In the 1960s the perch population of Britain became victim to a mysterious disease which was to decimate stocks and lead to really big perch becoming even more rare than in the 1950s when the famous angler Richard Walker wrote: ‘A big perch is the biggest of them all’.
Since then the perch has made a significant comeback, but one which has been more apparent in pits and lakes than in rivers. Nevertheless, while it is not too difficult to find a Stillwater with a good head of 2 lb perch, there are still relatively few waters that hold specimens in excess of 3 lb.
Stable record for the species
To most anglers a perch of llb looks big, and is even considered a welcome nuisance when it takes a bait intended for other species. Any fish between 2 and 3 lb must be considered a specimen, while a fish over 3 lb is exceptional. A four pounder is beyond hope for most of us – the annual number reported in the angling press can be counted on one hand. For many years the perch record stood at 5 lb 15oz, but it was revised in favour of S F Baker’s 1962 Oulton Broad fish of 4lb 12oz. Even this looks like holding the record for many years to come.
Fortunately for the specimen perch hunter, the vast majority of really big perch are caught accidentally by relative novices, keen to get their names in the angling weeklies and perhaps win a prize for their catch. They are quite happy to name the location of the waters as are the News Editors.
So with perch, more than with most other species, regular scanning of the angling press can produce useful leads for tracking down big perch waters.
Let us assume that you have located a big perch water. It will probably be a sand or gravel pit, usually long since worked-out but possibly still in use. Alternatively, it could be one of the old clay or brick pits that are particularly common in the gault clay belts of Bedfordshire – Arlesey lake is a typical example of these deep clear waters and has a history of good sport.
Although many fish of over 5lb have been taken, the record stands at 4 lb 12oz. A perch of over half this weight is a specimen; one of over 3 lb is rare, particularly since the late 1960s when a widespread disease ravaged the species.
Freelining, float-fished minnow or worm, long-range ledgering, link-ledgering, spinning, fly fishing not easy. On a 100-acre pit, finding the fish is a monumental task in itself. However, once the fish have been found in the water, you are more than three-quarters of the way to getting one on the bank.
Part of the difficulty of tracking down big perch arises because they are not a species that go in for a great deal of display, particularly in deep pits like Arlesey. In shallower sand and gravel pits, the chances of seeing perch are much better, but you are only likely to spot them in the first hour or so of daylight in summer and early autumn. Very often they will be in the shallows, chasing fry in the margins and almost grounding themselves in the process. Stalking such fish with a freelined lobworm or a minnow on light float tackle can be great fun.
As you might expect with a mainly predatory fish, perch are generally found in an area of the lake that has a good head of small fish. So keep a regular watch on the fishing routes of fish-eating birds such as crested grebes which will often point you in the right direction.
The shoaling behaviour of perch in Stillwater is different to that ex-perienced in rivers. I have found it rather unusual for bigger Stillwater perch, of l£lb plus, to form big shoals at any time of the year. In-stead they tend to hunt in small packs of four to six. Sometimes they hunt in pairs and occasionally a big Stillwater perch will be solitary. River perch, on the other hand, tend to congregate into biggish shoals of maybe between 20 and 30 fish after the first frost or two.
Autumn and winter sport
Although big perch can be caught throughout the season, most serious perching is done in the autumn and winter. The chances are probably better then for two reasons. First, natural food is on the decline, and second, location becomes a little easier in colder weather, because the fish tend to congregate in the warmer, deeper water.
Autumn, say from September to early November, is a good time to concentrate on areas of intermediate depth in both the pits and lakes. For example, in gravel pits that have an average depth of about 9ft and a maximum of 20ft, look for areas about 14ft deep. If these contain other interesting features like weedbeds, sunken trees or other snags, so much the better.
Leave the deepest holes, say 60-70ft in brick pits, until such time as perch frequent them – which is rarely before January.
