Richard Walker described the perch as “the biggest fish of all” and I think this captures beautifully its mystery and intrigue.
We are so accustomed to those tiny easy-to-catch ones that when we are lucky enough to meet with a whopper its’ sheer scale seems jaw droppingly improbable by comparison – almost like perch on steroids. And it’s not just size – there are other stark contrasts too: specimen perch seem almost to morph into a different species; those deep ‘shoulders’, solid muscular jaws and sometimes a density of colouring that makes them look as if they have been painted with enamels left over from an airfix spitfire kit. When you see that in the folds of your net for the first time it’s definitely a “I see it but I don’t believe it” moment guaranteed to get the pulse racing and the hands shaking..
Certainly of my earliest angling adventures, catching perch from the River Thames with my father burns the brightest in my memory. Small perch were plentiful and easy to catch with the time honoured worm and perch bobber. Their tribal colours, mohican swagger and capacity for a scrap made them universally popular amongst my little gang of fellow anglers. Back then a half pounder was a good fish and a pounder was a schoolboy’s dream. A two pounder was only whispered of in hushed tones and seemed about as accessible as Father Christmas, while a three pounder, to our juvenile minds, was simply off the radar altogether. So for me today, the capture of a seemingly impossible specimen surely re-ignites that boyhood wonder. Perhaps this quest for perch is really a search for eternal youth.
Behaviour is markedly different in these big individuals too. Gone are the kamikaze tendencies of their smaller relatives: specimen perch are older, wiser and more cunning and can be surprisingly wily. They also occupy the most favourable marks which can sometimes be the most difficult to fish. And hook one in a bad mood and it can pull like a horse. Oh, and they never give up, all the way to the net – they keep scrapping… more big perch are lost in those last seconds at the net than at any other time. It’s because of that fin arrangement which allows them to turn on a sixpence to hit scattering fry. It comes in useful for rolling off the hook too, as many perch fishers will attest – the perch ‘death roll’ is legendary.
All of this adds up to an enduring fascination for me and I know of no finer way of pursuing big perch than with my little 3 weight fly rod and a few home-tied streamers. When I first set off on my own personal quest to catch big perch on the fly there was very little available to me locally in the way of guidance or advice. However my friend Dominic Garnett had written some nice general advice on the subject in his ace book Flyfishing for Coarse Fish and his infectious enthusiasm encouraged me to have a go. So I worked hard, made my own mistakes and discoveries and had a few little triumphs along the way. If you are planning to embark on your own perch-fly adventure here are a few little things I would like to share with you that may help you out.
Location, location, location.. think like a fish!
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, you cannot catch fish if they are not in front of you. This is true for all fish of course but is especially relevant to big perch which can concentrate into a surprisingly small area. We all know the advice from Mr Crabtree that perch love structure. All structure holds perch potential but not all structure holds big perch. There are other factors that come into play and these can change with the season and the conditions on the day. I have read that perch hate bright sunshine in clear water, that they hate silty, cloudy water, that they don’t take in the top few feet of water – but I have caught big perch in all of these scenarios.
Clearly there is still much to learn about perch habits and behaviour and for me this is part of the fascination. Perch follow their prey and their behaviour and location changes to give them the best chance of success depending on the dish of the day. So to be successful in locating your perch you must consider the prey they live off in your water and how that prey lives. In short think like a fish!
Here are a few examples: My local canal is topped up at various locations by a neighbouring river via engineered inflows. Following prolonged heavy rain, slugs, worms and other juicy terrestrials are washed into the canal from the banks of the river, and I know of one such inflow where canal perch loiter with their mouths wide open after a storm. There is another spot where the soft bank provides home to a colony of crayfish. Nearby is a small section of wall forming an ‘L’ shape. From time to time a pod of large perch raid the crayfish colony, and herd them into the corner of the wall which acts like a corral. The water gets very cloudy as the perch repeatedly hit their prey. One of my most successful marks is the classic canal perch swim – a lock mouth. What makes this one extra special is its attractiveness to bait fish in winter. There is a river inflow which brings warmer water into the canal so that in winter there is a clear section of water when the rest on the section is frozen over. The walls into the lock are in a bad state of repair where centuries of boat traffic has bumped into them giving rise to a bricky canal bed. Added to this are various snags which combine to form a reef like environment that provides a nursery for baitfish.
