Species Guide: Estuary Perch
Estuary perch are viewed by many fishos as being fickle and temperamental, especially in less than perfect conditions. But that’s not always the case. SAMI OMARI reports.
IT was blowing about 25 knots from the south and the barometer was hovering around 1007 as a low pressure system travelled along the coast. A dark and overcast sky dominated the morning landscape – the weather was lousy. Our original plans to head offshore chasing marlin were blown away by the near gale force winds. Plan B was a dud with a fruitless morning spent poppering whiting and flicking for flatties in a usually productive NSW South Coast estuary. Bad weather and no fish soon had the needle on my motivation tank hovering on empty.
A quick council of war saw the boat back on the trailer and en route for an apparent never fail flattie ground. A phone call to Fisho editor Jim Harnwell saw another change of tack and what started out as quick run to the flattie grounds became an hour on the road with Harnwell sitting in the back of the car muttering something about bass and estuary perch. I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder and out to the side to keep an eye on the loonies that surrounded me. Kevin Savvas was in the driver’s seat guaranteeing a swag of flathead on a fishless day while Jim was in the back wanting to catch bass and estuary perch. The barometer falling, the wind howling. According to the textbooks, we’d be better off at home. They say that fortune favours the brave and so we were soon launching the boat looking for some low pressure perch.
After motoring for a while at a reasonable pace we eventually found some fishy looking territory – actually we bypassed a great deal of fishy looking territory but sometimes when you’re in an unfamiliar waterway and not exactly sure of what to look for, the furthest bit of fishy looking water often seems the most appealing. Jim and Kevin both tied on blades while I opted for a soft plastic.
Drifting along a deep section of water adjacent to a rock wall and rocky foreshore saw the blades first to draw pay dirt with Jim hooking a cute little perch that was quickly landed and carefully released. Next bite came my way and before I had time to speculate on the species another little perch was swimming around boat side ready for release. The action was consistent along that first stretch of river with a bite every few casts and a variety of fish being landed – Kevin managed to snare a few keeper flatties and I was somewhat surprised to latch onto a reasonable brackish water tailor.
With the wind starting to puff we moved around to escape the breeze, luring any fishy looking haunts, scoring a few small perch and bagging some more flathead on blades as the afternoon wore on. It wasn’t until we started pushing back downstream that we finally found some better perch with Jim again drawing first blood on a plump little fish that put a decent bend in his ultra light Nitro Vapour outfit. I was kicking myself for not bringing along a super ultra light outfit given the size of fish we had encountered so decided to change tack completely, tying on a four-inch soft plastic stick bait and heavier jig head, hopeful for a stray jew from an eddie or backwater adjacent to the deeper channels we were fishing.
At one point along the river a deep, featureless stretch was interrupted by an outcrop of rock emerging from the water only a few metres out from shore. Standing at the pointy end of the boat while under electric power, Jim fired off a cast and was immediately rewarded with a take and solid hookup. Fishing from the stern of the boat I turned
my back to the action and pelted a lure midstream to the shallow part of the river. The splash and commotion of the jig head breaking the surface caused baitfish to shimmer and flee. A couple of sharp stabs with the rod tip tempted a nearby predator into an attack response and before long we had a double hookup.
After a few lunging runs in the deeper water, Jim’s fish showed itself to be another plump estuary perch which was quickly netted and placed in the live well. Having lost a few plastics to those razor sharp tailor I thought that I’d finally pinned one of the cheeky lure stealing suckers and tried to quickly skull drag the fish to the boat. When the tailor turned into the silhouette of a 38cm perch I quickly called for a net and Kevin did the honours on a well conditioned football shaped perch.
After admiring both fish and taking the obligatory photos, we slipped them into the live well and went back to the hot zone. A lull in the activity saw the usual banter plus a few lure changes and after pressing on down the river my umpteenth lure change for the day hit the jackpot as a fish picked up the three-inch grub and swam off with the current. This felt like a better fish and being so far downstream it was anyone’s guess what was on the other end.
