ZANDER ... THE TRUTH
Yes folks, I was there: back in those days when zander in their millions, blackened the surface of the Great Ouse Relief Channel, dragging hapless seagulls to their doom and shredding them into a gloop of blood and feathers. When a matchman hooked a bream, he was lucky if there was anything left other than a head and backbone by the time it reached the net. This is the true and unexpurgated story of the unstoppable rise of the zander - the facts that THEY would rather have kept under lock and key.
This period piece is set in the dark days of the late Sixties and the early Seventies. My tangled hair and comedy sideburns must have seemed fashion statements at the time, but now exist only on yellowing, dog-eared photographs which pop up to embarrass me when I'm least expecting it. As whimsical psychedelia bowed out to stern prog-rock, I had somehow managed to bluff my way into the sixth form and the weekend trips into the Fens after predators were a cathartic necessity. This was mainly to clear my head of such ponderous irrelevancies as the Schleswig-Holstein question, but justified to my parents as a means of purging myself with fresh air and healthy exercise. The fact that these trips often left me cold-ridden and exhausted was brushed aside as mere coincidence.
Trouble was brewing in the windswept flatlands. A well-intentioned River
Board employee had decided to introduce an exotic import to the supposedly
enclosed Great Ouse Relief Channel. Just ninety-seven zander,
Within ten years, they had spread to such an extent that they were biting chunks from the living flesh of large bream, stripping them down to the bone and eating them alive like starving pirhana. By night they would leave the water, fanning out across the fields, raping the local wildlife and setting fire to workmen's cottages. Panic spread throughout the kingdom from Mildenhall to Kings Lynn. A hired killer was brought in. His name was Bear - George Bear. Many a captured zander was nailed to the village cross or burned alive in a wicker cage. Norfolk was awash with blood and scales. In spite of all these efforts, by 1985, not a single non-predatory fish was to be found alive in the whole of Fenland. The zander populations were magically sustained however, as they evolved to subsist on rats and sugar beet, with the occasional treat of a passing cyclist.
The idea of fishing for these hard-as-nails invaders was incredibly exciting to me in my late teens. Not for me the lady-like roach or the foppish bream. Even the pike seemed to have a rather lazy air about them, only savouring ultra violence in short, rapid bursts. With their rough scales and spiky dorsals these were true punks, almost ten years ahead of their time. They didn't just grab a fish and swallow it; they would first beat it to death with bike chains, then tear it apart, fin by fin.
A day at the Relief Channel wasn't a simple one day jaunt into the East Anglian countryside, it required sufficient live and deadbaits to supply a combined battery of at least twenty five rods, which were spread out between the gaps in the reed beds over a distance of about two hundred yards. Any old rod was pressed into service to achieve the necessary coverage, from sawn off match rods, to six foot solid fibreglass boat rods with rings held on by insulating tape.
The whole day was spent speed jogging backwards and forwards along the serried ranks of rods, hoping that the odds were in favour of arriving at a rod as the run was just starting to develop. On days when the pike and zander were particularly un-co-operative, we must have covered twenty to thirty miles each, over soggy ground and without stopping. Very impressive when you consider that this was all carried out in knitted balaclavas, snorkel parkas and wellies.
The Saturday morning livebait catching sessions were often marathon efforts, requiring an amount of dedication that would be unthinkable for any sensible person once past the madness of their late teens. Friday nights were reserved for searching out whichever watering holes served the now legendary Ruddles County. Now let me make a distinction here: Ruddles County in those days was a fierce and potent brew made from discarded engine oil and strained through doormats. It bore not even a passing resemblance to the bland, commercial fizz that has been passed off under its name in more recent times.
To a seventeen year old, a pint of County was something to be feared. It was intended to be served completely flat and most definitely contained girders. Anyone being served a pint of County with a head on it would probably complain to the landlord that it was off. Its fearsome effect on the palate can sometimes be conjured up amidst swirling clouds of nostalgia, and with vast amounts of concentration, but one thing was for sure, it was certainly not a girl's drink, and reserved for the most serious of imbibers.
