Friday 27 November 2015

Canal Zander & Pike — Embrace the Void

If there's one thing about living right by a canal full of zander that I consider a great bonus then it isn't that I can go catch loads of them at a moments notice, but that I can go experiment with hooks and rigs and baits and what not without incurring overheads. If you have to travel far and then pay for the privilege of fishing for them, then understandably you'll just want to catch if you can and will choose the most reliable method known even if its success rate is actually horribly low. Experiments cannot be afforded. 

I don't have to worry about all that. My greatest cost is that of half a slice of bread with which to catch skimmers for my bait... 

The void between MX and PT is critical. A membrane of flesh covers it. 
The picture above is the skull of Perca fluviatilis, the European perch. It is well worth studying if you are a predator angler because this skull is the typical one of the Perciformes. All members of this huge order of fishes have similar skulls, or at least all members have the same bones in the same configuration with the same linkages between articulated jaw parts but with often very large differences in skull morphology. Marlins and sailfishes, for instance, are Perciforme but so are ruffe and sand eels. It's difficult to imagine that such vastly different fish are related at all, let alone that they all share a common ancestor. But they do.

There's just thirty or so Perciformes swimming in British waters but only a handful that attract the attention of anglers both as quarry and as bait (and often as bait for another Perciforme!). There's perch (of course), ruffe, bass, mackerel, the various sea breams, sand eels, wrasse, and the subject of this article, zander.

You'll notice the absence of pike. Pike are not Perciforme but Esociforme; a very small order of fishes that includes just two families — the pikes/pickerels, and mudminnows. By contrast, the Perciformes comprise of 160 families, 10.000 species, represent an astonishing 41% of all bony fish and are the largest order of all those animals with articulated spines like us — the vertebrates.  

On the one hand we have a narrowly specialised order that evolved many millions of years ago to exploit very particular niches and have remained almost unaltered since. On the other we have a burgeoning explosion of species each of whom evolved to exploit particular niches amongst a myriad of alternative situations and no doubt continue to do so to this very day. 

The Perciformes are, by any definition, one of the most successful orders of animals that ever populated this planet.

The skull of pike. Notice the lack of voids around the jaw
Pike aren't related to perch, nor are they related to zander (in fact zander are more closely related to wrasse than they are to pike, which seems preposterous but is true). So, the old 'pike-perch' name for zander is most misleading, though it still persists in usage. It's remarkable that bait fishing for zander is for the most part conducted as if anglers were fishing for 'pike-perch', that is to say they are fishing for zander with pike tackle as if zander were actually a perch/pike cross. 

You wouldn't fish for large perch with pike tackle and even if they grew to double figures you still wouldn't, and that's because perch fishing and pike fishing diverged centuries ago. 

The skull of zander. Notice the large void behind the jaw

Our approach to zander, though, has yet to split fully away and develop in its own right and so it remains tightly bound to pike fishing practises because the history of zander fishing is so very brief, sprouts from pike fishing in the first instance, and is yet to evolve into a separate and distinct branch of the sport.

Standard pike fishing dead-baiting approaches applied to zander are not appropriate. The only thing they share in common is that they both eat fish...

The Coventry posse established that many moons ago when just about every blogger about these parts was fishing for them but experiencing disastrous returns on (admittedly small) investment with treble hooks. So we were driven to explain why so many runs were missed without the least indication that a fish was there in the first place, when a thud was felt it might drop off a few seconds later, and when a fish seemed well hooked then one in every two (or three) might shed the hook mid-fight or at the net. 

We were losing up to 90% of chances on a very bad day. 60% on a good one. It was all wrong.

Because the canals are very easy for us all to reach and therefore we could experiment at will, within a year answers were forthcoming. It was found that the mouth of a zander was the entire problem. It just has so little flesh in it that standard treble hooks could not cope. Even in large sizes the three individual hooks were still small and worse, the hook was impaled in the back of a bait and could not turn. So they'd just skate off the bone and only find a hold by accident.

The answer was mostly a hook size and bait size thing. Small slices of fish lightly pricked through the flimsiest piece of skin by single hooks were found to be successful. And these hooks had to be large ones to work best. Sizes in the order of 2 - 2/0 were about right. This approach brought our zander fishing into the realms of normality where loss rates of 20- 30% were acceptable. And then acquired skills might improve it further. 

Missed runs were fewer and fewer between, bumped fish far less of a problem, and it soon became apparent when on occasion five, six or seven runs on the trot were fluffed then it was a pack of very, very small fish that were the culprits.

