Zander fishing

Finally realising an angling dream…

The story of catching a double-figure zander after many years of trying…

Words and photography Ricci Cox

Zander are probably the least fished for species in the UK out of all the main ones nowadays – which presents you with a great opportunity to target and find these elusive predators. And there are some decent fish out there in our rivers and lakes if you’re willing to put in the leg-work and go off the beaten track, as I discovered last December when I caught a P.B of 12lb 4oz from a Fenland drain after nearly a decade of not fishing for this beautiful, but controversial species.

After starting fishing properly around 20 years or so ago, I’d caught plenty of zander to 8lb 2oz in my younger days from the Fenland drains and still waters like Ferry Meadows and Roswell Pits (see pics below) in the first decade of my angling adventures, but then moved away from predator fishing for the second decade when I moved from the Fens to the nearby city of Peterborough and targeted mainly barbel and chub on local rivers and the also the Trent. 

So, last year amidst the pandemic, I decided to have a go for the species I’d once loved chasing in the early days of my angling. In those days zander were more abundant in numbers and easier to catch. You’d meet a lot more anglers on the bank fishing for them in the 90’s and early to mid 2000’s than you do nowadays. They’ve become a real niche part of angling and a species very few people target, although there are still a few anglers out there and you’ll always see a few big zander in the angling press and online – often caught as a nice bonus fish by pike and perch anglers when dead or live baiting and especially lure fishing.

As I’d only ever caught zander to just over 8lbs and had always wanted to catch a 10lb-plus fish, which had never happened, I thought it would be nice to set that as a target – a double-figure fish – a decade on and start where I left off. To be honest, to start with, I just wanted to catch one – of any size – as I knew a lot of the waters where I used to catch them from 10-15 years ago are now devoid of this species for one reason or another.

The first port of call was to catch some roach – the number one bait when fishing for ‘zeds’ as far as i’m concerned – although skimmers, rudd, eel section and gudgeon as well as other small coarse fish will all catch zander too. You always read in the angling press of the odd big zander picking up a pike anglers sea bait such as a mackerel or sardine, but I’d still much rather fish with coarse fish personally.

So, off I went to a local river, where just one week before I had stood and watched countless roach being attacked by small pike, thinking that there was so many there, they’d be really easy to catch. How wrong I was! 

As it was early December, I decided to fish bread punch – a great bait for roach in winter and one I’d caught many a roach on in my youth – but the river wasn’t playing ball on this day. It had rained pretty much non-stop all week and by the time I fished the river the following Saturday it was smashing through, a foot-up in depth and really coloured – I could barely hold bottom with my float rig and when I could the fish couldn’t find the bait in the tea coloured water! Disaster, so I packed-up and off to the tackle shop I went…

Thankfully they had a few roach in their freezer and after paying £2.99 for a pack of 5 very small ones (around 2-inches each and perfect for zander) I went home with my tail between my legs and waited for the following weekend when I’d get my roach from the freezer and head off back down the river where I had tried to catch the roach from in the first place. But when that next Saturday came in mid-December yet another disaster awaited!

I’d arranged to meet my step-dad and brother (both also anglers) at the bridge where I’d seen the pike attacking the roach for a session an hour or so before first light. But when we got there, after yet another week with plenty of rain, the river really was hammering through and as un-fishable for pike and zander this week as it had been for roach the last.

So, a quick brain-storm ensued and then off we headed to another nearby river, some 15 minutes away, but this time it would be a good 30-minute walk from the car to the area which we knew held fish, as me and my brother had walked miles and miles of it in late summer/early autumn with lure rods catching plenty of pike to over 17lbs, with this area in particular being the most productive spot.

A typical Fenland drain and zander water. Sunset is a great time for a bite, especially in clear water

By the time we had walked with all the gear and arrived at the area, it was already light, although still al little misty and the water was running here too, but this time it was fishable. Phew! It was also tea coloured – great for zander if fishing in the daytime – they love to hunt prey in these conditions as they have an advantage over them as they can see much clearer than their prey can – another reason they love to hunt at night, especially in clear water. It’s basically guaranteed food for them.

Leaving my stepdad and brother, who were only after pike with sea baits to set-up, I moved  40-50 yards away further down where I had caught decent pike on lures and dead-baits, knowing there must be plenty of prey-fish for them to keep around this area. Even though zander will hunt and get plenty of prey fish they also like an easy meal in the form of a dead-bait presented on the bottom, so that’s what I did. With my first rod, I chucked out a rainbow trout I’d picked-up cheap from a local supermarket, presented on the bottom on a simple float rig in the margin in around 8ft of water, thinking if there was any big pike in the area I’d stand a chance of getting them too.

On the second rod, specifically for zander, I used a running-leger rig. Zander don’t seem to like resistance at all and will drop a bait if they feel it. This simple rig is set-up by using a Fox leger stem – which has a large eye, allowing your mainline to run freely through – and a piece of foam at the top, which keeps it away from weed clogging up the run-ring. A 3.5oz lead was clipped on to the stem, as this Fenland river had a decent tow on it after a week of rain water was running through. Usually a 2oz-2.5oz lead would suffice in normal conditions. A roach was presented on a 15lb wire trace, around 30cm long, on some size 8 semi-barbed trebles (my pike rig had sized 4 trebles on 28lb wire with the trebles further apart for a bigger bait) as zander have much smaller mouths than pike. Something worth bearing in mind when setting-up your rig.

A very simple running leger rig is all you need to fish with deadbaits for zander

This was cast out to the middle of the river where it was deeper (around 13ft) and the rod put on an alarm and rear drop-off indicator set-up (see pic below), where the bale-arm is open and any fish that takes the bait can move -off and take line without any resistance as the line pulls out from the indicator. And then it was under the brolly as it had started to rain for a cuppa from the flask and some biscuits, as it was only around 3-4 degrees air temperature.

For the next 4-5 hours nothing happened on any of our rods and my stepdad and brother announced they were cold and wet and packing up as they’d has enough!

I decided I agreed with them and what happened next was quite extraordinary, lucky and very welcome… I reeled in my pike rod and packed that away and as I went back down the bank to get my second rod I noticed the tip nod and the bobbin move up slightly. Usually a pike would just pull the line from the clip, so was this just weed in the flowing river or a zander? 

I picked the rod up gently and bent into what was a fish and not weed – great – and I felt the unmistakable nod of a zander too. If you catch pike regularly, you’ll know how they tend to feel and fight. A zander is very different. It feels more like an eel fight than a pike, but very unmistakable. I was getting excited as the fish kept lunging and nodding its head, trying to shake the small treble hooks from its mouth. 

It was an immaculate-looking specimen too…well worth the wait!

After a few minutes, I knew this was a decent fish, most of the other zander I’ve caught in the past would have been in the net by now, but this kept getting near the surface and diving down deep again! Yes, the river was flowing and this aided the fish in it’s escape, but I was still sure this was the biggest zed I had hooked – and I was right!

After around 5 minutes the fish finally gave up and broke the surface and then I knew for sure that this was the best zander I had hooked with it’s long, bronzed flank finally slipping under my landing net. Once on the unhooking mat I could see this was a P.B (by 4lb 2oz as it turned out!) as the fish weighed in at 12lb 4oz – what a return to zander fishing!

I’d hit my two targets on the first trip out for them… to catch another zander after a decade or more of not fishing for them – and to catch a double-figure fish. What a result!

It was one of those days when you remember why you go fishing. All the blanks. The miserable weather, the travel, expense and time and effort over the years, then you get a fish like that and it keeps you going for another season! Next target? Got to be a 14lb+ zander… hopefully this fish won’t take another decade to catch.