Graham was a member of the Peterborough Specimen Group, seemingly a social club for psychopaths, rapists and murderers, so sometimes on a Friday night, I was given the dubious treat of a night out in their company. Although I felt quite comfortable in the comparitively friendly Bourne boozers, the Peterborough drinking holes were in a different league altogether. The PSG of course, favoured the most run-down, seedy, dangerous and violent of these. With much trepidation I edged my way past the inevitable fight taking place in the car park of a daunting looking brick erection in the aptly named Dogsthorpe.
I crunched over the broken glass, and edged into the blazing interior, lit by fluorescent strip lights, dulled only by the swirling banks of choking smoke from the ubiquitous Player's No.6. I would stand there nervously clutching my pint, surrounded by Graham, Big Lol, Mutley, Pete Harvey, Chalky White, Mick Hennesey and Dennis Smith.
Mick and Dennis seemed comparitively civilised, having obviously attended one of the posher schools, and had quite possibly had their hair cut at some point during the last ten years. They must have been really hard though because they looked as if they washed and even shaved, and that was a sure way to earn youself a beating in one of these establishments.
This was back in the days when the breathalyser was virtually unheard of, so on leaving the pub, I would have to wait for Graham to be sick in the car park before driving us home. This was a talent I had yet to acquire, and I would often be dragged out the next morning, deathly white, shivering, and likely to scatter my stomach contents all over the countryside.
The amount of baits required caused us quite a few problems. Whole Saturdays would be spent roaming vast distances across the Lincolnshire countryside in an effort to collect them. If the favourite river locations failed to produce the goods, there were a few highly illegal yet prolific venues to fall back on. These often required a lightning dash through a hole in a hedge and a worrying run across open ground, until refuge was gained among the lakeside undergrowth.
The baits acquired in this way were usually rudd, which though less than ideal would often save the day. In the beginning, all the baits would be stored in a brewing bucket and kept alive with a battery powered pump. Later on we became more ambitious, and bought a plastic laundry basket specially for the purpose, which we would sunk and concealed in the deep margins of one of the local pits; strictly private pits of course.
The first stop on the bait round would often be the Electricity Cut at Peterborough, where you were guaranteed to catch as many bleak as you could possibly use, although these were usually quite small, even for bleak, and considered for emergency use only. We would stand in the bitter cold with the evil black mud working its way up our legs, and the foul, sickly stench of the sugar beet factory assaulting our nostrils. Sometimes if the turbines were running, the float would disappear from view within seconds as it was carried off into the swirling mist that always hung over the oily, warm water. On a good day, you might catch roach or skimmer bream, but more often than not, the bleak would grab any bait before it even had chance to break through the surface film.
There was a sort of bait hierarchy, with chub comfortably at the top. Roach came a close second, followed by the surface swimming dace and rudd. Below those came the species used in sheer desperation: skimmer bream, visible but fragile; perch, active but dull and spiky; gudgeon, game but too small, and bleak were just too delicate, but right at the very bottom of the pile came the poor old ruffe. If only we had known about the effectiveness of eel sections, we would never have been without effective baits, as all the local river, drains and even ditches absolutely swarmed with them.
The most prized baits of all were chub of around four or five ounces, but when fishing for these, it was amazing how often we would be frustrated by the attentions of one pound roach and three pound chub, which even we declined to use. Saturday bait snatching expeditions were planned like a commando raid, with first, second and third choice locations spanning vast distances across the Fens. The round trip always ended at the private roadside pits, which being on next morning's route, enabled a convenient pick-up point in the darkness of the early morning.
With any luck, we would reach our required target by dusk, giving us the necessary cover under which to hide the laundry basket full of our plundered victims. We had used keepnets for this purpose in the past, but these would often come under attack from eels, even in the iciest weather, leaving us with a high percentage of headless corpses. I now look back on our actions under the burden of a guilty conscience, although we scarcely considered the morality of our deeds, and even considered it quite an exciting adventure in its own right.
