The air is almost still as the last of the daylight slips away to begin a new day in the southern hemisphere. Bats begin to appear; tiny shadows with just a glimpse of reality. Out on the far bank a barn owl begins its ghost-like nocturnal stalking, and the animals of the night begin to stir from their daylight retreats to begin a life out of sequence with their main enemy, light. As they emerge, their heightened senses alert them to the presence of an interloper on their territory, for there, perched on the bank, is the dweller of the giant green mushroom, their oldest foe: Man.Yet this man has no interest in them; his aim is to snare the newest nocturnal hunter in these parts, for this man is a zander angler.
Zander have never really had a fair press since their introduction to this country. From the first stocking of 97 fish, the species has established itself with a level of success that is just about unprecedented in modern times; unfortunately this success came without a good public relations manager, and many heinous crimes were perpetrated on the species, including the old, (or should that be ‘new’), wives’ tale that zander killed for the sake of killing... Of course, times moved on, and now, forty-plus years on from the original stocking, zander have reached a balance in the waters into which they were first released and are growing in popularity within the angling world. It would be nice to think that all those responsible are looking on, or looking down from wherever they may be now and thinking; “I told you so!” because zander are now proving to be that exciting, different target that was the reason for their original introduction.
However in this article we are looking specifically at the opportunities for the Norfolk angler, and at the Norfolk zander waters.
I think that it’s only right to say, though, that the spiritual home of the zander has always been said to be ‘the Fens’; it is more accurate to say that their actual home is in the Fenland of West Norfolk.After all, the very first 97 zander released into this country’s rivers and drains went into the Relief Channel at Denver, which is of course a purely Norfolk water. In fact, if you look back at the history of the zander record, for most of its lifespan it has resided firmly in Norfolk, just leaving the county boundaries twice, to Cambridgeshire and Roswell Pits, and the River Severn in the Midlands, before it was brought back to where it remains to this day, in Norfolk and the Middle Level Main Drain.
No Norfolk zander article could ever be written in my opinion without starting with what has become the zander angler’s Mecca, the Middle Level Main Drain. The drain has probably more top 50 entries than any other water, and in the late eighties and early nineties seemingly produced huge zander to anyone that wet a line there. Of course the truth was, and still is, somewhat different.The Level is a big, mean and very moody mistress.Though rewards are always there for the zander angler, the Level can be very reluctant to bestow its prizes.The Level really begins at Three Holes; here the drain is around 30 yards wide and pretty barren-looking, with steep sloping banks and an average depth of around ten feet. As the drain progresses it gets wider and deeper, until by the time it finishes at the famous St. Germans pumping station it is around 45 yards wide and around 15 feet deep. As the depth and width change, so do the bankside features. There are extensive Norfolk reedbeds, or at least there are until the dreaded Middle Level commissioners decimate them with reed cutting in the autumn. The banks do change drastically, from the mildly awkward banks at its birth to some positively lethal ones around Magdalene and Neaps, two of the groupsof famous bridges that span the drain down its course. In fact their relation to the nearest bridges describes most zander locations. Morton’s, Neaps, Magdalene, the Meccano, Mulicourt, and all names that have become a code word for the ‘zedheads’ that fish the drain.
However, the aspiring zander angler should not be put off from fishing the drain, as it can still be a productive water if the fish can be tracked down. Features can be wide and varied. Broken bridges, of which there are many on the Level, broken areas of bottom structure, undercut banks and, most importantly of all, prey fish populations, will all hold zander in an area. Other important things to consider are flow rates and weather conditions: St. Germans can shift a massive amount of water, and at times fishing can be limited to the nearside of the drain. Fish can still be caught, but more thought and effort will need to be made in terms of presentation and indication in such conditions to fish effectively.
Weather and time of year also play their part in giving the zedhead his chance to do battle. Heavy rain will colour up the water, but will also instigate run-off from the pumps, so it can be a mixed blessing: great while the water is still relatively warm, but nearly always the kiss of death when the water and weather are cold.Wind is always something that needs to be factored into the equation: the Fens being reclaimed flat land ,there is little to hinder its path, and it can make fishing a difficult activity.Despite this I have always found a good blow, particularly a south-westerly bringing in low pressure, to be great catching conditions. The disturbance brings in a touch of colour to the water and I am sure the disturbance disorientates the prey fish, a fact that the zander are quick to capitalise upon.
