Going after perch with Hugh Witham

3 Wintersett Half Moon fishing

What do you do when you want big perch? Well, you pick the right time of year, the right venue, get the right conditions, fish the right swim, with the right tackle, and then you probably give up and go and fish for something easier.

Bearing this in mind, Hugh Witham is only quietly optimistic about his chances. He’s chosen Haversham Lake at Linear Fisheries — a day-ticket water with unexplored potential — in early March, but now comes the hard part.

So, it’s a blustery Friday a week before the end of the season. The sun smiles weakly through the patchy cloud cover, and the wind is creating a bit of a chop which in turn puts some colour in the water -classic perch fishing conditions according to Hugh.

Haversham Lake is very uneven in depth and Hugh reckons a deep hole is where you find fish at this time of year. He plumbs up, looking for deeper water.

Eventually he finds an area of water over 3m (10ft) deep about 20m (65ft) out from the east bank. The bottom continues to slope away to even greater depths and Hugh is pinning his hopes on a leviathan lurking out in the deeps.

It’s mid-day before he makes his first cast, but Hugh knows that perch are much more likely to feed later on in the day. He’s fishing lobworm on one of his two Avon rods, with a roach livebait on the other.

To keep resistance to bites to a minimum, Hugh leaves the bail arm open and clips up the line. Bite detection is from two bite alarms with bobbins for drop-back bites.

Big perch aren’t as reckless as their smaller brothers – that’s probably how they got to be so big – and they drop a bait if they feel any resistance. Hugh’s livebait rig is a float leger, which he has to cast carefully to avoid tangles. If there’s one thing guaranteed to create resistance to a bite, it’s a knotted ball of tackle with a bait hanging meekly to one side of it.

Hugh starts with an ordinary running leger for the worms, though he’ll change to a float leger if the bottom is weedy. There’s little point having a bait in the water if it’s hidden by a foot of foliage.

As it turns out, weed isn’t the problem -it’s the wind. The drag it creates pulls the line out of the clips, setting off the bite alarms. He changes to thinner line, but now the wind blows the bobbins, pulling the line out of the line clips – and guess what? It sets off the bite alarms.

Hugh replaces the bobbins with a line clip-cum-bite indicator of his own invention. This solves the problem and he’s able to concentrate on perch once more.

Nothing’s happened for over an hour, so he changes his single lobworm for two smaller ones. Injecting them with a little air makes them sit slightly off the bottom, so they are easier for hungry perch to spot.

This requires a great deal of care, as Hugh is at pains to point out. If you don’t give the syringe your full attention, you may inject yourself with air – which can be fatal.

Not a lot’s happening, but Hugh isn’t worried – he’s waiting for the sun to get low in the sky. In the meantime there’s lots of time to talk about his fishing. He’s not a great one for huge fish any more – odd for a specimen hunter.

Actually, he is interested in big fish. But nowadays he’d rather catch good fish from a small, tree-lined river than sweat it out at a concrete bowl for a monster. If he ends up with a 1lb (0.45kg) roach, then he’s very happy with that.

Just as he’s getting into his subject there’s a run. A fit 6lb (2.7kg) pike goes tail-walking with the livebait. While he’s landing it the other rod sounds. Which just goes to prove you can have too much of a good thing. Unfortunately, despite rushing the pike into the net somewhat (you don’t hang about with a Kryston hooklength in any case), the second run doesn’t develop.

Hugh changes his double lobworm bait to a single fat ‘un. He casts a little farther too, so he’s fishing a good 10m (33ft) beyond the drop-off.

The bite alarm sounds. It’s the livebait that’s gone and Hugh is quickly at the rod. He barely has time to find a bare hook when the buzzer goes on his worm set-up.

He winds down and tightens the line -he only strikes at extreme range. This time, the rod is not disappointingly straight – it describes a lovely thumping arc and Hugh begins to smile. ‘I wasn’t really expecting anything until sunset,’ he beams, ‘but I don’t think it’s a perch.’ Two minutes later he turns out to be right, as a plump 134lb (0.7kg) roach comes out to have its photo taken. Not a perch by another pike – only this time it’s caught by Art of Fishing reporter Ben Eveling. It’s the biggest to come out of Haversham Lake and weighs 29lb 8oz (13.4kg). Well, well, this is becoming a pretty interesting session.

Jacks have been at the livebaits all day, but as it creeps towards Hugh’s favourite part of the day, they become noticeably less active. Hugh, on the other hand, is clearly more alert and a bit more tense than he has been up till now.

The sun is going down, the wind has dropped to a mere whisper of its former self and Hugh bubbles with anticipation. He catches himself at it and makes a feeble attempt to distract himself with conversation.

Bang goes the bite alarm and Hugh is there – strangely unhurried after the buildup. It’s a better fish than the roach and a tenacious fighter. Could it be…? But you can catch anything on long range legered lobworm. No-one dares breathe.

It’s too marvellous to be true, but there it is. A big hump-backed perch bristles into the landing net and everyone watching lets out their breath. ‘I knew it was a perch. I could feel it! But I didn’t say anything just in case.’ Who says anglers aren’t superstitious?

There goes that livebait rod again. Maybe it’s another one. But no, it’s a pike this time. It has to be landed by hand since the perch is still nestling in the landing net -there’s been no time to land it. Back goes the pike, and Hugh’s dying to get another lobworm out 60m (66yd) to where the perch are feeding.

First he’s got to unhook this one. Typically, it had gulped the bait down. Hugh pulls the hook through and cuts the line rather than force it back against the barb -easier for fish and fisherman. Next it’s got to be weighed and returned. Wet the sling, steady the scales, 2lb (0.9kg) dead. Well, what a day.

But it’s not over yet. On with another hook and out goes the lobworm again. Then it’s time to change the livebait rig to another worm set-up – that’s obviously what they want. Now he can relax. But of course he doesn’t, not when perch are about.

Hugh slowly begins to unwind, suggesting the end of the day is near, when the farther out of the two lobworms goes off for a spin in the mouth of a hungry fish. ‘This is a typical perch fight. It’s really dogged.’ That’s absolutely fine, until a fat roach slides over the net.

Well, nobody’s perfect. And there are compensations. At 2lb (0.9kg) exactly it’s his biggest of the season and the third specimen-weight fish of an amazing session.

Time to pack up, and continue the gloating over a drink. It’s really dark now and it’s quite difficult to see what’s going on. It’s not hard to hear a last blast of the bite alarm, though. A roach of lYAb (0.6kg) is almost a disappointment. It really is time to go, or we’ll be here all night. Maybe next time.