We always treated pike and zander with the utmost respect, but their rotting corpses were a regular sight on the banks of any match lengths. Matchmen would look into our livebait buckets with disgust, while we would look on in horror as they tipped their nets of fish into the wire basket at the weigh-in. It was always a good idea to be present at the end of a match, because we were guaranteed to find a good supply of dead or dying fish to supplement the bait supplies for the following week. As they say, "the past is a foreign country" – different time, different rules.
In the early days, I would go to bed at nine in the evening, ready for when my alarm went off at 3.30am. Even in my pre-pub days, these early starts were always difficult, as the excitement would often make it difficult to get to sleep, and I knew that the drift into oblivion would be terminated by the terror of something that has left mental scars to this very day. The alarm clock I used must have been heard two streets away, and I slept primed to leap into action within milliseconds in a futile attempt to silence it before it woke up my long suffering parents.
The first thing I had to do on creeping downstairs was to phone Graham's number, and let it ring just once before putting the phone down. Hopefully, I would get the single ring in return a few seconds later to confirm that he was out of bed, and would be around to pick me up within about half an hour.
I can still remember quite vividly, stepping outside the back door to sniff the morning air and assess the weather prospects. Sometimes it would be quite atrocious, but because we had invested so much effort, we would go absolutely regardless of conditions. I would sit out by the garden gate in the pitch darkness waiting for the headlights to appear at the end of the road.
After Graham had thrown my gear into the limited confines of the Ford Anglia, or whatever was his latest pride and joy, I would wriggle into the passenger seat by ducking under the holdalls that protruded across the top of my left shoulder through to the dashboard. Then, with bank sticks digging into my neck, and drinks cans rolling in the foot well we would drive off, yo-ho-ho-ing into the rain and darkness of a winter morning.
Stopping off to collect the baits from their hiding place was always a bit of a pain and inconvenience. Ripping our clothes on the barbed wire fence, with icy fingers we would search around at the water's edge for the concealed cord. Sometimes when shining a torch into the water, we would see the eels lurking in the vicinity of the basket, frustrated by the plastic mesh. We would then have to tip the baits into the brewer's bucket full of cold pit water, which could sometimes be crammed into the boot, but which on many occasions would have to be wedged between my legs for the whole journey.
At last the expedition was now under way. Careering along the unlit back roads, we were soon belting down the long, straight road to Thorney. It was always my duty to try to pick up something on the car radio, which in every car I remember Graham having, was always bouncing around loose on the parcel shelf in a nest of wires and connectors. Just about the only station broadcasting at that hour was Radio Caroline, and to find this I would have to turn the tuning knob painfully slowly, and listen for the faint and erratic signal that would suddenly emerge apologetically from between the ebbing and flowing of ignition interference and howls of static. One of my most vivid recollections is that of listening out for the tell-tale strains of Eric Clapton's Let It Grow, which almost seemed to be on a constant tape loop.
On occasions we would have to make the detour to Dogsthorpe to pick up Pete Harvey, the one time Nene carp record holder. Now nice guy that he was, or even still is, Pete had absolutely no concept of urgency, and while I was chomping at the bit to get to The Channel, Pete would just bumble around and roll another fag, which meant that he would then need to have another cup of tea.
Apart from these frustrations, being the junior member of the party I would be confined to the back seat of the car, barely visible under all the stinking baggage. I really have no idea how on earth we managed to get the three of us plus all the gear into one car, as they didn't even have hatch backs in those days, and I now sometimes struggle to get all my gear into a far bigger car for a simple all-nighter.
We would chug along the deserted straight up to Guyhirn, pass over the river Nene into Norfolk, then set the controls for the heart of Kings Lynn. Remembering to turn right at the outskirts (oops - reverse back up the road), get into a wheelspin at The Metal Box Company and then steady onto the home straight; although as straights go, this was an exceedingly winding, twisted, bendy and slippery one. In the frosty twilight we would skid sideways through slippery Elm, clatter through Outwell, then hopefully, over and not into the Middle Level.
