John Bailey: Let’s not let zander madness take over again!

A zander from the River Severn

I’ve never used a zander photo in this column before so here we go with Tim Maylin and a Severn Beauty Picture: John Bailey - Credit: John Bailey

Some of you might remember back to the 1970s when zander became targeted as the number one villain in the story of Fenland silver fish decline.

As that decade progressed, silver fish numbers dropped drastically as zander numbers rose dramatically.

The connection seemed clear and obvious and the Anglian Water Authority (AWA), as it then was I believe, mounted all-out war on the species. It all seemed logical. Zander were, after all, a fairly recent arrival in the Fenland waters and only appeared at all in the UK in late 19th century. We are always afraid of alien, invasive species, often with good cause, so when the AWA began its cull many supported it.

It was only later that we began to realise all might not have been as it seemed. Reports circulated that large numbers of dead coarse fish had been found in the nets of fisherman working in The Wash. At the time I believed these to be conspiracy theories and little more, until I spoke to one trawler man in person. Gary confirmed that his nets had been routinely laden with dead bream and roach taken well out to sea. I never witnessed this for myself, it is important to add, but the conclusion is obvious if we believe the reports.

The AWA found it easier to blame zander for the missing silver fish than their own failures at sluice control and river management. Since those days, similar cover-ups have become common-place and I’m tending to believe that half a century back, the zander had a rough deal indeed. 

And now it’s all happening over again. I’ve been spending a good while recently on the lower Severn, for work-related reasons of course, and I’ll confirm there is no better zander venue in the UK today.

At the moment. I have met a score of serious anglers down there up in arms at the Canal and Rivers Trust’s (CRT) decision to electro-fish zander and remove them from the river. Once again, the species seems to be carrying the can for a decline in small fish when almost certainly more deadly and less easily-recognised reasons are responsible.

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It would seem to many that the CRT, like the AWA of old, are hounding a scapegoat which cannot talk back and defend itself. Without doubt, the Severn, like all our rivers here, suffers from a chemical cocktail of run-off from the land that is destroying life slowly, but insidiously. It is evidently easier to blame zander for the river’s decline than chase down the real offenders. 

It seems we never get our policies right when it comes to fish but the Angling Trust seems to have forged some sort of compromise. Anglers will not be prosecuted for returning zander and will retain the right to do so. However, if riparian and fishery owners want to remove zander, then they will also have the right to do that too. There’s more, but that seems to be the gist of it. I guess zander aficionados can rest easy in the knowledge that no amount of electro-fishing will wipe the species out on a vast river like the lower Severn. Whether match anglers will get their shoals of silver fish back remains to be seen.

For what it is worth, I like zander. I failed catastrophically to catch any on the Relief Channel back in the day but I have caught up with them on the Severn. They don’t quite pull your arm off, but they are extremely interesting, they can be caught on lures, which is fun, and they are good to look at. And above all, they provide variety, which I believe personally we all need in our angling.

This brings me to a second debate current in the angling world. It seems that an increasing number of young game anglers (mainly) are targeting big, known, wild brown trout and the concern is that these precious fish will be damaged by this focused pressure.

I don’t know quite where I stand on this one. We must always put fish first, but I can see the need for variety and challenge in all branches of angling. How many stocked rainbows does a 30-year-old need to catch before they all blur into one tedious capture? And whilst we all admire a pristine, half pound, wild brown trout, after a few score of these, it is human nature to want something bigger.

Rivers like the Glaven, the Nar, the upper Wensum and Bure and the Stiffkey have odd clonkers if you can get permission to fish for them. And if that’s what we decide upon, it’s important to follow the rules. Gear strong enough to land them quickly without prolonged drama. Unhooking in the water if possible. Avoid fishing in extremely hot weather and low water.  No rule breaking and no fishing after dark. 

Perhaps, though, the best defences big wild trout have lie in their own fins, so to speak. In my experience, in clear water, once a big, wise, naturally-bred trout has been pricked or landed the first time, it will be almost impossibly hard to catch thereafter. I think it was The Who who sang “We Won’t Be Fooled Again.” Roger Daltry is an angler and he could have written those words on behalf of big, river brown trout that can live for years ignoring a thousand flies once they have been pricked by a single one. 

The quest for wild fish seems to be really hotting up then in 2021, whether we are after trout or roach and chub or even sea bass and the flamboyantly-coloured wrasse. Younger anglers, especially, don’t want one identical stocked fish after another, but fish that are different, challenging, dramatic. The trouble is that we don’t have enough wild fish to go around much of the time. Those we do have, we must do everything we can to protect and cherish it seems to me. These are pearls of nature and culling has to be questioned, surely?