PERCH HAVE BEEN one of the angler’s most popular fishes since historical times, partly because small perch are easily caught and give many of us our first success at fishing and partly because big perch remain, even today, something of an enigma. Very few anglers have fished for big perch with any kind of consistent success and I am not one of that small band, for although I have caught hundreds of them between one and two pounds, the big ones elude me; and this is not for want of trying. So this is a post about catching perch, rather than big perch, and when I refer to techniques which have been successful with the latter my knowledge is essentially secondhand or taken from fishing friends who have been successful. The angler’s preoccupation with perch is in itself rather strange for they are not a large fish in terms of weight, although they are described as the biggest of freshwater fish because of their solid, colourful and bristling pugnacity, their fighting ability and the craftiness of adult perch; a kind of James Cagney of the fishy world. No fish looks quite as big held in the hands as does a big perch with its spiky first dorsal fin upright and its gill covers aflare. This may be one of the reasons why anglers like fishing for perch, coupled with the fact that a good bag of small to medium sized fish is easy to take. They are good eating from six ounces upwards, and being predators they can be caught by a whole variety of techniques.
Perch are relatively small predators, growing nowhere near as big as trout, pike, zander, eels, and catfish. A four pound perch is unusually big, and a five pounder extremely rare. The British record was once held by a fish of 5 lb. 15 oz. 6 dms., but presumably the credentials of this fish were somewhat dubious for it has been removed from the record list in recent times. The latest list issued by the British Record (rod caught) Fish Committee of the National Anglers’ Council gives a fish of 4 lb. as the British Record. This was taken from Oulton Broad in Norfolk in 1962 by Mr. S. F. Baker. Having thought about the question of weight a little further I would say a four pound perch is not ‘unusually big’, it’s enormous.
As I have said perch in this weight bracket, the three and four pounders, have eluded me, and while with other species I do not think I have lost any really enormous specimens, during perch fishing I have lost no less than three really big ones. The last time was on the Old Bedford River in Cambridgeshire during the autumn of 1973. On the previous weekend I had taken several nice perch around the 12 oz. mark from a good swim that I know of, and then went back to try for a few more. The bait, as on the first occasion, was a five inch yellow Gudebrod Sniper plug, a lure that wobbles slowly down to a depth of about two feet and is effective for small perch as well as for pike of all sizes. The first cast made at about 10 a.m. produced a faint pluck on the retrieve, certainly not a bit of weed. I made the second cast about three feet to the left and deliberately dropped the lure into the reedmace beds on the far bank so I could draw it gently into the gin-clear water without making a fish-scaring splash. After about five feet of the retrieve I felt a series of gentle plucks followed by one hefty thump which I hit successfully. Then followed several plunges for the soft weeds on the bottom, and during my efforts to keep it clear of them the fish came to the top, rolled, showed me a very broad, short flank, a spiky dorsal fin, a row of stripes, and then sank out of sight leaving the yellow plug floating on the calming surface. That is the only perch I have lost to an artificial on that water and it was over four pounds.
It is easy to lose perch during playing, a factor I shall deal with in the text following, unless the fish is allowed to swallow the hook and bait into its stomach. This is the way most youngsters, myself included, catch their first perch; indeed the way most of us catch our first fish. In my case I was fishing Kilpin Pond, near Howden in Yorkshire on my eighth angling trip. My<*jrandparents had given me some fishing tackle and I had bought a small handbook on fishing and spent seven futile days trying to tempt fish with worms and bread. My line, I now know, was of 15 lb. breaking strain and I had it attached directly to a small-eyed hook -probably about size 14.
Obviously I couldn’t cast such an outfit, and even if a fish came near the bait it would probably clear off in panic at the sight of the thick nylon line (Racine Tortue it was, I remember) and a stiffly attached small hook. On this eighth occasion (wasting time never bothered me at that age) there was an elderly angler also fishing, and in fact he was the only other angler on a water which now has an angler in every swim on most weekends. I got talking to this chap and gave him a snap tackle which somebody had left on the bank, and which had somehow got tangled up with the seat of my trousers. I hadn’t a clue what a snap tackle was or I probably would not have given it away so readily, but in return for my ignorant generosity he fitted me out with a six-foot length of 4 lb. b.s. line which was tied to the end of my thick line. He also gave me a float, taught me how to cast a yard or two, and pushed me in the general direction of the fish.