I have also caught good fish right under my feet where there is no obvious structure. As a co-operating shoal fish the perch can seek and herd their prey in open water, but a solitary perch must act more like a pike and become an ambush predator. Here their physical shape allows them to sit tight against the side, be it reeds or a concrete wall, while those vertical stripes are the perfect camouflage to break up their shape. So never be afraid to dibble your fly inches from the near bank if you think your swim has perch food potential but no other obvious structure is present. Perch hunting is all about opening your eyes to finer detail and getting to know your mark intimately.
Gathering such detailed ‘intell’ could be a major investment in your spare time, but there are big shortcuts that can be made. I make a habit of talking to almost every one I meet when I’m out on the tow path, be it other angers, dog walkers, boaters, as well as staff and customers in the local tackle shops. This approach has given me a lot of valuable information about the locations that perch are being caught. I have also made good friends with a little group of dedicated lure anglers who have a special interest, like me, in specimen perch. We have an agreement to share any news of good catches and their locations. We also have an agreement to keep this information within our circle. A while ago I made the mistake of divulging a newly discovered ‘hot spot’ to the wrong person and within a couple of weeks the mark was getting totally over pressured. Even major-brand sponsored anglers were travelling across from London to join the new circus!
Keep in touch..
When I started out to catch perch on the fly I was already doing quite lot of fly fishing for pike. The natural approach seemed to be to scale down a bit and use weighted jig flies to bounce along the bottom. I used an eight weight fly rod and tied up some dumbbell patterns on ewg worm hooks to avoid snagging the hook too often. This was fairly successful and I caught some nice fish, but one day I was fishing alongside a friend who was dropshotting and he consistently out fished me. I soon realised that my problem was not in getting fish to take my fly but in actually detecting the takes. Sometimes perch really hit the fly but just as often the take is so subtle that the fish has blown the fly out again before you even know it’s there. On that particular day dropshotting had the advantage was because of the direct contact it gives, allowing very subtle takes to be felt.
So I experimented with different fly patterns and rod weights. Eventually I settled on the set up that I now use for most of my small-water perch fishing. This is a 3 weight 7 1/2 ft rod with a normal WFF line. For the leader I use a level 7ft length of 6lb fluoro with a small twistlok swivel for attaching the fly. If pike are a real possibility I use a fine wire trace as a tippet about 18″ long, although in reality I avoid perch fishing in known pike waters. The leader is attached to the fly line via a braided loop and this has a red sleeve which I use as a bite indicator if I am fishing my fly static or very slowly. I try to eliminate as much slack line as possible between me and the fly but at the same time present the fly with subtlety so that a fish can mouth it without feeling too much resistance. This set up works very well for me, particularly with those tiny takes when the only indication is that red sleeve sliding away or pausing on the drop. I also have one finger on the rod blank when I retrieve and often feel a pluck through the line and rod.
Fly design and presentation
These days my fly selection is very simple. I mostly use a small home tied streamer pattern that is about 3 inches long on a size 1 hook. This streamer is grey and silver to imitate small baitfish. Small enough to cast well with the light three weight rod I prefer to use, this pattern is also small enough to avoid too much attention from pike, while still being a worthwhile mouthful for big perch. I will pinch on a single BB shot above the fly if I want a jig style action or to keep it down in a flow. If the perch are reluctant I may swap this for a more colourful zonker or wiggle tail pattern of a similar size in the hope that the extra motion and vibrancy will win a take.
If I think the perch are up and hunting I will use the streamer stripped back briskly through top few feet of water, with plenty of pauses as fish may often be taken on the drop. If I see bait fish scattering on the surface and I think perch are the cause I will cast to that area if I can. I will use this method too on the rare occasions that I get to stalk and site fish for perch.
When the perch are holding on the bottom I will use the BB to turn the streamer into a jig fly and gently hop it along the bed. If I know perch are present in a particular spot but are reluctant I will fish the fly almost statically and watch the line for takes. When the fish are in a more aggressive mood then bigger hops of a foot or so can be more successful in inducing a take.
There.. so now you know as much as I do. Get out there with your fly rod, catch some perch, and if you treat them with the respect they deserve and let them swim away to fight another day, then I wish you well on your quest!
Words and pictures by David West Beale