Bleak are a small freshwater fish found through Europe and parts of Asia. They can be found in very large shoals and match fisherman will know that tens or even hundreds can be caught in one session!
Bleak are a freshwater species of the Cyprinidae family. This family can be found in most of our freshwaters and includes the bleak’s cousins barbel, gudgeon, roach and carp. Bleak were nicknamed “willowblades” which is an old fashioned name for them. In the UK they are simply known as “bleak”.
Bleak are known to form hybrids with chub in some areas. The hybrids tend to take on more characteristics of the bleak parents. They would be very hard to identify if one was caught but it is likely to be larger than the average bleak.
Bleak are edible but they are said to be very bony. They were historically widely consumed by populations whom live alongside freshwater areas which bleak inhabit.
Bleak were even preserved in salt in order to sell further afield and to last for longer periods. There were even large commercial fishing operations on larger lakes across Europe such as Lake Garda where tonnes of bleak were fished for food.
In the UK, bleak do not seem to have been a popular eating fish. In Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler” in 1653 he stated that “And doubtless, though we have the fortune, which virtue has in poor people, to be neglected, yet the Bleak ought to be much more valued, though we want Allamot salt, and the skill the Italians have, to turn them into anchovies”.
Bleak had an important commercial purpose which is relatively unknown today. The scales of bleak are removed easily and contain a crystalline known as “guanine”.
In 1656 in Paris, it was discovered by a certain Mr Jaquin that guanine could be used as “essence d’Orient” or “pearl essence” effect which could be used as a coating for artificial pearls. There are still modern uses for guanine, including as a use in metallic paints and make-up such as eye shadows and nail polish.
Bleak have several predators due to their size and many predators such as the northern pike will actively hunt bleak. They are also targeted by trout and perch which sometimes try to disperse the shoal, causing the bleak to jump out of the water. Water birds will also target bleak.
Distribution and Habitat
Bleak are widespread across Europe and parts of Asia. They can be found in northern Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Russia and Sweden, as far east as Iran and Turkey, as far west as the UK and France and as far south as Slovakia, Greece and the south of France.
Bleak are non-native to warmer Southern European countries such as Spain, Italy and Portugal. They are also naturally non-native to Ireland. There is inconclusive evidence whether bleak are native to Norway or were introduced.
Bleak have been introduced to several countries. They were discovered in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in the 1990s where they have rapidly reproduced.
They have also been introduced to Cyprus and Italy, probably for use as angling (perhaps as a bait fish for predators) and sport. As they rapidly reproduce their large shoals can actually edge out other species so they are considered invasive. Bleak are highly mobile and could spread further afield once introduced.
Bleak inhabit slow moving waters such as rivers, streams and canals which cross with rivers. Bleak also inhabit stillwaters such as lakes, ponds and reservoirs.
They live in large shoals near to the surface of the water where they feed. They seem to prefer larger open waters where there is likely to be less predators. They will seek out areas where food build up such as behind weirs.
Bleak have slender and elongated bodies. They have flat bodies when looked at head on. They have relatively small, pointed heads but have very big eyes which are yellow in colour. Bleak have long lower jaws which protrude which suits their feeding habits as feeding near the surface.
The fins of bleak are a translucent grey colour, however they are large for a fish this size which probably contributes to their quick speed. They have forked caudal fins. Their scales are large and delicate.
Bleak are a green or blue colour on their backs, bright silver on their flanks and have creamy white bellies.
Bleak can sometimes be confused with the juvenile varieties of other Cyprinidae species such as bream. They can always be distinguished by their large protruding lower jaws.
Bleak are a tiny species but what they lack in size they make up for in quantity. There can be shoals with literally hundreds of these in a single area.
The average length of bleak is between 3 to 6 inches (7.5 to 15cm). Larger specimens have been recorded up to 25cm, however this is the exception rather than the norm. The lateral line scale count is 46 – 55.
Bleak achieve an average weight of 1 to 2 ounces (approximately 0.025 to 0.05kg). Any fish above 60 grams is thought to be a specimen. The British record for bleak stands at 4oz 9dms.
Bleak are not a long lived species and will only grow from 3 to 5 years of age.
How they Feed
Bleak are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders. They will search out an area where there is food and will devour it before moving on.
Bleak will search for food in their large shoals. They are very active and live close to the surface. They will eat insects which are on the surface and which sink below. They will jump out of the water to consume the insects.
