Fishing for Predatory fish in the UK
Our freshwater predatory species can be divided into two categories "game" and "coarse": game fish are salmonids - the Atlantic salmon, brown trout, sea trout (anadromous brown trout) and rainbow trout (introduced steelhead from North America ); then our coarse fish: pike (northern pike in North America), perch (very similar to yellow perch), zander (closely related, and very similar to, walleye), chub (Leuciscus cephalus, an omnivorous rather than strictly predatory member of the carp family, no close North American equivalent), Danube catfish (Siluris glanis, introduced from mainland Europe) and the eel. This introduction will only describe the coarse species.
We have no muskies, freshwater bass, crappies or bluegill. Any mention of bass refers to the sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) which frequent UK coastal waters in the warmer months, these bass are highly prized.
The aforementioned "game" and "coarse" distinction is a historical one, and rooted in the British class system. It sounds all too ridiculous in the 21st century that such distinctions should still exist, but they do. The game fish were highly valued for their sporting and culinary qualities, thus landowners - the wealthy and aristocratic a century or two ago - controlled the fishing for these species. Good quality salmon fishing is very expensive, a week on a prime Scottish river might cost several thousand pounds, and low grade local salmon fishing is not cheap, even with relatively few fish running. Trout fishing on a chalk stream for native brownies is also expensive and strictly fly-only. There are many water-supply reservoirs that are stocked with brown and rainbow trout and available on a day-ticket, they are restricted to fly-only fishing, and stocking levels are usually good, so everyone has a good chance of catching a few.
The coarse fish are those other species that were left for the commoners, usually not such good eating, and too abundant to have any exclusivity value. These include a lot of cyprinid species that predator anglers might consider only in the context of preyfish or bait for the pike - the top native predator.
The relationship between the game and coarse angling fraternity is not completely straightforward, and it is changing. Many of the best game waters contain big stocks of naturally-occurring coarse fish. Coarse anglers are not allowed to fish for them using the traditional methods for those species, mainly because the game fish would also be caught on those methods - and usually in much greater numbers than would be the case with the fly tackle that the game anglers use. Over the years many tons of prime coarse fish have been netted from the game waters and sometimes used to stock coarse waters but often simply destroyed, a waste of a resource that has justifiably invited animosity from coarse anglers.
From the predator angler's perspective the key coarse species is the pike, they grow fat and big in the game reservoirs and rivers. A few very big pike reputed to be larger than the current UK record have been netted from some of the reservoirs. Until fairly recently there has been no pike fishing allowed on these reservoirs, but things have changed, and are changing ever faster as the managements of these prime waters realise that they have a source of winter revenue - when trout fishermen are not on the water - from pike anglers who are prepared to pay premium prices (more than the trout anglers) for a chance to catch a monster pike. The current UK record pike weighing 46lb13oz was caught in 1992 from Llandegfedd Reservoir, one of the very first trout waters to see the potential to make a profit from the pike that had previously been viewed as a nuisance and predator on their trout stocks. The pike fishing with lures and fish baits is still very restricted, usually to the winter, for a fortnight perhaps but some anglers have realised that pike can be caught on suitable fly tackle, and some of the trout anglers themselves are now seeing the pike in a different light, as a worthwhile sporting target. This is leading to a gradual breakdown in the barriers between game and coarse anglers, but it is a slow process and there is a long way to go. For more information about the pike and pike conservation issues in the UK visit The Pike Anglers Club of Great Britain website.
Anglers who fish for coarse predators are in a minority in the UK, by far the most popular fish is the carp (Cyprinus carpio), popular amongst specimen hunters who seek the very largest fish, or match anglers who compete to get the biggest weight of fish in a "match". A match will usually last around 5 hours, the anglers fish from the bank and draw tickets to be given their fishing spot (their "peg"). They can use one rod or pole at a time but will have several others set up ready to switch tactics, the basic tackle will be very fine line and small hooks to tempt the most bites, the fish are retained in a keepnet and weighed at the end of the match, total weight is all, the individual weight or length of each fish is irrelevant. All the fish are returned to the water after weighing, this results in fish that get a little wiser and harder to catch as the years go by, some fish get caught many dozens of times in their lives, this is why the fine line and small hooks are so important. In recent years more and more matches are taking place on stillwaters specially dug and stocked for the purpose, rivers are becoming less popular for matches for several reasons. Firstly rivers are "peggy" the same spot produces fish week after week and year after year, this results in the drawing of the peg number being the most important part of the day, any competent angler will win from the good spot. Then fish populations have changed in rivers over the last thirty years as they have become cleaner, with ever-tighter pollution control and improved effluent treatment, this results in fewer but larger fish as the fish grow older unaffected by the build-up of toxic chemicals as they age. Another key factor is the level of stocking in the artificial match lakes, everyone will catch fish, and even quite unskilled anglers will fill keepnets with hungry fish. River fishing is tougher and more rewarding if fishing for fun but not if you are competing for money.