When I tried an established bass (a perciforme) hook in size 2/0 under a float I found that I'd hook zander always through the void behind the jaw and experience 80% success or greater with them.

But I'm one of those who believe loss rates should not be incurred at greater than 5% for any kind of fishing, be it barbel, roach, or great white shark...

I assure you, the picture above is no advertising gimmick. That is a real hook — the 'Mustad 39937NP-DT Giant Demon Perfect Circle Hook' — and one that will set back the big game shark hunter wanting mako, hammerhead, bull, tiger and great white on his personal best list, circa £150. 

God Forbid they should ever lose one! 

It illustrates perfectly what a circle hook is and what a circle hook does. Imagine that a great white hits a bait and takes it down the throat along with this hook. The point is set at an angle of 90 degrees to the shank and there's a six inch gap between. Because the point is facing in this direction it cannot easily catch on anything unless it hits something to turn around. So the hook is drawn out of the smooth gullet and back into the cavernous mouth where steady tension brings it to the closed jaw. Because the line is pulled against a very large float, the shark's forward motion draws it into the very corner where both jaws meet when it turns and catches around one of them. Against a float that would be the top jaw most likely.

But it only pricks. The fight is what makes it penetrate because there is no striking necessary, in fact that would be a mistake because unless the line is pulled backwards it won't come to the scissors of the jaw as it should.

I draw your attention back to the six inch gap. That's critical. Should a shark with a jaw thickness much, much greater than six inches take the bait (imagine that!) then it's not going to work very well unless it finds thick flesh and Mustad are just going have to create an even more preposterous hook!

But sharks have rubbery mouths. Zander bony ones...

Imagine we take a more reasonable sized circle hook, say a size 2/0, and then try to hook it up to various gauges of metal piping. It can only be hooked fully around pipes with exactly the same gauge of the entire gap or less because the metal is not going to give at all. 

But when a circle hook meets up with a (less than impenetrable) jawbone and wraps round it then the point will be driven in gradually by force. Not very far, but enough. And when they lock up there's nothing a fish can do to shed them. The barb is quite unnecessary, in fact. Once coiled around the jaw they just don't fall out of their own accord, in fact you can slacken off if you like. Take a tea break and let a shark do what it will for a few minutes! 

When used for more reasonable predators such as pike and zander then the same principles apply. I've trialled them recently and can report 100% success thus far. Well, 100% percent success after remembering not to strike as I did with the first two runs under a float when I dragged the hook out in error. Since then I've banked five fish by them (3 zander, 2 pike) without any trouble at all. 

The last zander was taken by a further experimental approach. I'd gone perching down the cut but had a rod made up in the quiver that I'd used on the river a few days prior to the session. It was a simple running ledger rig with a two-ounce lead and a size 1 circle hook. I had an idea. 

What if I put out that rig, hung a stick off the line as a bobbin creating time enough for the bait to enter the mouth without resistance, and just let any fish that took the bait drag the rod in? My theory was that the circle would be taken to the scissors by the weight of the lead because the fish would always be swimming directly away from it whatever direction it went. Then the hook would prick as the line was pulled tight to the rod top. And all I had to do then was pick up the rod and wind the fish in.

I never saw the bobbin rise. I was fully focussed on the perch float and only noticed the bite when the rod began inching toward the water. 

It worked brilliantly!

But it was very lazy...

Rewind to the skull picture and see why it was hooked in bone with minimal penetration

Because it swam off above a lead, then of course the fish was hooked in the bottom jaw but did not actually penetrate flesh. It was coiled around it but locked fast anyhow because the point buried in the bone and tension did not allow the hold to fail. I wonder now if I should keep going with the lead approach but also try another variation on the theme on a second rod? 

What if I use a large float...

And I think it will have to be one so very bulbous in order to create two ounces of drag that it makes me look like a bleeding idiot for using it! 

Might that work better ensuring that the hook can always embrace the void?

I have no shame. I'll try anything once...

Or twice!


  1. Cracking read as always Jeff. I've used circle hooks exclusively for all my zander and pike fishing in recent years, and will certainly never use a treble hook again. They are far more fish friendly.

    I've also moved away from swinger indicators for piking, as a I feel they offer far to much resistance and instead use light bobbins which I guess creates the same effect as your lazy rig - 100% this has led to more banked fish.