They are also known to eat insect larvae, aqauatic worms, small crustaceans, small molluscs and aquatic vegetation. Known foods include midges, may-fly larvae, bloodworm and caddis-fly.
Izaak Walton in “The Compleat Angler” of 1653 commented that,
“There is also a bleak or fresh-water sprat; a fish that is ever in motion, and therefore called by some the river swallow; for just as you shall observe the swallow to be, most evenings in summer, ever in motion, making short and quick turns when he flies to catch flies, in the air, by which he lives; so does the Bleak at the top of the water”.
Bleak reach sexual maturity between the ages of 2 to 3 years of age. Spawning begins when the water temperature reaches between 12 and 15 degrees Celsius. This is usually between the months of April to June in the UK.
Bleak spawn in shallow areas of lakes or rivers above gravel or sometimes aquatic weeds. The females will lay their sticky and adhesive eggs which will attach themselves to the gravel and vegetation.
Once the females lay their eggs, the males will race to intercept and fertilise them. The eggs usually take between 10 to 14 days to hatch, however this is dependent on the quality of the water and the temperature.
Female bleak can lay between 1500 and 15,000 eggs. The juvenile bleak grow rapidly and reach up to half of their adult size within the first year of their lives. The juveniles will form shoals quickly with other bleak and sometimes other member of the Cyprinidae family but will form shoals of bleak only as they age.
Bleak will spawn two to three times each season at intervals of one to two weeks. Spawning usually occurs in the early morning.
How to Catch
Bleak are unlikely to be a target for many anglers due to their size. They will have a following amongst match anglers who can catch tens or even hundreds in one session to submit a good weight. They are also likely to be targeted by predator anglers as bleak could be used as livebait or deadbait for pike or large perch.
Bleak would be a good way to introduce new or young anglers into fishing as they are small, common and where you find one you tend to find more.
Bleak will be found in the shallows so target areas with shallower water. Another good tip would be to fish around areas where insects are likely to fall on the water such as under an overhanging tree (you may even see them jump out of the water to get them).
Other good areas include places where there is likely to be a good build up of food such as behind weirs as the shoals will gather in these locations.
In terms of bait, bleak will happily oblige by going for maggots and pinkies – always get good wriggling ones to attract the fish. They will also be tempted by casters, chopped worm, brandlings and bread or bread punch. You should be able to find all of these easily in good tackle shops.
In theory, bleak could be caught by fly fishing as this suits their feeding style however we doubt whether this is popular.
It is said that there are shoals so vast that skilled anglers can catch bleak every 15 seconds in a 5 hour long competition (something which we’re sure is music to match anglers’ ears!).
You can fish for bleak using very light tackle with a fine line and a small hook around size 16 depending on your bait. You could use a float rod or whip for this species.
If you are using a float put the shot under the float which will enable the bait to fall through the surface slowly. Try to loose feed small and often to keep the shoal interested and competing.
A very good tip for bleak is to use groundbait. They can be difficult to catch on the surface so using a wet groundbait (popular ones include hemp and maggots) to create a good cloud in the water at the surface.
This serves two purposes – firstly it gives bleak the confidence to feed and secondly it will attract and cause the shoal to compete which again will help the bleak to take your hook bait confidently.
Izaak Walton in “The Compleat Angler” of 1653 gave some guidance on fishing for bleak. He stated
“This fish may be caught with a Pater-noster line; that is, six or eight very small hooks tied along the line, one half a foot above the other: I have seen five caught thus at one time; and the bait has been gentles [maggots], than which none is better. Or this fish may be caught with a fine small artificial fly, which is to be of a very sad brown colour, and very small, and the hook is answerable. There is no better sport than whipping for bleaks in a boat, or on a bank, in the swift water, in a summer’s evening, with a whip hazel top about five or six foot long, and a line twice the length of the rod”.
Bleak are delicate fish and their scales can easily detach so be careful when handling these fish as their scales protect them.
Bleak are small fish, however, so you could lift them out of the water with your line.
As with their cousins the gudgeon, you will need to strike fairly quickly as bleak could swallow their bait. Deep hooking is possible with this species so make sure to have a disgorger on hand in the event that they are deep hooked.
If the hook cannot be removed cut the line as close to the hook as possible. The fish should regurgitate or digest the hook if this happens.
If you would like more information on how to fish for bleak, or would like some further information on angling techniques, check out our fishing tips page for more information!