hard, but I had tried once or twice. Actually it was the once I'd tried. With Danny Everitt — Seven Meadows, Stratford-upon-Avon —  frosty morning — roach on my mind — didn't put my back into it.

But just lately they'd taken up residence in my imagination once more, so, last Friday I finally decided to have a more focused crack at them on the same river but some miles downstream. There's this big, big slack near bank, you see. And it's very deep. Last time there I'd fished it hopelessly for roach trotting bread through but never had a bite. It'd occurred to me then that it might well hold front page zander or pike, so that's where I headed Friday night armed with a single rod and a dead roach or two, leaving Martin half a mile away to his barbel.

Should've turned my bloody phone off. 

My sliding float sat stationary for some time, the bait on the bottom in ten feet of water. Just a few feet further out and I couldn't find bottom with only an eleven foot rod and a stop shot blocking the tip ring. It was fourteen feet deep out there, I reckoned. Fifteen or sixteen perhaps? I should have tied on a rubber or something, something that would slip through the ring easily, but it was getting on for dark already and just couldn't be arsed to. It was pleasant enough to watch where it was, anyways. Seemed just as good a spot as any other. 

And then slowly it sank from sight...

'Slowly sinking from sight' is something that hardly ever happens with zeds down the cut. The float sort of ambles about in half-circles or takes off on a straight line toward something or other but rarely does it vanish. Whenever it does sink from sight, that's pike. So, I expected a pike now, as you would. Actually, I expected a bloody monster having imagined one earlier but it wasn't quite that. Just a small fish — a jack — most likely. 

But it wasn't! 


Didn't weight the fish. It was too small to bother with even though I was alone with no-one around to feel embarrassed by. I reckon two-pounds or so. Let's say, two-pounds and an-ounce, for the record. A new personal best for the species from the river by default as it was my very first and only thus far. Anyhow, having had my first and knowing a thing or two about zander being a self-proclaimed seasoned pro with 'em, I was absolutely positively certain that the same bait cast back to the very same spot would secure another, and possibly much, much, better one.

Like I said, I should've turned my bloody phone off... 

Suddenly, just when my hackles were rising with the falling of the light and prospect of monstrous zeds gracing my net, I'd to packed down and race back. His half expected breathless call had arrived and I'd duties to perform.

Half a mile distant — the best of Martin's year — ones!

This Friday...

I'll turn my bloody phone off....

Friday, 3 October 2014

Making Zeds — A Meet with Dominic Garnett

A piking person's convention took place not five minutes walk from my front door last Saturday. After an excellent day trip to the capital city on business, Friday, Judy and I took the long train journey home during which we digested our disappointing funky decor restaurant pie & mash evening meal with the lubrication of a second bottle of vino. It may not have been wise, but over-baked water crusts, venison lumps like little sponges injected with bovril, pallid salt-free mashes and insipid liquors without any particular taste to speak of, do require a little something in the way of 'body' to accompany them on their way down the bowels.  

Arriving back at our front door at 10.30pm totally knackered and the worse for wear we met with Dominic Garnett, our guest for the weekend and next morning, one of the convention attendees. My God! Eight pups create a lot of shit and piss in one un-mopped day. The house stank like a frickin' zoo. Dom didn't seem to mind, though. He was making zeds on the living room sofa bed within the hour just as frazzled by his journey up from London as with were with ours back from Cardiff.

I didn't go to the convention. I'd work to do. Dom arrived back Saturday evening after another gruelling day when we all walked down to The Greyhound for well deserved refreshment. On the way I showed him the canal by moonlight where we'd both be heading next morning after those zeds he'd been making the night before.

A nice warm day ahead under a bright clear sky is not what anyone who doesn't know better would call ideal weather, exactly, but I tell you it does not matter. That received notion that zander prefer to feed in the gloom and the pitch is so much nonsense. They'll feed any time day or night all weathers inclusive. They'll also not feed either and that applies to night time as much as it does to the daylight hours. The thing is, you never can quite work them out, and that's refreshing.

Dom set up a fly rod. I was very interested to witness a fluff caught canal zander, but locals passing by were simply astonished because they'd never seen such a method used in their vicinity in all their long lives. Such is the bond between venue, approach and expected targets they thought perhaps trout must be on our evening menu, views Dom has done much to scotch in his own written work on successful fly fishing for coarse species.

Setting up a single dead-bait rod I cast a tiny roach head bait where I always do for starters — slap in the gap between the bow and stern of two adjacent boats moored along on the far bank. The float was toodling off before the line was sunken. The result the first of what I hoped would be many, many zander by nightfall. It was only a one-pound tiddler as was the half-pounder to my second cast which like the first took the bait almost on the drop. But that was that for that particular lie and so I moved along to the next set of hulls.

With canals, not every holt that once held fish necessarily will on the next day. Soon I moved along and along again till I found another pod from which two were banked in quick succession, one of them of a respectable weight. Dominic had set up a feeder rod in the meantime but wasn't finding fish with it. We departed Longford Junction for Hawkesbury Junction where I assured Dominic there'd be zander to catch and without any doubt in my mind we would.

Along the way we stopped at boats moored near-bank where by pulling his fly along and beneath a hull, Dom finally hooked a fish, but his hook hold failed and it swam free.

At Hawkesbury, the swim we were heading for was, as usual, occupied. It almost always is but luckily the residents were a gang of four ten year old boys who'd somehow managed to cram together in a huddle of bristling rods occupying just a quarter of the water at their disposal. We crowded in too. They didn't seem to mind that and nor did we — their antics were hilarious!

There's a particular sweet spot in this swim from which I've caught at least half the zander that I've ever taken there. If I'd explain its exact location in exhaustive detail you'd still be off the mark it's that tight. In fact if I'm not able to fish from my preferred spot on the bank, and today that was where the boys were encamped, then I have to walk to it, calculate angles, and work out how to cast bang on from my unpreferred position. That's what I did, and fishing commenced.

I don't have a clue why it is so productive. A nondescript patch of open water at the junction between boat track and far bank shelf there's apparently nothing to commend it. But once again it gave up zander. A further three fish were banked. Dominic's ledgered bait cast far bank also had some action, but once again his fish, and by the bend in his rod it looked to be the best of the day thus far, was lost beneath the revetment at our feet in the last quarter of the fight.

Judy came down from the house, we wound up at The Greyhound (once again!), commenced fishing off the bridge bank with pints of the American brown ale we'd taken a shine to the previous night in hand, where Dom lost yet another fish to a flimsy hook hold. It really wasn't his day but perhaps there was hope for him (after a second pint, of course...) at our last port of call — right back where we'd started many hours hence and in the witching hour.

By the failing light zander in their ravening packs venture on the nocturnal prowl. Textbook stuff. Or so they'd have it.

But he didn't have a touch...