Big perch from small rivers

Small rivers and streams don’t always look like the sorts of places to catch specimen perch. But follow Nigel Witham and you might find bigger, more pristine fish than you’d believe.

O ne thing you soon learn about perch is that they are not fussy about the size of water in which they grow big. All they seem to need is an abundance of fodder fish, and little competition for it. This happy situation has resulted in lots of small rivers and streams throughout Britain holding big perch which have never seen a net.

Forget complications

When you’re after a single species of fish on a small river, it’s usually better to carry a minimum of tackle and to fish as many good looking spots as you can. Remember you’re fishing for perch which have rarely been hooked, so sophisticated bait presentation is rarely necessary—a simple set-up is fine.

Whatever you do, don’t lumber yourself with too much gear. Take just one rod and one reel and a small selection of tackle.

Rod choice is important. Some anglers prefer a short rod for roving and fishing inaccessible swims, but for this type of fishing a long rod is much more useful. It allows you to fish well back from the bank, out of sight of the fish.

A 13ft (3.9m) hollow tip float rod with a bit of backbone is ideal. An Avon may be a little heavy, while a spliced-tip match rod is too light. The rod should have a soft, flexible tip for casting light baits and to help in detecting bites when freelining or legering.

You need a small or medium fixed-spool reel which balances your rod, though a centrepin is also good, and much more fun. Fill your reel with 4lb (1.8kg) line.

Take a small bag filled with the rest of – – your tackle. A variety of Avon floats (the clear plastic ones are hard to break, so a float tube isn’t necessary), a tub of mixed split shot, some float rubbers, leger stops, leger beads (for making a link leger with swan shot) and some hooks (sizes 6-10) are all you need. You might also want to take a bobbin for bite detection when watching the line or rod top is difficult.

Trap-ease artists

Worms and minnows are by far the most consistent baits for small stream perch. With worms, the bigger the better -lobworms are the absolute first choice. Fish a whole lob on a size 6-8 hook, or half a worm on a size 10.

Minnows are easy to catch with maggot or pinkie on a size 22 hook, or with a bread-baited minnow trap. You can make one of these with a couple of plastic drinks bottles. Cut the bottom off one and staple the top from the other in its place, forming a funnel.

Keep minnows in a small bucket with an air pump to aerate the water. Fish them singly on a size 8 hook, or in pairs on a size 6, hooked once through the upper lip only. Rigs are simplicity itself – big perch are sensitive to resistance from the rig, so the less complicated the better.

Freelining works well, though you must watch the line all the time. With a big worm, let a fish have up to lm (39in) of line before striking to allow it to take the bait properly. With minnows, don’t tighten right up to the hook – leave some slack line and strike when the fish has taken up this line.

If you need weight to get the bait down through the current, add a swan shot. If you need more than one swan, a link leger may be better. To change to float fishing, slide a couple of float rubbers over the hook and turn your rig into a float set-up.

Location is the key to good catches, so keep moving until you find the fish – that’s why you should travel light. Perch generally live in mixed shoals, in fairly localized areas, so once you’ve found a few fish, expect more of varying size. They prefer a moderate current, siding with roach on the question of flow, rather than the faster-water chub.

Cover is important too – perch need somewhere from which to ambush prey. It can take many forms: overhanging or submerged plants, especially reed and lily beds, and the old favourites – tree roots and fallen branches. Consider also the river bed – perch are generally much more common over a gravel bottom than over mud or silt. Lastly, depth is important — a slow deep hole with cover close at hand is ideal. Weir pools are often a particularly good place to try. They, along with deep pools and holes, are the only places where you are likely to find perch in mid-stream. After the first heavy rains of late summer or autumn, a weir pool is hard to beat.

Under the sill of the weir the current forms a vertical eddy. Near the river bed, there is often almost no flow. Freeline a big lobworm or minnow into the white water. It is often swept up under the sill to stay there until you move it. If the current on top is too strong for this, add the smallest amount of shot it takes to get the bait down quickly enough, about 50cm (20in) from the hook.

You can spot bites either by touch or by watching the rod top, but make sure you leave some slack so the fish have time to take the bait properly before they feel any drag on the line. If you don’t get any bites, search the rest of the pool thoroughly, letting the bait work back towards you and roll down in the current.

The outside of a bend, particularly where there is cover from an overhanging tree, can be another good place. The current runs close to the bank, and this often scours out a deeper area, slowing the current down. For winter perch, the deeper the water the better these swims are.

Try freelining a lob or minnow under the bank, or cast a float upstream under the tree. Set the float well overdepth, with the bulk of the shot about 30cm (12in) above the hook. That way the bait lies on the bottom, and you can easily hold the float back hard. Feed around your bait with chopped lobs while you wait for a bite. Reed beds are another classic place to look for perch, especially after a summer flood. Perhaps the best way to fish them is to trot a float along the side of the reeds, with the bait set well off the bottom. The closer you can get the bait to the reeds, the more likely you are to tempt a bite from a fat, river perch. The same is true of any snag when it comes to fishing for perch.

These are just three types of swim that are fairly common on small rivers — each one requiring a different approach. But remember, though the swims you come to fish may share many features with these three, every swim is different, and they all call for changes in tactics to suit the particular problems they pose.

However, it’s not all hard work. As you get to know a river, you find that the perch tend to stick to certain spots. Once you’ve caught them in a swim or length of river, you tend to come across them in the same places time and again.

On most rivers, perch feed in just a few areas, so it’s a question of finding the right one on the day. Because of this, you mustn’t fish one area for too long without a bite. If the perch are around and you haven’t scared them, you soon know about it.

Perch fishing on small rivers is a mobile game, so it doesn’t appeal to every angler. But if you fancy some challenging and potentially highly rewarding fishing, load up a small back pack and get down there!