    1. What make and sizes are you using. James? And have you ever encountered problems hooking really large pike?

    2. Jeff, i use sakuma 440 circle hooks in size 3/0. I have complete faith in them. On the warksavon ive landed pike to mid doubles with no problems. A friend in the SW recently landed a 30lber on the same pattern no probs.
      I have a few packs of a mustard hook, but they are so circular in shape ( if that makes sense) and the points dont feel sharp so i cant bring myself to try them!

    3. That's good news. I wondered if I'd need to increase hook size for large pike and I think I might have to. And yes, the Mustads are very circular, aren't they?

  2. Very interesting. I'll be keeping a close eye on your experiments as well as having a go myself. Unfortunately I don't live next to a canal full of test subjects - but there must be a way to improve my poor hook-up rate when I'm on the pond next...

    1. Improving that is every zed heads dream! There has to be a way of making it reliable. The numbers are frightening. I have lost as many as I've banked if I take into consideration the early days when I lost far more than I banked. One or two of them might have been big fish. Actually one really was and James witnessed it shed the hook.

      I know all fishing carries the risk of losing specimens but zander are the worst of all by far.

  3. Great read Jeff, enjoyed that..

    I've only recently used a float rig for Zander albeit only a few times and don't think it's for me, I think I'm going to stick with what I know on my next close season quest, a running rig with a heavy bobbin with a bass hook, the cut Zander don't seem to give a jot about resistance in my experience, the bobbin goes up and down like a good'un. The bass hook I probably land 8 out of 10 fish right in the side of the mouth...

    I got speaking to Russell last weekend and some time ago I bought some Mustad Circle hooks which were exactly the same as he is using, so on a second rod I'll dump the usual lure rod and will give them a go.

    As you know I use big hooks and big baits and have been reasonably successful so be good to compare the two methods.

    I fancy giving an inch of lamprey a go on the circle hook, I'm sure they would love it and would suit the hook I reckon ..

  4. Yes, running experiments side by side is a good thing. That's how I came to dump what was a trusted hook when the circle outperformed it. I will be buying more Mustad bass hook though, because they really do work with big pike — they hold well and unhooking the fish is a doddle because of the long shank. You just push it down from outside the mouth and it pops out

  5. Informative and thoughtful post Mr Hatt - thank you. I have discarded all the heavy metal (trebles) for pike deadbaiting and wouldn't go back. I use a single circle on a looped hair with a small tile spacer as a stop. You don't need a hair for tough lampreys, but for other baits they work brilliantly. Since switching I haven't needed to perform complex and damaging ironmongery retrieval.
    I haven't been so successful with lures and am trying to find conventional large-eyed single hooks to replace the trebles. Currently all my lures use one treble with one hook cut off i.e. a double hook.

    1. The tile spacer is a brilliant idea. I needed such a thing yesterday when I realised I'd bought a pack of roach that were not at their best. I could not hope to hold them on a piece of skin as usual. It was too flimsy.

      And yes, surgery is a thing of the past for me. Haven't had to perform it once in the years since went over to single hooks.

      I heard that circles were not so good on lures when fish smash into them. Some fish are OK because they take a lure quite gently. They do need time to work and I guess that is not available when pike are active.

  6. Hi Jeff,

    Hope you're well, long time no see!

    Back in the days when I did a fair bit of zandering (admittedly, it was the Fen rivers and drains and the zander were probably larger on average) I found that trebles and home made doubles worked better than singles. The crucial part for me was always the trace material and the resistance to a take.

    The trace material had to be soft i.e. one of the woven, braided wire traces rather than seven strand or something similar. Yes they are expensive but worth it.

    Re resistance - as long as the resistance to a take was steady i.e. from a lead or float being dragged it didn't seem to matter. The only issues involving dropped takes came when a severe build up of pressure occurred e.g. line clipped into a drop off type bobbin.

    Again, highly expensive, but have a look at the Zandavan roll-over bite indicators which are superb for zander and eels.



    1. Hey Sash!

      As you say, long time. There's a gang of four going down to the LIF this Friday coming. You are welcome to join us, if, in the unlikely chance it actually is at such very short notice, of you joining us.

      I had no idea you had previous on the zed front, but I guess hailing from those parts of the country that enjoyed the first run of the buggers, then that should come as no surprise to me!

      But it does...

      We really don't experience any kind oh resistance aversion here, But we do enjoy a surfeit of the smaller fish.

      I do wonder from time to time if we we are missing something in the way of finesse that might snare the really huge ones..

      Something learned early days?

      Catching schoolies all day long is one thing....