A FEW YEARS AGO I could have described the distribution of perch by saying that they occurred, often in hordes, in almost every gravel pit, clay pit, pond, pool, lake, lough or river in these islands. However, as I explained in the introduction, some areas have suffered a severe depletion of the species, so it is perhaps as well to name these areas first. My attention was particularly drawn to the perch disease problem by anglers fishing the London reservoirs. They reported a rapid decline in the quality of fishing which they had, in fact, enjoyed for decades.
For example, on some waters a catch of a dozen or more perch over the 1 lb. mark was commonplace, but over a period of a year or so the sport declined to such an extent that one perch over 1 lb. weight in several weekends’ fishing was something to be remarked upon. In some cases considerable mortality of perch was observed, and in others numbers of fish were seen covered in fungus (probably a secondary infection). But in other waters the perch just ‘disappeared’ and these were the cases which inspired some people to say that anglers were just not fishing properly.
Fish can go ‘off on a water for a season or two, only to reappear in numbers later on: the roach have done this in many waters during the last few years. With the perch ‘disappearance’ it was something more sinister, however, for netting often showed a total absence of the species. Another point is that dead perch usually sink and stay sunk, and Richard Walker, reviewing the perch disease problem in the Angling Times recently, reported that upon retrieving the anchor rope at Grafham Water he found no less than 20 perch dead and trapped in the Canadian pondweed.
It should be remembered that while many waters in London and the southeast, and in East Anglia, suffered a decline of perch stocks, others were quite unaffected. In my own neighbourhood of Cambridge there are several pits where the perch fishing is. if anything, better than in the past. Presumably these waters were isolated enough and not fished often enough to harbour the disease. In one tiny pit, some 35 yards across, Laurie Manns and I had over 100 lb. of perch between 6 oz. and 1 lb. in three mornings’ fishing, during the autumn of 1971. We’ve had many good catches there since, with no signs of declining sport or diseased fish.
Other parts of the country also reported declining perch sport but to a much lesser degree: just a sprinkling of waters in each region seemed to be affected, and some of these reports were probably false alarms. By the autumn of 1973 there were increasing signs that the main crisis in the south and east was over, and Eric Birch, the famous fishery consultant reported in Angling Times (Oct. 4th, 1973) that the signs all over the country indicated that perch stocks were recovering with great rapidity. Incidentally he predicts a whole spate of specimen fish catches during the next few years, so this postis timely, I hope. Less happily he feels that this period of joy will be followed by one of over-breeding of the perch resulting in considerable stunting in populations of perch: perhaps the full circle will be made and disease come again?
But perch are widely distributed in this country and do occur in Scotland in spite of the claim of Holcik, Mihalik and Maly (1968) that they do not! Anybody who visits Scotland, even as irregularly as I do, will have caught numerous perch up to the 1 lb. mark on Loch Lomond if not on other lochs and rivers. It is interesting, however, that although the average size of perch caught in Scotland is probably higher than those caught in England, in my case 12 oz. as opposed to 6oz. there seem to be fewer big fish reported. It may be, of course, that the perch is less often fished for in Scotland than elsewhere.
On the other hand, a not dissimilar situation exists in Ireland, a country which is a paradise for most species of freshwater fish. I have caught hundreds of perch, both in Eire and in Northern Ireland, averaging perhaps 8 oz., but it is unusual to see a fish over one pound. I do remember a four pounder being caught in the Royal Canal near Dublin, and friends and I located a shoal of sizeable perch on Lough Ree near Athlone, but by and large Ireland as a whole does not seem to offer good quality perch angling. Once again, however, there must be a nagging doubt as to how much fishing is actually done for Irish perch. I have examined the specimen fish reports of the Inland Fisheries Trust from the years 1958-1973, excluding only 1968 and 1969 for which I have no information. In that time only three perch over three pounds have been claimed. These were as follows: 1964: 3 lbs. 2 oz., Long Lough, Co. Down, which fell to a Colorado spoon. 1967: 3 lbs. 2 oz., Loughrea Lake, on a Mepps. 1970:3 lbs. 1 oz., River Erne, on a worm.
Even though the official record for Eire is 5i lbs., taken many years ago, the qualifying weight of 3 lb. for a specimen claim seems rather unrealistic.