When the silvery flanks of a wide bodied fish appeared under the cloud lined sky, a thumping big bream or hefty perch were called as the likely suspects. When the scooped head of a trophy sized EP arced upwards in the water column I dipped the rod slightly and found myself gently coaxing the fish the waiting net. A quick measure on the tape showed the fish to be a plump 41cm and in terrific condition. I carefully eased the big girl back into the water after a quick photo and swam her boat side in admiration; the overcast conditions and low light complimenting the coppery flanks, olive back and glossy black eye of a stunning wild river perch.
The first signs of rain plus commitments back home saw an end to the session. We motored home under a light intermittent shower with smiles all round, vowing to return in the near future.
Movements & migration
Understanding the migratory patterns and general movements of estuary perch is the first step in unlocking the EP puzzle. I’m far from being an expert on the species, however in my experience to date I’ve found that when and where I’ve caught them has made perfect sense when taking into account time of year and salinity levels. During the colder months and into the start of spring, EPs typically travel downstream to spawn, which is why NSW Fisheries has recently introduced a closed season on EPs (and their close cousins the bass) from June 1 to August 1. From about August/September onwards I would be prospecting the lower reaches of a river or tidal estuary. From October through to March fishing for EPs becomes more of a trial and error process – being an estuarine species they travel throughout a waterway depending on salinity levels (unlike bass which are a freshwater species that travel to the brackish water to spawn). Anecdotally, I think the EPs also retreat to the deeper stretches or downstream if the barometer is depressed for a while in anticipation of storm water flooding the system.
EPs are one of those great species that school up at certain times of the year along various stretches within a waterway and can be readily spotted using a quality depth sounder. I normally crank up the sensitivity on my sounder till the noise becomes too much then back it off a few bars. The screen still has a little noise but with familiarity it becomes quite easy to distinguish schooling or individual fish from background clutter.
While EPs frequent snag-lined shorelines and shallow banks, it’s the deeper stretches where schooling fish hold out of the current and can be tracked down with a decent sounder that at times can offer some red hot EP action. Deep water adjacent to sheer rock walls, mid stream gutters, holes and long deep stretches within a waterway are likely places for perch to aggregate either during their migration to spawn or while holding out of the current and waiting in ambush for prey. Keep an eye out for any shallow banks which spill into a channel or drop off where the perch may be waiting in ambush for baitfish and prawns that are forced off the flats as the tide recedes.
While deep water fishing can yield numbers and great results, I’m a big fan of mixing it up a little and will fire off a cast away from the likely looking structure, onto a shallow sand bank or nondescript piece of water. While EPs are a schooling fish, I have often spied a lone fish or two chasing prawns across the shallows so it pays to vary your casts and explore the waterway, especially when the fishing is slow.
Blades have really opened up the deep water EP fishery and are a great way of prospecting a body of water quickly and confidently. Either hop the blades along the bottom few metres of the water column or vibrate the lures from bottom to top employing a long draw to get the lure working properly. Soft plastics are still an old favourite with three-inch single tail grubs, three-inch stick baits and four-inch stick baits being the
lures that I would tie on first. As with all soft plastic fishing, use the lightest jig head possible. That said, don’t be put off by using a little more weight if needed to get down deep or in strong current. Bibless minnows also work extremely well as do traditional hard-bodied minnow lures so it pays to have a selection of lures on board and to change often if marking fish but not eliciting any strikes.
There are occasions when fishing in and around snags or when the fish are in a competitive state that they will bite freely, however the bite of an EP is usually quite subtle. It’s important to be alert and paying attention when jigging a lure back to the boat. A slight tick transmitted through the line is a telltale sign of a timid perch take and I’ll strike at anything that vaguely resembles a bite – wait too long and the lure will be rejected.
Get out there
I often hear people describing EPs as a mystical, enigmatic and elusive species, however with careful planning you can maximize your chances of success. Pay close attention to the weather conditions and time of year to determine where the fish might be holding. Even if the barometer is against you it can still pay to be out there having a go – I’ve caught EPs on bright sunny days with the barometer through the roof and on dark drab days with the barometer so low I start feeling moody myself!