This is a blog I wrote earlier for Martin Bowler about how my fishing friend Peter Sztahovits and myself are fishing for zander at a special venue on the Danube river. The same text can be found on Martin Bowler's website in the blog section (http://http://martinbowler.co.uk/pit-stop-zander), I added more photos here.
As I was typing these characters I saw on Facebook that Martin reported the recent catch of a 13 lb zander, which would be a great catch for anyone, anywhere on the planet where zander can be caught. You should bear in mind that Martin’s catch is rather special because zander is not an indigenous species in Britain, finding and catching a real giant is an exceptionally tough task. I consider myself as a rookie zander angler with a PB of 7 lb only, but since I started last year fishing on the river Danube, original home water of this beautiful species – official zander world record over 41 lb has been caught on the Austrian stretch of the same river – my chances are better than ever to increase that figure.
The majority I know about zander fishing I’ve learned from a very talented, young, conservation minded fishing friend of mine, Peter Sztahovits. Peter started fishing very young, proved his capabilities as match angler, but later he turned completely towards lure fishing –spinning – and fell in love with the zander, one of the most interesting indigenous predators of our rivers and lakes. His PB had a weight of exactly 22 pounds, he caught 4 other zander above the17 pounds mark and more than a dozen specimen fish between 11 and 17 pounds weight, and he released them all. These are impressive results from a 26 years old chap, fishing for zander actively since 9 years.
To put these figures into perspective please also consider the fact that in my home country Hungary zander is a very popular fish. Popular, in gastronomic sense, as eating freshwater fish is an important part of our culinary culture. Wild zander just tastes great, its flesh is white, firm, almost milky, and can easily beat fresh caught cod. This last sentence is originally not from me, but are the words of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, an English top class celebrity chef you may know from the internationally aired River Cottage TV-series. And I can only agree with him on that. More worrying is the fact however that the current Hungarian angling regulation on our stretch of the beloved Danube river allows the harvesting of 3 zander per angler per day. And this limit is fully utilised by the majority of the anglers, when the fish are biting. You can believe me catching a big one is not an easy task here, and will not be easier in the future either, if we are not able to change that old-fashioned regulation very soon.
We agreed with Martin that I’ll write a bit about Peter’s and my recent zander catches, and when I think about the method we were using on these occasions one particular scene of Catching the Impossible comes to my mind. You all may remember when Martin is catching a giant perch on a pole, with a lobworm. That was – and many other stories of course – teaching us again about the fact that the location and behaviour of the fish should determine the method, gear and bait to be used and that we should not always rely on what we read in the good old books.
Many consider zander as a night active predator and think that dawn, dusk, and night are the best time for catching them by offering them dead baitfish. Peter told me this is right, but he prefers a more active approach. During the hours of darkness zander are active and chasing prey fish while during day-hours they are hiding in snags and next to any underwater structure that provides sufficient shelter and shadow. Latter means it is far easier for active anglers like us to locate them as they are having a rather long rest before light gets low enough and circumstances become ideal for the zander start hunting. As our experience shows if we can place our lures next to the head of a zander on siesta, they will definitely bite, even at noon, on the hottest, sunniest summer day.
Considering location of specimen zander we have a huge advantage here – for a short timeframe – Peter found during the recent years fishing the same area. Just to see the full picture, let me short describe the situation: the mighty Danube is a fast flowing, mostly murky river with low underwater visibility, on which we only have chances for catching a good zander – talking now only about autumn and winter months – by using larger plastic shads on heavy jig-heads to be able to fish them in the strong current, or using dead baitfish in combination with a rig with heavy lead. Luckily there is a directly connected backwater area nearby we can find clearer water with almost no current. But the top pick is a gravel pit directly connected through the backwater with the river itself. This gravel pit is rather small and after years of fishing on it together regularly we know the location of literally every snag, mussel bank, underwater structure and drop-off in it. During summer, when water level is generally low and small fish are plentiful in the river, the gravel pit is a safe place for roach and co.