Coming across to England and Wales now, there are certainly some areas which stand out as excellent regions for quality perch fishing. I have already mentioned Alan Southern’s excellent results in the Cheshire Meres, and it seems that this part of the country really does provide consistently good sport with perch. But my impression from reading the literature over the years is that a considerable amount of skill is needed in successfully fishing many of the meres. It has been suggested that many of these waters have a fractionally higher salt content than say, the waters of the Midlands or the southeast and that this is beneficial to perch growth. Probably there is some truth in this, because underlying Cheshire are the Triassic rocks with an extremely high salt content although the salt need not be the ordinary table salt or sodium chloride. It is true also that some of the best perch fisheries in the Norfolk Broads have a higher salt content than many more inland waters.
North from Cheshire there are excellent perch fisheries in the Lake District particularly Lake Windermere. Here the fishing seems to be somewhat easier but perhaps the average weight of perch caught is less than in Cheshire. A great deal of research has been carried out on Windermere by Dr. Winifred Frost of the Freshwater Biological Association Station, and it was shown, I believe, that when extensive removal of pike was carried out the perch population increased but the average size fell. In spite of, or perhaps because of, various experiments carried out here, there is always a chance of a really good three pound perch.
There are, of course, many other rivers and lakes in the region which also produce quality perch, and I have even seen shoals of perch in the relatively barren highland streams normally occupied only by small brown trout. Holcik et al. (1968) claim that perch will not breed in such waters, but as I explained earlier perch do not actually need weedbeds upon which to lay their eggs, while the water temperature of the stream can hardly be very much lower than that in spring-fed southern chalk streams where perch would thrive if they were allowed to.
Yorkshire and the northeast provide good perch fishing – usually in isolated stillwaters. Malham Tarn on limestone country and Brandesburton Lakes on the Pleistocene gravel deposists near Hull immediately spring to mind. The rivers of Yorkshire such as the Ouse, Derwent and the Hull all offer localised perch fishing of good average quality with the occasional big fish being caught as well, but a three pounder would be a most unusual catch. The lake where I caught my first perch actually produces fish up to 3i lbs. and is typical of many such small, isolated clay and gravel pits which would repay the attention of the exploring angler.
I have already mentioned Cambridgeshire, the Great Ouse and the Fens, while Norfolk and its Broadland region is nationally famous for its perch fishing; but it has become most noticeable that during the last decade the county of Essex is producing more than its fair share of three pound-plus perch. Many of them are taken in small gravel pits, as well as larger fisheries, often run by a small village club. For the angler intent on contacting big perch in these areas it is a question of searching and following the angling journals and newspapers, and then of enquiring from the local club secretaries who are, as a general rule, most helpful.
Many waters south of the Thames and in the West Country also produce good perch fishing, but naturally it is not possible to go into all of these here. Suffice it to say that Kent, noted as a big carp county, also yiolds some very large pfcrch from time to time, whilst the county of Dorset produces some excellent river perch.
Apart from geographical distribution which I have dealt with at some length, there is the question of the type of water most likely to yield either big perch or good perch fishing. I intend tackling the water type with reference to specific cases and angling techniques in later posts, but it is extremely difficult to generalise. Thus large limestone lakes such as Malham Tarn may yield numerous and big perch, or they may not (Lough Ree).
On the other hand waters which contain a good head of sizeable perch and which continue to provide first class sport over a decade or more, do tend to be large rather than small, e.g. Southill Park in Bedfordshire, Oulton Broad in Norfolk, whereas smaller gravel or clay pits may have excellent perch fishing for a couple of seasons or so before they become fished out.
In the last type of water what happens is that after a good initial growth phase the perch reach a large size, but are perhaps small in numbers, at which stage they are discovered by some enterprising local clubman. Thereafter follows a brief spate of spectacular catches before the shoals are dissipated or destroyed. It is common to find that within 10 years the water recovers to a considerable degree and good perch may be taken again. Such waters should be fished carefully, the fish handled well, and with the minimum of publicity involved.
Clearly, therefore, most regions of the British Isles will provide reasonable perch fishing for the enterprising angler, while a number of areas will yield big fish in waters both small and large to the angler prepared to follow the clues in the angling press, or better still search out his own gravel pits and lakes.