Fishing for Salmonidae: Whitefish and Char
The whitefishes and the chars are members of the Salmonidae, although they are not recognized anglers’ fishes in the popular sense. Few anglers fish specifically for these species, for reasons which will be outlined below. At the same time, angling is a progressive sport, whose methods and techniques are changing constantly. Pre-war fishing for big carp suffered from lack of suitable technique; fishing for flounders with a baited spoon has advanced from a freak method to something approaching a science. These two examples indicate that a technique suited to the catching of whitefish and char must not be dismissed as impossible. For this reason, some notes on these species may prove useful.
Whitefish Powan, Pollan, Vendace
The Victorian naturalists worked themselves into ecstasies over the whitefishes and divided them into so many sub-species that each lake might have been said to have its own form. Modern naturalists are wiser. They regard living things more as fluid expressions than as rigidly fixed types.
Whitefish are ROACH-like fish that inhabit deep lakes. They are modest in size, rarely exceeding a foot in length, and although related to the salmon family, they look and act more like. They fall into three groups — the powans, the pollans, and the vendace.
The powan (Coregonus clupeoides), which looks rather like a freshwater herring, is found in Loch Lomond and Loch Esk. Like all whitefish, it inhabits deep water and is rarely captured on rod and line, probably because very few anglers present a bait at suitable depth.
The schelly (Coregonus clupeoides stigmaticus) is a variation of the powan and is found in Ullswater and Haweswater. Like the powan it is a deep-water fish and is captured, usually, by accident.
The gwyniad (Coregonus clupeoides pennantii) is the smallest of the powans and is found only in Bala Lake, Merioneth, although occasionally it appears in the River Dee, which drains the lake. After storms, hundreds of small gwyniad are sometimes found dead after being beaten against Bala’s pebble beaches.
The pollans (Coregonus pollan) are the Irish branch of the whitefish family, and are found mostly in Lough Neagh, Lough Erne, and Lough Derg. They are silvery, oily, little fish with blue backs and rather large scales. Their presence in great shoals in the Irish lakes probably accounts for the large size reached by Irish pike, which feed on them.
Pollan too are deep water lovers and of course are adapted White Fish 321 for living under pressure, which means that any fish brought to the surface will have had much of the fight knocked out of it by the rapidly changing pressure. Indeed powans are sometimes found on the surface of Ullswater. They have probably been hunted out of their depth by predators and have become `depressurized’ more quickly than their bodies can stand.
I feel certain that pollan could be caught on a rod if an angler had time to experiment and persist. Fishing into 30 metres (100 ft) of water on Lough Erne I had several nibbles and plucks which I believe were caused by pollan Striking a fish at these depths with the fine line and small hook in use, however, is very hard to time. In the autumn the pollan, like all the whitefishes, seek shallow water for spawning and late summer is the only time an angler I‘ likely to catch them —always assuming they can be caught. Much information about pollan habits and locations could no doubt be gleaned from the professional fishermen who net them in large quantities.
/ There is scope here for enterprise and experiment. It is not suggested that these whitefishes are hard-fighting fish. But to catch an ‘uncatchable’ species in sufficient quantity to prove one’s point would make an interesting achievement.
The vendace (Coregonus vandesius) is found in Scotland and in the Lake District. It is a small herring-like fish and, again, is almost never seen by anglers.
The chars (Salvelinus alpinus), too, provided a field-day for naturalists preoccupied with classification. Nearly a score of British chars have been described, although the small differences between each sort sometimes tax the resources even of professional biologists.
In appearance they may be described as colourful trout-like fish, their scales tinted with shades of pink and yellow. Confined to fairly deep lakes, the present-day British char would seem to be a land-locked form of a species whose ancestors were migratory; a migratory Arctic char indeed still exists. Like all land-locked races of fish the chars seem to have lost the qualities we seek in an angling species. Size and fighting vigour, alas, are absent. Yet it is possible that modem methods of fish-culture might raise the chars much higher in the esteem of anglers.
A foreign char — the American brook ‘trout’ (Salvelinus fontinalis) — has been introduced to Britain but with only limited success. Brook trout/ brown trout hybrids are known as marbelled trout and are perhaps the most gorgeously marked fish of all the Salmonidae.
Chars are found in the deep lakes that geologists associate with the last ice-age. The Lake District, a few lakes in Scotland, the Western Isles, a few Irish lakes, together with four lakes in North Wales — this is the distribution of the char in Britain.
Welsh lakes such as Llyn Cwellyn, near Llanberis, used to be very famous for char and some heavy bags were made. However, comparatively few anglers specialize in these fish, probably because their season is limited, in practice, to late summer. Modern tackle and fine monofil lines may well make deep-water char fishing much more worthwhile.
It seems a great pity to me that this brilliantly coloured member of the salmon tribe should languish in a state of isolation in a few glacial lakes. One can only hope that one day it will be ‘improved’, introduced to new waters, and made a more important member of its distinguished clan. Instead of hurrying to stock our lakes and reservoirs with rainbow trout — which don’t always do well — we might spare a thought for this native species.
Tackle and Fishing Methods
The best type of tackle for both whitefish and char fishing is a subject for experiment. A light cane roach rod fitted with a large-capacityseems the most useful outfit. The reel needs to be loaded with 135 m (150 yds) of 3 kg (6 lb) nylon. The hook links should be of finer nylon. The most useful type of float seems to be a peacock quill, 30 or 35 cm (12 or 14 ins) long, with a small ring whipped to one end. The line-stop I find best is a bit of thin rubber-band secured to the line with a clove-hitch.
When one is fishing in big lakes at these depths there is always a risk of hooking a big lake trout. Provided there is at least 45 m (50 yds) of reserve line on the reel the angler stands a fair chance of landing such fish.
As with whitefish the paramount problem in char fishing is to contact the shoals in the deep water where they live. Deep trolling is sometimes successful. Occasionally, too, char rise to the surface in hot weather and may be taken on ordinary Trout-flies.
September and October are the best months for char. They take a bait keenly when the previous night has held a hint of frost. Like whitefish they leave the deeps at the end of summer and come into the shallows. Worm or maggot is often killing, but the depth at which the bait is fished always presents a problem. An efficient sliding-float is essential if the char are rather deep.
Thoughtful anglers must wonder why the whitefishes and chars are scattered so curiously over the north and west of Britain, while none are found in southern England.
About 14,000 years ago, the great ice-sheet, which had ground its terrible passage almost as far southwards as the Thames, started to melt. The valleys, which had been ripped out of the land-surface by incalculable masses of ice and rock, filled with water. As the ice melted the land rose and in the course of time the lakes became isolated. The whitefishes and chars were probably sea-fish which became land-locked by this process. There is in fact a marine whitefish — the houting — which still ascends rivers to spawn, but it is rare. On this count, therefore, these two species are serious contenders for the title of Britain’s oldest native fish species.