Before long the high banks of the Tidal Ouse towered over the winding road, heralding the run-up to the outskirts of the Holy Mecca itself, Downham Market Bridge. Even in the near darkness, the wide expanse of the Great Ouse Relief Channel reflected sufficient light for us to assess the conditions. Ideally, we would cross the railway line at Downham Market as the very first fingers of daylight were streaking the horizon, hoping to arrive at Denver Sluice just in time to see the far bank gradually emerging from the gloom.
Parking spaces were a bit limited; Ray Webb's caravan occupied most of the space by the first gate and Neville's Del Boy three-wheeler was usually parked by the far bank gate near "The Stones". First light on the Channel was an incredible experience in those days and as we began the long walk to the hotspot, there were always fish of all sizes rolling from one bank to the other.
Everywhere you looked, as far as the eye could see, there were dimples, swirls and splashes as countless millions of fish broke the water surface; all this at a time when the doom merchants were proclaiming that the zander had eaten everything that ran, swam or wriggled. Heavily laden with tackle, we would carry the bait bucket between us, trying to keep in step while the thin wire handle bit into our fingers.
We first discovered our "hotspot" by just walking until we were on the point of collapse. There was a long reed bed, through which fishing was virtually impossible, followed by a clear stretch of about a hundred yards that somehow looked a bit stark and uninteresting, but beyond that the reed beds began again with just one or two gaps; just sufficient for a couple of people to spread out the usual motley collection of rods. Beyond that, the reeds continued almost uninterrupted to Downham Bridge. We were later to find out that we had accidentally stumbled upon one of the major Relief Channel hotspots, jealously guarded and fished by many of the well-known predator anglers of that period.
Graham had two Bruce & Walker MkIV SU's apart from the other nineteen rods he would put out, so was always able to use the more selective half mackerel. I was limited to lighter baits on my eleven foot mongrel Avons, so on one rod I usually launched a small deadbait on size 10 trebles as far as I could cast it, and a larger livebait about twenty yards out on the second. We were always plagued by strange indications on the long distance rods. Sometimes we would get false bites due to the drag, but sometimes the Fairy Liquid bottle top would go up and down a few times, pull the line out of the elastic band on the rod butt, and then stop.
On one occasion I decided to hover over the rod and strike at the next of these twitches. I made contact, and after a slow, ponderous fight, reeled in a stone dead zander of about four pounds, hooked in the mouth! I never was able to work that one out. On another occasion I had one of about the same weight, although alive this time, that must have taken the bait the instant it hit the surface in about fifteen feet of water. I knew something was wrong when I kept trying to pull off some slack line for the weighted bottle top, and it repeatedly insisted on pulling back.
The Avon rods I had bought off Pete were a little bit on the soft side, and the only way I had any chance of making contact to a take on the so-called long chuck rod, was to tighten up as much as possible, then run with the rod up the sloping bank behind me. This caused much amusement of course, which only encouraged me to exaggerate even more. On one occasion I picked the rod as if in response to a run, then ran right up to the top of the steep bank and then down the other side. After missing this so-called "run", I re-appeared feigning outrage and indignation at the unfairness of it all.
One morning in one of the hot swims shortly after dawn, I was reeling in a jack of about two or three pounds when something grabbed it a couple of rod lengths out, then belted off along the rushes with it for several yards before releasing its grip. The small pike was eventually retrieved looking little the worse for its ordeal, but I was left quite shaken by the sudden savagery of the events, as whatever had attacked it was obviously very much larger than anything I had caught before. Graham had already used most of the prime baits on his twenty-seven rods, but there was a chub of about twelve ounces, which was considered a bit too large, but which had been brought along for the ride.