Dull days are more productive
Perch appear to be more sensitive to changes in light than most other species. The reasons for this are not well understood, but the pooled ex-periences of many perch specialists indicate that in very deep (40-60ft) Stillwater holes, bright sunny days are most productive, while in shallower pits and rivers, dull over-cast days are preferable.
Big perch tackle is fairly straight-forward. A general purpose 10-1 lft rod, teamed with a fixed-spool reel, is suitable for most Stillwater per-ching; a glassfibre blank with a test curve in the 1-1 lb range is ideal. The action should be on the stiffish side if really long casting is essen-tial, but if you are going to fish gravel pits at reasonably short range, up to 40 yards say, and the water is relatively snag-free, a softer Avon-type rod is more fun to use. On the other hand, if you are going to fish waters of the Arlesey type at long range in the depths of winter, a rod of 11-12ft is best.
Choice of line
Perch are pretty bold fish, rarely tackle shy, so if there are snags, merely play safe and use a line of to 5 lb b.s. Go up to 8 lb if, for example, you intend ‘hauling-out’ a 3 lb perch from the inside of a submerged crane or iron shed. A three-pounder is capable of making short but powerful spurts. In snag-free waters, a 3 lb b.s. Line is a good general choice.
Keep your terminal tackle as basic as possible. If you do not have to use a lead, simply freeline. A fat lobworm can be swung out 15 yards without difficulty, adding a swan shot will give you another five, and with two swan shots you should at-tain 25-30 yards without difficulty. Using two worms will also increase your cast a bit. Hook sizes will usually range from No 4 to 12, depending on the size and type of bait; use eyed hooks which have medium shanks.
It is important to keep the bait on the move to get the most enjoyment from big perch fishing. Search every
inch of the water with your roving bait, be it a lobworm, livebait or deadbait. Cast to the desired spot and watch and feel your line as the bait sinks for any sudden move-ments: sometimes perch bite in mid-water. But the time to be really at the ready is when the bait is about to reach the bottom and for a few seconds afterwards. About 40 per cent of my big perch have come at this time.
Even when the bait has touched bottom do not place the rod in the rests, but hold on for a minute or two, then give the worm a couple of tweaks. If nothing happens, rest the rod, then tweak the bait every four or five minutes, retrieving a foot or so of line each time. In this way you keep the bait active and cover a large area, searching about 15ft of water with each cast.
When the rod is on the rests, leave the bale-arm of the reel open and allow the perch to trundle off a couple of yards before you strike. If it is calm, just watch for movements on the line. In rougher conditions, use an on-line bait indicator.
If you can actually see a big perch do not miss the chance. If you are freelining, you can hunt it. Snap up such opportunities.
Lake perch seem less finicky about the type of worms than their river brethren, but lobworms are hard to beat. Some anglers claim that air-injected lobs can be more productive, but I do not feel the river bank is the place for a syringe. Groundbaiting depends a great deal on your knowledge of the particular water, the small fish population (especially perch) and the range over which you are fishing. Generally, if you are using lobworms, a few finely chopped and scattered in with every cast, helps to bring the swim to life. A regular sprinkling of maggots and casters will do the same, but will attract small nuisance fish that will in turn attack your worm. So if you decide to groundbait with maggots or casters, be sure to allow plenty of surplus hookbait to compensate for the offerings lost to small fry.
The long-range winter ledgering techniques are described in part 43 so there is little need here to elaborate on them. My terminal rig consists of a fin, loz Arlesey bomb attached to a 10in sliding link stop-ped 24in from the hook, which is tied direct to the reel line. I prefer this to the old fashioned paternoster with the hook attached to a separate line. For long distance casting this rig is less inclined to kink and twist, as the lead always travels ahead of the worm in flight.
Hooking a big perch in deep, snaggy waters presents something of a dilemma: it is often necessary to quickly steer the fish away from the snags. Unfortunately, this can result in the perch inflating because of the rapid change in water pressure. A football-shaped perch will not live to fight another day. So bring him up as slowly as you dare when fishing in over 30ft of water.