There is no equivalent competitive scene for predatory coarse fish although fly fishing competitions for trout are common on the reservoirs. Predatory fish other than perch are not stocked into the match waters. On rivers and natural lakes pike are often viewed with considerable hostility by match anglers, not only because of the general "the pike have eaten all the fish" complaint on a hard day, but because the pike often take fish that are being landed by the matchmen. Having got the fish feeding well by the introduction of loosefeed and groundbait it is very frustrating to have a pike come into the area and scatter the target fish. Often pike are not allowed to be weighed in at matches, and fish bait or lures are illegal methods in matches anyway, so the pike are just hated and unvalued.
Now to fishing for predators in the UK. Look at a map of the UK and you will not see many large lakes apart from in the Lake District (Cumbria) or Scotland, all these are some way from most major centres of poulation so the majority of us fish smaller waters that are local to our homes. These local waters might be rivers, or canals (narrow man-made waterways originally built a couple of hundred years or more ago for cargo transport, before the first railways), gravel pits (where gravel extraction workings has left flooded pits, now very natural-looking), estate lakes (small dammed stream valleys built to provide ornamental landscapes on country estates, often constructed in the 17th/18th centuries), water-supply reservoirs, or drains (artificial shallow waterways built to drain agricultural land in low-lying areas).
One notable difference between anglers in the UK and those in North America is how few anglers over here use boats for our fishing. There are several reasons for this:- many waters simply do not allow the use of boats, many waters are too small for there to be much advantage in getting afloat, there are no boat launch facilities on most waters, many anglers living in towns and cities have nowhere to keep a boat, and historically the coarse angler was a poor man - it is only in the past couple of decades or so that our standard of living has risen sharply, and disposable income has become available for luxury items like boats. Much of the information you might read on UK websites will assume that you are fishing from the bank (= the shore), only the keenest predator anglers will own a boat and regularly fish from it unless they live in the Lake District or Scotland where a boat is esential for tackling such large waters.
The majority of anglers fishing for predators use dead or live bait, fishing with lures is still a minority interest although more and more pike anglers are using them. One of the reasons for this is that the trout reservoirs that allow piking do not allow the use of live bait, and deadbaits seem to be unsuccessful in those waters. The gradual increase in the use of boats also plays a part here, casting lures from the bank is hard work because of carrying the lures around and they tend to get snagged up and lost with no hope of retrieval, whereas from a boat there are various means at your disposal to recover a stuck lure. Lures (and just about everything else) are a lot more expesive in the UK than they are in the U.S.A., the price in US dollars is usally matched or exceeded in pounds sterling, meaning at least a 40% higher price, sometimes much more. The cost of lures certainly reduces the number of anglers using them, and further restricts those who do from using as many as they might and getting the best from them.
So if you see a pike angler as you walk around the bank of a lake he will usually have 3 rods set up in rests with electronic bite alarms and open bale arms on his fixed spool reels, his baits will usually be small (5" to 10") dead sea fish - mackerel, sardine, smelt, or something similar. This angler will usually be sat (or lying down) on a bed chair under a portable shelter called a "bivvy". He will have a camping stove and enough food and water to see him through the day or maybe into the next day if he is staying overnight. On most waters we all think that a double (a pike of 10lbs+) is a worthwhile fish, and a "twenty" a very good fish, many pike anglers would be pleased if they managed a twenty every season, whilst a few would think they had failed if they didn't get ten of them. It depends largely on the waters being fished and the amount of time available to keep the baits in the water. An experienced angler on a trout water might have his sights set a little higher than this with the real chance of a "thirty" to keep the lures flying!
Zander were introduced into a drain in East Anglia in the 1960s, they thrived, and between their own urge to travel and a little illegal help from anglers they have spread across the canals and rivers of the Midlands, although they are still commonest in East Anglia. Many pike anglers encounter the odd one, but to catch them consistently requires some refinement of tackle. Most zander specialists use small (3" to 6") freshwater fish as bait, usually live, and they fish mostly at night. Some are caught on lures but are very few anglers who would claim to be a real expert in this aspect of catching zander. The current UK record is for a fish of over 21lbs, and a double is a very nice fish.