But when following the rains at the beginning of autumn the first bigger flood arrives from the Alps, the fish are trying to avoid the very murky water and the strong current and with the help of the increasing water level they are moving through the backwater area and arrive in our gravel pit. Zander find plenty of baitfish and calm, warmer and clearer water. Those predators do like such circumstances and stay there as long the water level starts dropping quickly, when they return to the big river. To keep it short there is a two-three weeks window when we can find real big ones on a relatively small body of water we know very well.
During those weeks we are on the water whenever we can and trying to benefit from this special situation. We are exclusively spinning for zander and for the smaller Eurasian zander species Volga zander using 2-3” soft plastic twisters in pink and green colours on very light jigheads with small hooks. This is the point many are wondering about and asking why we don’t use bigger lures, or why we do not try baitfish.
Using larger lures could be selective, but we would need bigger size hooks which would have stronger wire. Since we are fishing in snags, we got snagged many times. By using small hooks and thin diameter, but very high quality braided line we can bend out the hooks from the underwater obstacles without disturbing – moving, breaking or ripping – them, I mean the snags. Our experience showed that for instance if we got hooked into a sunken branch and we lift, or break it while trying to free a strong hook on a heavy duty braided line, zander get scared and disappear for long time.
It requires some practice but it is not that difficult to manoeuvre a small twister on a light jighead through a mussel bank or between sunken branches. Important is that we place the lures where the fish are lying, and that those light plastic lures are not sinking very fast. The small size lures are not really selective, there are days we catch 20 fish of smaller to medium size, but the good thing is even the largest ones are ready and willing to inhale these tiny plastics, when those are swimming in front of their noses. Since we are carefully selecting the small jigheads, we never had a problem with fish lost because of hooks bending out during fighting a fish. Normally the clutch of the reel should give line earlier before enough force builds up which can bend even a small – but good quality – hook. This 2-3” twister size is somewhat smaller than the average size of the baitfish we can find in the pit that time of the year, but proved to be still an appealing piece of potential food.
Many anglers are asking how we can feel bottom contact when using very light jigheads. This is a very good question. In fact we cannot feel it most of the time. We simply look at the thin braided line and rely on what we see. When it gets slack, the jig is on the bottom. Then you turn a half round on the handle and keep your eyes on the line. You may not feel all bottom contacts, but there won’t be any problem feeling the bite. This method does not work in current or when the wind blows hard, then we change to a drop-shot rig, which allows us using a heavier lead by keeping almost the same level of sensitivity. For drop shot we use fluoro-carbon material, but not for jigging. Peter prefers thin braided lines in bright yellow or green because of high visibility. I stick with rather dark line colours. Peter is catching the bigger fishes therefore I should say it seems zander do not mind high-visibility lines.
Using dead baitfish is the method applied by most of the local anglers, and that brings nice catches too, but sadly those fish won’t see the water again – not necessarily because of the method itself, but because of the very allowing harvest regulation in place. Our reason for spinning is the active, searching approach with large amount of casting involved and of course the unique feeling of a zander-bite, a heavy, knock-like hit, followed by quick headshakes if you managed to set the hook in time. Using small hooks – no stringers with treble hooks, like others fishing with bigger baits – we cause almost no damage to the fish we catch. Letting a zander swallow dead bait is an effective approach, but the timing of the hookset is crucial. If it is too late, you still going to catch the zander, but its chances of survival can become substantially lower.
With the dropping water level more light penetrates to the snags, which are not located very deep, and zander are leaving those spots. Water inflow, and outflow from the gravel pit has got a great influence on their behaviour concerning preferred location. As the water level reaches its low the wonder is gone, and we can prepare ourselves for the winter, when the required tactic is slightly different, especially when temperatures do not climb over zero during the day. But as long as the red and yellow canopies determine the landscape, we keep our eyes on the water level forecast and hoping that there are some further golden days left for us this autumn.