Frank Guttfield’s Spotlight
We used to call it ‘Plank Pool’ – one of those fantastic swims on the Dorset Stour where you encountered a range of fish, including perch, From the same fishing position, you could catch big roach, chub, pike and some really exceptional perch – fish of more than 3 lb.
Since it was dredged in the early 1970s it has changed in character and perch no longer live there. But this does not prevent a description of it as it was – a typical river perch haunt, and blessed with several benefits in the one swim.
The most important features were: attractive slack water at the edge of a back-eddy very close to the bank, two ‘cabbage patches’ that held the fish throughout the autumn and winter; overhanging hawthorn and willow that afforded additional cover; rush beds and gravel runs that held the perch for much of the summer. In addition, the feeder (we used a plank to cross it) was the home of frogs and tadpoles during the spring. I once made a close- season visit to fish for salmon in May and saw half a dozen perch having an absolute bonanza among the tadpoles. What a bait they would make for perch if they came at the right time!
Of course, the minnows too loved the slack water around the eddy – another fact that led to 2-3 lb perch at my feet!
Although stillwaters offer the best chance of record-breaking perch, there are some extremely good fish to be taken from rivers. I have caught specimens from large rivers as far apart as the Tweed and the Avon, but the biggest challenges are to be found in small rivers and overgrown backwaters.
Big perch are better sought during the autumn, in still and moving waters. I have no idea why, unless it is because shoals of minnow and other small fish are less active then. November is the ideal month, and now that perch numbers have begun to rise again, I look forward to fishing several small rivers where I know specimen perch exist. I do not expect to catch real monsters, but I am confident of some two-pounders, and possibly a three-pounder.
Perch fishing is simple and en-joyable, once the fish have been found. Some variations in bait and presentation may be necessary from time to time, but it makes sense to start off simply float fishing with worms. Perch may show preference for one kind of worm, and may be very particular about the depth at which it is presented. You may catch them today on lobworms fished hard on the bottom and tomorrow on small brandlings fished in mid-water. There are no hard and fast rules, except that locating the fish is imperative. Shoals have to be located by trial and error, but the capture of one perch usually means that there are others close by.
Rushbeds for shelter and feeding
Places to look for are deepish holes near to rushbeds and near-bank undercuts. Lily-pad holes are also worth investigating. Perch will often lie in rushbeds with their noses poking out into the stream ready to intercept particles of food that pass by in the current. They will not always move out into open water, however, and float fishing close to rush stems can be hard on tackle.
The first heavy autumn floods split up the fish shoals, and when all has settled down again, it is not unusual to find perch of different sizes holed up together. The first perch caught may be a mere 3oz, the next could be a 3 lb specimen. Just find the shoal – it will usually con-tain big ones. And it is not always small perch that are first to the bait. In small and over-grown rivers, it is often quite the reverse.
It is this mingling of different-sized fish that makes big river perch hunting so different from Stillwater perching. In stillwaters, big and small perch do not usually mix. (Who can blame the smaller fish for that?) But in a little river, the whole population is likely to find itself dumped into one area by a raging flood. When the water fines, the perch begin to feed.
Just after floods is the best time for river perch, but you cannot always wait for the floods before setting out. And, unfortunately, small river perching is a hit-and-miss affair before the first floods. Even usually productive swims yield little or nothing, as the shoals disperse.
You are then forced to use roving techniques. Although this often means more walking than fishing, the extra effort is well worth while. In fact, roving pays off at any time in the year. Explore little pockets, even at the risk of losing tackle.
Allow a run to develop
When the float goes under, the temptation is to strike quickly before the fish has gained sanctuary. But this often results in a lost fish, and losing one perch can mean the end of sport in that area for a long time. It is better to let the fish run with the bait, even though it is obviously heading for trouble, for a well-hooked fish can be steered clear more easily than a bare hook.