Moving away from the Level are two of the most famous of all zed waters, namely the Cut-Off Channel and the Relief Channel. The Relief Channel, as I have already said, is the home of the Fenland zander, receiving the original stocking. It is also probably one of the most daunting waterways to behold anywhere: around 80-100 yards wide and seemingly dead straight, the Channel seems to run away into the horizon. It is without doubt awe-inspiring, but the real beauty of fishing the place is the unknown and the sense of history that the place has about it. Some of the greatest names in predator angling have from time to time done battle upon its banks, and there is always the feeling that a true leviathan could be just that bleep away. I have to say that of all the waters within the Fens, I love the Channel more than any other.
Rarely these days do you see anglers upon its banks, the colossus seeming to wilt the soul of all but the foolhardy. Yet the fishing on there can be good and the potential of the place is as vast as the water itself, particularly as the prey fish populations, so long in the basement, are beginning to rise once more.
Many rumours abound from the bygone days of the Channel, including one that did the rounds for many years, of the country’s first twenty pound zander, netted from there in the eighties. Alas, the Holy Grail of the first English twenty pound zander was not attained in such a manner, but a fish of over eighteen pounds was, when it would have shaken the standing record if caught on rod and line.Therein lies the true majesty of the Channel: it is just so big that it must hold a monster somewhere in its length.Will we see such a fish one day? Well, my personal opinion is that there are almost certainly very big zander in the Channel, but the low numbers of anglers fishing it do lessen the chances of such a beast being tamed, but we as anglers are pre-ordained to dream, and for now, dream we must!
The practicalities of fishing the water are that it is, of course, a long large water that suffers from both exposure to the ever present Fen wind, and the fact that access is limited in the main to the bridges that span its width. In addition, the Channel was built to take water away from the Great Ouse in times of flood, and, due to its essential function as a flood defence, when the sluices at Denver are running full bore it is nigh on impossible to bait-fish effectively, though I know of a number of anglers that use these conditions to jig fish for zander and take some very good catches when conventional fishermen would have long since packed up and gone home.
The Channel in full run-off is such an awesome sight. The pure power of the current flattening reedbeds hundreds of yards long and dropping the level by feet in a just a few hours; an engineering marvel well worth observing.
The Cut-Off Channel is probably the poor relation to its two bigger brothers, but what it lacks in size it certainly makes up for in charisma.Though a lot of its length is restricted by the E.A. for rearing purposes and dangerous banks, the fishable sections are very pretty, especially the lengths around Hilgay and Fordham, where the banks are lined with poplar trees and thus protected from all but the keenest of winds. However this is a double-edged sword, in that in the summer months miles of the Channel can become almost stagnant and choked with the dreaded duckweed; from bank to bank the Cut-Off can be green with this plant, rendering fishing impossible.
Downsides apart, the Cut-Off can be a pleasant place to fish and is not without a track record of producing very big zander. In fact, but for red tape, the Cut-Off would have held the record for a while in the seventies when a 16 lbs+ fish was taken, but in recent years fish of this size have become even more scarce than before and these days the Cut-Off gets less intensively fished.
Before I finish my look at Norfolk zandering it would not be complete without mentioning the heart and lifeblood of the Fens: the Great Ouse. Now there is only a relatively short section of the Ouse in Norfolk; paradoxically though, it is one of the better-known parts.Ten Mile Bank, though not entirely in Norfolk, crosses the county boundary at Brandon Creek, before flowing onto Denver, where it becomes a tidal river, unfished by rod and line.
However, what this section does hold is some of the cream of Ouse zander fishing, in fact it is from this stretch that my personal best of 14 lbs 2 ozs was taken a couple of years ago.The deeper slower water of this section, reaching almost twenty feet in places, is seemingly favoured by the big female zander to set up home.
Most of the bigger Ouse zander are taken from this stretch, though the fishing is far from easy. Many is the blank night endured by the ardent zedhead, but again just that one run can change a season, or sometimes an angling career.The secret to tracking and locating these reticent hunters on the Ouse in particular, but a good rule to follow on any zander water, is to find the shoals of bream. Despite the fact that mature bream are far too big to be on the zander’s menu, they do attract zander.There are far more theories than answers to why this should be so, but the one that I favour is that the feeding bream, in disturbing the sediment, stir up food particles and colour the water, giving smaller prey fish a chance to feed on the disturbed food particles, whilst also presenting the zander with optimum feeding conditions.
So there you have it: just a taste of the superb zander angling opportunities that exist in Norfolk. There are of course others; space prevents me covering some of the smaller venues such as Well Creek, or Popham’s Eau, but although I haven’t covered them, they are no less worthy. Although I have given you a taste on paper, there is nothing like the real thing.There is so much for the senses to absorb in a Norfolk Fen evening and night that only partaking can ever describe in full. Zander fishing is in its infancy in this country and so much about the species is yet to be understood and discovered. In these days of super-efficient angling and oftcaught fish, what other species can offer such an opportunity?