After half an hour I realised I had left my sandwiches at home several miles away, so I left the rod fishing by itself, jumped on the bike and returned an hour later to find a lively perch gut-hooked on the end of the line. That fish weighed two ounces exactly. I had it for my dinner that night, and I remember my mother holding a tea towel to her face to suppress her laughter as she served it up. But I was off, and to this day I can vouch for Walker’s viewpoint that big perch are just about the biggest fish that swim!
But in fishing, writing or just thinking about perch these days there are other matters to consider than romantic introductions or the problems of enigmatic big perch, because perch populations in these islands have just suffered a strange, and at present inexplicable, disease which has decimated stocks over wide areas. During the period 1968-1972 anglers realised that in many waters noted for good perch fishing for decades the sport quite suddenly declined. In only a few cases were heavy mortalities noted, and thus the ‘disappearance’ of perch claimed by anglers was scorned by fisheries offices and fisheries biologists.
It is strange how such people often fail to realise that anglers are almost always in the front line during ecological ‘wars’, and the more knowledgeable anglers are able to assess the changing situations more readily than the generals in the offices. Nevertheless it is now fully accepted that in many areas, particularly the south and east of England, there is a dearth of good perch fishing and even a lack of perch altogether in some waters. It will, therefore, be interesting to see how perch stocks build up again, and how perch angling develops, for example, in the hard-hit London reservoirs which had such superlative fishing until recently.
The actual nature of the disease remains, as far as I am aware, a mystery – some biologists even claiming that there was ho disease at all despite the heavy mortalities on some waters like Grafham. For drawing our attention to these problems we have to thank writers such as John Piper of Angler’s Mail and Richard Walker of Angling Times, as well as other non-writing anglers.
Some areas escaped the perch problems almost entirely and in my own area around Cambridge there was, and is, good quality perch angling. Many of the waters which remained unaffected are isolated stillwaters, gravel pits and clay pits, which suggests to me that the disease was something which could be transmitted by water and fish, or from water to water by humans and/or fish. So the future of perch angling in these islands will be related to the recovery which we all hope for of the perch stocks, and, more hopefully perhaps, to a better understanding of the enigmatic larger perch. Perhaps perch will become an ‘in’ fish like carp and pike, or perhaps they will just remain very popular as they always have been.
Having outlined how one comes, often, to perch fishing, and having briefly put the perch in his place in the modern angling scene, let’s turn to some more recent history. To most of us fishing for perch today the achievements of Richard Walker at Arlesey Lake in Bedfordshire, and his development of the Arlesey Bomb leger weight and long-range legering for perch, remain a point of reference and reverence from which to start perch fishing. If I remember correctly, he had, at the time of writing Still Water
Angling, taken something of the order of 38 perch over three pounds in weight, including several over four pounds. Such results reflected an impressive degree of application to perch fishing, and probably few, if any, anglers before or since have achieved the same success. The techniques were applied successfully on other waters, for example on the gravel pits in Kent and East Yorkshire.
Elsewhere perch continued to be caught by traditional methods in, for example, the Lake District and the London Reservoirs; but following the Walker era came the contributions of the Taylor brothers of Aylesbury to catching perch on the upper Great Ouse. These anglers took great numbers of fish over 2 lbs. and smaller numbers over 3 lbs. using rather different techniques to those evolved by Walker in the large still waters. Finally, at least in my memories, came the efforts of Alan Southern on the Cheshire Meres: he achieved similar spectacular success to the Taylor brothers and again brought a slightly different slant to aspects of perch fishing. those heady achievements of the few highly I think the above account gives you some successful perch anglers. Having thought idea of the results the average perch angler about it a little further now I’m inclined to can expect, and, I hope, puts in perspective think a three pound perch is an enormous fish.