Obviously, there should be no weak links in the tackle and it is better to use an eyed or spade hook direct to the reel line. Its size depends upon the bait being used, but a size 8 is a good compromise although I like to use a size 6 for lobworms and a size 12 for small brandlings. A 5lb b.s. Line is strong enough for most circumstances, but it may be possible to scale down where snags are not so numerous.
Other tackle should be of the simplest kind possible. An old quill float, cocked by one shot, will take the worm through the swim, but it will not be the end of the world if all is lost on your first cast. Old tackle actually helps in the search for perch. It encourages you to put the bait into danger spots, where the perch lie.
When roving, stay about 20 minutes in each swim and fish several different kinds of bait at various depths. Try fishing hard on the bottom with big lobs; try freelin-ing and inching the worm back. If you think perch ought to be present in a clean gravel-bottomed area, but get no response from bait fishing, fix up a light spinning rod and work for five or ten minutes with a fast vibrating spoon. This is the finest medicine I know for drawing big perch out of cover. Sometimes one will take the spoon immediately, but mostly they just follow and sheer off at the last moment. It does not matter! You now know there is at least one big perch present, and you can try for him with something different. You may not catch your specimen on the same day, but it is a great help to know where it is and where it is likely to stay before conditions on the river change.
The case for link-ledgering
I do not care too much for ledgering for perch. I always suspect that they feel the resistance of the rod tip, and when big baits are employed they have time to spit them out before getting hooked. Perch are masters at sucking in and spitting out baits without giving much bite registration. Nevertheless, with really dour specimens, there is occasionally a case for setting siege and waiting.
From moving around because we are loaded like pack mules. So we settle in the first likely looking spot and hope for the best.
A rod with plenty of action is essential, of course; one capable of dealing with big perch as well as small. A hollow glass rod of 11-12ft is ideal. A fixed-spool reel, carying 5lb b.s. Line, is probably best, together with a spare spool with finer line.
It is often necessary to fish with the float literally brushing the rush stems as it passes downstream. Accurate casting and tackle control are called for, but this is a productive kind of fishing, even though stems, with their tips trailing in the water, can rip fine lines and terminal tackle to pieces. Despite this, there is more than a reasonable chance of pulling a hooked fish clear, should it head into the rushes.
This is not my favourite way of taking perch, but a big lobworm fished on a long-link ledger and anchored somewhere near its haunt will sooner or later be successful.
Groundbaiting is not always suc-cessful. Big fish are not always hungry, and although perch are reputed to be the greediest of all fish, this is hardly true of specimens. They are choosy. They do not feed ravenously all the time nor do they forage continually. However, they may respond to a stream of brand-lings introduced at regular intervals.
Livebaiting with gudgeon
Minnows have a reputation as a perch bait that, in my opinion, is over-rated. I have caught big perch on small gudgeon and on tiny perch, but I have never caught specimen fish on minnow – live or dead. One of my best perch took a crayfish in-tended for a chub. I once caught a big perch on a ledgered sprat, and the biggest that I ever saw hooked came twice to a sprat fished sink-and-draw fashion for pike. But my first choice of perch bait must be worms of one kind or other.
Nevertheless, in recent years my perch fishing has become doubly enjoyable because I have been using streamer and other artificial flies. I have not presented them on tradi-tional fly tackle, but on a light roach rod or ultralight tench-ledger rod. The flies are weighted and look like small fish coming through the water. I foresee great developments in this field as soon as our perch stocks get back to normal.
Wintry morning success
Meanwhile I look forward to misty or foggy November mornings. On these mornings you are almost sure to catch some two-pounders if you play the game properly. And, to me, any perch over 2 lb is a specimen.
You have to search diligently, keep on the move, try different methods and baits, and be prepared to catch small perch before you catch big ones. In summer you might be able to spot a big perch and stalk it by stealth and low cunning, but for most of the year it is impossible to sort the big from the small. So have fun catching them both!