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SPECIES: Estuary Perch

Some fish just inspire obsession. For BRETT GEDDES, the maddeningly addictive estuary perch is a species that has led him on a long path of discovery, frustration, joy and pure fishin’ fun!

CHASING estuary perch is awfully addictive. They are an eye-catching, handsome yet prehistoric looking Aussie fish. For 13 years now my infatuation for them just keeps growing and there are plenty of reasons why they have become such an obsession. They are a species that continue to challenge and I’ve given up trying to predict their quirky habits and constantly mobile lifestyle. In fact, what I still have to learn about them is probably their greatest appeal. But the joy they’ve given me far outweighs the fishless days that estuary perch are well known for. Some highlights over the years have been finding them in very remote waters, catching them on surface lures, recapturing my own tagged fish, and releasing a dozen or more big old girls all around 55cm. My greatest reward, however, is realising that I’ll never work them out and they are getting damn harder to trick. They have also frustrated me to exhaustion when they leave a creek or river for years on end or refuse to eat lures in other lakes and streams. I know of no other species that anglers become so protective, swampy, cagey and guarded about. I may have lost the hopeless hunger and almost hysterical zeal I had when I first discovered the secrets of EP, but I’ll never give up on finding more “ultimate” perchin’.

Big numbers
EP are renowned for schooling up. When you find the really big aggregations, it’s then that you can get the ultimate fishing I’m talking about. They usually hang out in class sizes and if you catch two or three fish around 30cm in the one spot, you can bet the next lot of fish will all be peas in a pod. This also happens with all year classes or sizes of fish and on two occasions I’ve released more than 100 perch in a session and they were all between 40 and 50cm. These sorts of days make special and unforgettable memories for mad keen perchers like me and I never take for granted the experience that very few anglers will ever have. More often though, these days I find a lot of fish mobbed up in smaller sizes around 26 to 34cm and these younger perch seem to be dizzy and lure hungry, unlike their astute elders. Tallies of around 30 to 50 fish are still common enough and I get a kick out of catching perch of any size, especially when you can experiment with home-made surface lures and new soft plastics. Since the year 2000 I’ve kept a detailed EP journal of how many and where I’ve caught them. My grand total is now up to 4965 estuary perch landed in just about every Victorian waterway from Western Port Bay to Mallacoota. All of those fish were released, of course, because perch have a way of getting into your spirit and killing these fish is impossible.

EP = Einstein Professors
Big perch are smart, and I mean real smart. So wise in fact I think EPs are closely related to Albert, the smartest scientist that ever lived. There’s a misconception that perch are dumb because you can catch a heap when you find them but that has more to do with their schooling habits and being opportunistic feeders than any inherent stupidity. They wise up quick and will shut down worse than bream. In heavily fished waters I’ve thrown lures at them and got a few straight away, but the action quickly comes to a grinding halt. After throwing every trick I know at them and finally giving up I move in over the fish expecting to see few if any perch there. On nearly every occasion a heap of perch spook off into the depths as I approach them and all of them have a raised middle finger stuck up at me! Sometimes those numbers of fish have been in the hundreds and I’m sure they “talk” to each other about the dangers of eating lures. Probably the sight of seeing their mates being hauled out of the water and screaming about a hook jammed down their throat doesn’t help. All I know is the more lures you throw at cranky perch, the longer they will shut down for.

Pressure points
A few years back the real danger to my perch fishing was that people were killing them and I could see a future where numbers would really plummet. These days informed anglers wouldn’t dream of destroying such a wonderful sportfish but now there is a new menace and threat in trying to catch perch. Angling pressure. The constant, unrelenting, merciless pounding of lures at the fish that only makes them completely gun shy for weeks, maybe even months. EP have proven the old adage that fish only have a five second memory to be completely wrong. So, yes, it’s a nice gesture to see all perch being released but with the angling pressure and boat traffic increasing every year at an alarming rate, I just know my catch rates will suffer dramatically. In the short-term I will have to target more remote waters until even those systems start getting flogged more often. I’m starting to bump into anglers where I’ve never seen a soul in years gone by and it’s fair to say I’m also there as part of the problem too. So to minimise my impact I fish all my favourite perch haunts sparingly and never flog hot snags to death by leaving the fish on the bite.

Tagging data
The first time I discovered that perch were smart was when I started tagging them. After six months I’d released about 300 and I kept catching fish out of the same snags in the same rivers and I could not recapture a single fish with a recent tag in it. Some cynics said the perch were dying due to being tagged but I quickly put that theory to rest. At night I went and spied on these perch with an underwater torch and there they were – tagged EP. Healthy, happy and smiling with a finger up again! It also put to bed that theory of catching the same perch over and over again. Of the 900 odd EP I’ve tagged I’m now up to about 25 recaptures, which is one of the lowest return rates of any tagged species. One perch I’ve caught four times now and over a period of five years that fish has remained at 38cm. Another two fish I’ve caught three times and each of those EP had shown little movement and only grown a few centimetres. These multiple recaptures are extremely rare and also show the frightfully slow growth rates of perch, just like my most recent tagged recapture a few months ago. I was shocked to find a fish I had released nearly six years prior at 28cm had only grown out to 31cm in all that time. Is anyone brave enough to put an age on really big perch? I am. Try at least 50-years-old. That’s half a century. I’ll put money on it if you don’t believe me.

Mobile mania
Perch love to swim and besides significant seasonal movements they can also travel a long way in a single day. Internal acoustic tagging of perch in the Snowy River area proved that. By strategically placing listening stations throughout the estuary, on each occasion a perch swam past them they would record its ID, date and time. Over many months the information was continually downloaded from all the stations and the population of perch
in there were shown to be very active swimmers with some travelling many kilometres each day. One perch after being surgically inserted with a tag and then returned to the water way up in the Snowy River decided to really shoot through and bolted 15km downstream straight out of the entrance and into the ocean. During the 2007 Gippsland floods I had six of my tagged perch also head out to sea and they were recaptured in different estuaries with some swimming over 200kms. I caught four of these fish myself and it was a blow-out to see my old friends so far away from where I tagged them years earlier.

Ultimate conundrum
So as you now see, to find the ultimate perch angling you have to wade through all the unknowns and obstacles that EPs throw at you. With perseverance the rewards have come and I still get enough classic EP sport to keep me sane. Two years ago I had a run of incredible surface action with between 30 and 60 perch landed during half a dozen sessions. To see 48cm EP monster surface lures is quite a sight – it sounds like a rock being tossed into the water and shocks the hell out of you. Even little perch make for exciting sight fishing and the surface action can be non-stop with plenty of missed hook ups. This top water action has always been my preferred way of catching EP, but lately for something different my ultimate perchin’ has been chasing them with blades. Although known for their structure loving habits, I’ve often caught perch out in open shallow water but rarely over 1.5m deep. Recently I was looking for bream in the middle of a deep river and got the surprise of my life. A heap of EP kept jumping
on my little metal lures right down on the bottom in about 5m. What’s more, I caught them in all different sizes from 26 to 43cm, which rarely happens with schooling EP. Over two days I refused to take the blades off , sacrificing hours of possible surface action and kept searching the deepest water. My tally quickly went way above previous visits. What a thrill to make yet another astonishing breakthrough while on a perch search.

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