I quickly bit through the line to remove the one and a half ounce bomb, and decided that as I didn't have a float to support such a bait, I would try to fish it freelined. Casting it was out of the question, so I nicked the hooks through as delicately as possible, then with the bail arm open, gave it a gentle under arm lob into the water. Its first response was to try to swim back to shore, but with a bit of gentle pressure on the line, I gradually coaxed it in the right direction. It was quite eerie watching the line slowly trickle out, but then, before it had gone more than a few yards, there was an almighty swirl on the surface, and the line began to flow from the reel with rather more urgency.
Having watched the more experienced pikers in action, I closed the bale arm, waited for the line to tighten to the rod tip, then wound the reel until the rod bent round into a curve. I briefly felt the resistance of a great weight upon the end of the line, then all went slack. The poor, chewed chub swam up to the surface and floundered around in circles. Within seconds the waters opened up again, the luckless chub disappeared into a swirling vortex. I repeated the approved procedure and tightened to the fish, only to see the mortally wounded chub flapping feebly just under the surface.
As I started to reel in, it had travelled just a couple of yards before it happened yet again. There was a brief glimpse of an impossibly long flank, and once again the line was running out between my fingers. The tension and frustration was almost impossible to bear as I tried once again to set the hooks with my underpowered rod. Perhaps my nerves were getting the better of me, because this time I struck to no resistance whatsoever, and I reeled my hooks back in on a slack line. Unbelievably, the chub appeared just under the surface and gave a final flap before being dragged to its doom for the final time.
By early afternoon I was usually starting to flag, and if it was warm for the time of year I would sit back on my Efgeeco Pakaseat and fall into semi-consciousness, while the wasps finished off the remains of the deadbaits which by this time were starting to hum a bit. Occasionally the cry would go out when someone contacted a zander right out of the blue. This was usually on one of the end rods, and on many occasions run would occur in sequence to baits fished further and further along the line, until at the very end, past Graham's thirty fourth rod it would eventually be the turn of one of mine...which I missed.
We always packed in before dark, as it was a long drive home and Graham needed an hour or two to pack his rods away into their thirteen holdalls. In theory, with the bait bucket now empty there should have been more room in the car on the way back, but Peter H in his quilted thermal suit occupied far more space than the same person without it. I could never work out why he always used to keep it on, but it could have been that once wedged into it he needed more energy to release himself than could be mustered up after the long walk back to the car.
We always stopped at the roadside shop at Salter's Lode before starting the main part of the return journey. When I say "we" I really mean "they", as it was physically impossible for me to get out without someone else emptying all the tackle out of the car first.
Once underway, Harv would soon start to overheat, then unzip the front of his suit to release all the unwanted aromas that had previously been safely sealed inside. Combined with the acrid fumes of Players No.6, this poisonous concoction would gradually turn my back seat prison into a portable gas chamber, until half choking and with eyes streaming, I would be reduced to begging for the last remaining dregs from a can of shandy, passed through to me through the gaps between the holdalls.
When I was eventually dropped outside my house I always felt obliged to recite the traditional mantra, possibly from Crabtree, which I repeated every week when getting out of the car: "And so we return; cold, tired and hungry, yet strangely satisfied after yet another life enhancing day at the waterside".
In return, Graham always felt obliged to maintain the tradition of throwing my keepnet high up into the branches of a tree in the front garden before setting off home.
Close-up of my biggest Channel zander, which stubbornly stuck at 9 lbs 15 ozs
The original stocking was of just 97 zander
They emerged from the water at night, laying waste to anything that moved
Vicious, bicycle chain-wielding, punk thugs
Peterborough Specimen Group members
The Electricity Cut - a festering cauldron
Dace, mirror carp, chub, dace, eels, perch, roach, seahorses and sausages - all highly sought-after as zander baits
High-tech 1970s bite indicators
manually-tuned radio bounced around on
Let It Grow seemed to be played on a loop
The late Pete Harvey in favourite mode
The immaculate finish of a new Bruce & Walker, which Graham immediately sanded off, removed the whippings, then painted matt khaki
The late Ray Webb - he was an unusual man
Efgeeco Pakaseat, known more
Jeremy Wade holds a Relief Channel zander