Perch are very common, very few waters have no perch at all, and they are easily caught on the standard fine-line/small-hook/maggot-bait approach used by many casual anglers. They are caught regularly on lures, but their small size - 1lb+ is good, 2lb exceptional and 3lb+ very special - mean that few specialists target them, they often make up a mixed bag with pike if using small lures. The perch record is 5lb9oz, caught in 1935.
Chub are not generally considered to be a predatory species and very few, if any, anglers would regularly pursue them with fish baits, but for the lure angler on a river they are good sport, 2-3lb fish are common enough with an occasional 4lb+ fish. Again they often make up a mixed bag with pike and perch. They are widespread and abundant in the faster-flowing rivers of England. They are stocked into lakes sometimes and the biggest fish of recent years have tended to come from these waters, they sometimes take dead sea fish intended for pike, and a few anglers have caught them deliberately with scaled-down pike tackle from these waters.
Danube catfish have been introduced into many stillwaters in the southern half of England, it is only a matter of time before illegal introductions see them in our rivers, although they do not breed successfully every year or in every water. They grow big, with fish over 30lbs not exceptional, in the warmer waters of southern Europe they might reach ten times that weight! They are still very much of a minority interest in the UK, but as they spread they will gain followers. Nearly all of them are caught with baits, usually small fish, there is no deliberate lurefishing for them as far as I know, but one of just under 40lbs was landed in the summer of 2001 by a pike angler using an Odyssey Pig jerkbait! Many catfish anglers are more used to carp, rather than predator fishing and are unhappy about the use of treble hooks, so lure fishing is often banned on the best waters.
Eels have a small but devoted band of admirers but they are widely despised for their habit of swallowing bait and wrapping themselves around everything when landed, leaving a good coating of smelly slime on everything they touch. Many casual anglers encounter eels by accident, often small ones - these are the most trouble! They are common in all waters, even tiny ditches will hold them if they have permanent water. Best baits are small (2" to 4") dead freshwater fish, or worms (crawlers) and they are only very rarely caught on lures. An eel over 2lb is a good one but the British record is 11lb2oz.
Nearly all predator anglers in the UK would return the fish to the water but a very small number of pike and rather more zander are taken for the table. Perch are supposed to be good to eat, and chub almost inedible to a modern palate, I've no information about the culinary value of catfish, I cannot imagine anyone eating one. Up until the 1950s many more coarse fish were eaten by working-class families, my father ate chub, roach and perch he caught as a teenager in the 1920s, and most prized of all was the eel, still the coarse fish most likely to end up on the table, they taste nice and are very nutricious. In contrast, only a relatively small minority of game anglers return their catch, although it is slowly beginning to dawn on the salmon anglers that if they take every fish they damage the future of their own sport. On most rivers there are now restrictions on taking salmon and stocks do seem to be recovering well.
We are facing threats to angling, from outside bodies, on animal welfare grounds. At present relatively few of the general public are too worried about fish, but a ban on fox-hunting from 2005 means we can take nothing for granted. Anglers have a good defence in that they are the only people who pay to conserve fish, but that cuts little ice with the anti-anglers. More worrying perhaps are the number of anglers who would happily see bans and restrictions imposed upon branches of the sport in which they do not participate, the use of live bait is the most frequent cause of disagreement, but other topics get a regular airing, like barbs on hooks, or hook sizes on lures. Even within the ranks of predator anglers there are vociferous factions championing their pet causes.
Predator angling is thriving despite these small diversions, and the advent of the internet has allowed us to learn from all over the world, the biggest impact has been from North American sources. For instance, muskie techniques using large lures and jerkbaits with heavy baitcasting gear has become very popular, because these techniques work well for big pike, and are almost essential on big waters. Techniques for walleye and bass have also been copied and modified to suit British conditions, both for pike and for zander. There is a certain amount of envy about the number of predatory species available to the north American angler, and some attempts have been made to apply lure techniques to other British species, the occasional captures of these other species have not so-far led to any breakthrough in this respect, and I would be very surprised if there was much scope for expanding the number of species regularly caught on lures beyond those we already have.
The future does seem reasonably bright, increased access to waters and the downward pressure on lure and tackle prices due to internet competition bode well for the future of our sport, offering an optimistic counterbalance to the constant worry about the pressure on too few waters from too many anglers in this overcrowded land.
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