Predator fishing at Grafham

John Mees

David Jones

John Mees is from Birmingham, where he was born in 1970. No wonder he is so youthful, he is four years younger than Grafham! He soon caught his first fish from the local canal that set him on his way to deciding to be involved in some way with fishing when he had to earn a crust. He lived close to Packington and spent two years doing an apprenticeship there before moving on the agricultural College to obtain a degree in fish farming and fishery management. A short spell on the buildings was followed by a spell at Pitsford. He arrived at Grafham in 1997 and in 1999 was appointed Senior Warden. I donít know if he doesnít like trout fishing but he seems to have spent most of his time trying to catch the predators in Grafham. There are three species - Pike, Perch, and Zander - apart from Trout, for who can deny that trout lack a cannibalistic instinct? Johnís talk was mainly about Zander.

There used to be dozens and dozens of tiny pike (and I mean about 10cm in length) around the shore and a suitable imitation was sure to tempt the odd brownie. Indeed some big pike were caught when the fishery was finally opened to predator fishing but nowadays they seem to be a rarity even for the specialist angler. OK, so a 39 pounder was captured in 1999! Certainly nothing like the results that have been achieved at Chew this season where at least half a dozen greater than 30 pounds have been landed. Similarly there were once thousands of perch. They were supposed to be retained under the fishery rules but I would doubt that many anglers had the heart to clobber these beautiful fish. They all succumbed to the perch disease, which I think must have been about 25 years ago. I well remember the fish littering the bank often covered in red legions. 

It is now the decade of the Zander. These were originally introduced into the UK in the 19C at the ponds at Woburn Abbey.  A deliberate introduction was made into the Relief Channel, by the Great Ouse River Board in 1963, which subsequently spread through most of the Ouse system. Hence it is of no surprise that they should have been pumped into Grafham where they have now been established for at least a decade. 

John first caught a Zander in the bowl of the dam in 1999. He went on to catch about 200 in the 2000 season but only 30-40 last year. He attributes this not to a lack of Zander but his increasing passion for golf! The North Tower was revealed as the hot spot. It is the source of raw river water (95% of the reservoir is filled through the Tower) and as such introduces lots of natural food including fish which must surely be pretty stunned considering they were carried along with water flowing at the rate of 1200 litres per second. The concrete inlet pipe is 5 feet in diameter and mounted on supports, which raise it about 3 feet off the bed. Although it is shown as a straight construction radiating from the dam on the Grafham map, it does in fact bow outwards from G buoy and deflects a little into Church Bay. It is possible to pick it up with a decent echo sounder. The pipe has been silted over on its northerly flank leaving a steep drop off and often an undercut shelf. It is there that the Zander lurk. The depth of water at the tower at high tide is 37.5 feet. There are 9 gate valves with wheel handles, draped with lines and anchor ropes! At the base of the tower there are four outlets, which can control the direction in which the water is allowed to enter. It is usually directed towards the dam and can be traced as up wellings on the surface and it also causes an undertow back to R marker (Savages).

John has dived around the tower. Even at 35 feet the water can be relatively clear but of inadequate transparency to allow much weed to grow. The layer of ferric sulphate, which once polluted the reservoir, has now been "neutralised" by a layer of silt. The natural circulation in the reservoir means that it takes about 2-3 years for water entering to leave. There is now a directive to increase the rate of turnover. The cascade will be operated several times a year, which will cost AW another £60k pa on their electricity bill. Apparently this is a spectacular sight as might be expected of a fountain spewing forth at 5000 litres per second. The boil at marker I (inlet), which originally performed this function, has not been run for years but the reason for this was not disclosed. It's them up there that decides!  The Zander live under the inlet pipe, usually in packs containing similar sized fish. The bigger Zander and correspondingly smaller packs live closest to the Tower.  Zander are inquisitive fish. They feed in subdued light. They shoal up in groups containing similarly sized fish. There are a lot of small fish (~ĺlbs) in the bowl of the dam. Note however that the three biggest Zander have come from Savages Creek area. 

Trolling or should I say drifting is the only reliable way to catch Zander according to John. They donít like light and feed almost exclusively near the bottom. Consequently he uses about 100 yards of Magnum 200D leaded level line. This is a Cortland product retailing at £60 for a 500ft spool. It doesnít feature in any of my catalogues but presumably it may be available at the lodge tackle shop. Some thought the length of line was excessive but as John pointed out, the whole length would only be used in very windy (white horses) weather. 10 yards of this line was the equivalent to a fly line weight of ASTM 13 and 20 yards about 16 ASTM. A suitable rod, which needs plenty of backbone, can be obtained from Steve Parton. When boat fishing, there is not much casting involved. The line is just chucked out the back, the boat drifts down wind (no drogue), ors strapped to the side, and the line let out. Apparently it is possible to feel the line bumping the bottom if too much line is let out. Obviously it is necessary to start the drift several hundred yards up wind of the Tower to enable to lure to fish at the required depth along the hot spot. The idea is to fish the undercut. A fairly beefy reel is needed to hold the line and backing and achieve a reasonable retrieve rate in the event of a take. A standard nylon leader about 15 to 20 feet in length is used but as Zander seem to dislike wire traces, the final foot is made up of "Mason" hard nylon. 30 pound breaking strain stuff, which at 0.028" in diameter is good enough for marlin, and has not failed when catching Zander. 

"Flies" are attached via a loop type knot (a combination of an overhand knot and a blood knot) in order to ensure mobility in the water. Waggies feature a rubber tail and a natural deer's hair ruff a la Muddler. Wiggle bugs are generally white with a bit of orange in the tail. They have a back of Plasterzote foam carefully tailored so they have near neutral density but hang slightly head down in the water. The foam overhangs the eye forming a lip, rather like the scoop on a plug. The idea is to get them to bump along the bottom without picking up debris. Hook sizes of up to 6/0 are used. Aberdeen's with straight or upturned eyes are preferred. None of these lures seem to attract trout (they prefer tube flies). Zander have hard bony mouths and it is difficult to set a hook properly. 

Takes are often nips - follow - nips - follow affairs which might extend over 400 metres of a drift. This could be related to the claim that Zander kill their prey first and then eat it. Delay striking until something definite happens - even then it can feel like pulling into weed. The fish fight well whilst deep and then tend to aerialise spectacularly when near the surface. The fish eat very well, and have a texture rather like cod with large white flaky chunks separating from the bones. The rules allow the taking of a single fish for the pot. Zander have relatively small mouths and there is little evidence that they take trout. Bream are the preferred fodder according to the results of autopsies.

The largest fish so far from Grafham is a 12lb 6 oz beauty. The British record is 19lb.12oz and the estimated life span is 20 years.  An 8lb Grafham fish was 4 years old. Expect a new record in the not too distant future. 

And what of the other predators? Perch are to found around mid-water at the Tower and fall to black and green lures. Fish of up to 4lbs can be expected. Pike were said to be solitary fish. A good spot to explore for the larger fish is a deeper spoon-shaped crater some 70 metre SSW of the tower in line with the harbour. Experience suggests that only the smaller pike (~10lbs) are found close to the Tower. 

Finally John was recently described as "the finest ever (warden)". Anyone who has been involved in the creation of Wyndham's Way will echo these thoughts and recognise the sterling work put in by him and the fisheries team in helping to create this access around the sludge area. Well done. I hope we donít lose you entirely to golf!

David Jones. 24/02/2002

Further info on predator fishing can be found on the World Wide Web.

and Coch-y-Bonddu Books, who list publications specifically on Zander by Rickards and Fickling, Steve Younger, and Mark White.