How to

The search for perch

ESTUARY perch are often described by some anglers as “the barra of the south”. To aficionados of real barramundi in northern Australia that may seem like a stretch but hear me out. There are lots of similarities, and us southerners can’t always afford to be fussy!

Like barra, estuary perch (Percalates colonorum) are aggressive top order predators and implosion feeders, they have a scooped forehead with upward facing eyes, and attack a range of lures and baits with gusto. Not only that they are a solid, handsome, shiny fish that hit and fight hard and happily occupy a variety of different habitats from freshwater to saltwater. To top it off they are great on the plate, although personally I haven’t killed one for decades… they’re far too good to catch just once. Sounds just like a barra, right?

Size and range

One area in which estuary perch, also know colloquially as “EPs”, do fall short of barramundi is in size. Estuary perch have reportedly been recorded as growing to 75cm and 10kg. Most are much smaller. They more commonly occur at maximum lengths of 45cm and weights of 3kg. An estuary perch of 45cm is a very good fish, probably 8 or 9 years old but possibly even older having been recorded as living at least to 41 years of age. Most of the largest perch in any given system are females.

Estuary perch occur from the Richmond River on the NSW north coast, all the way south around the Victorian coast to the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia. There is also a small population in Tasmania. It must be said, though, that Victoria is their stronghold, although even in the Garden State they are targeted by relatively few anglers.

Within their range, according to a recent literature review by Senior Scientist at the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Dr Daniel Stoessel, adult estuary perch spend most of their time in the brackish water of estuaries. Here they can form large schools and commonly reside in deep channels or around submerged timber. Researchers have observed that estuary perch move up and down the river depending on salinity levels and water temperature. Moon phase can also have an effect, with fish being further upstream when the moon is full; something it will pay anglers to keep in mind.

Spawning secrets

In the wild, estuary perch complete their life cycle within a single estuary. There is little to no evidence of migration by adults from one estuary to another, but larvae have been recorded entering estuaries from the ocean and this is thought to be the mechanism for genetic mixing between estuaries.

According to the literature collated by Dr Stoessel, southern populations of estuary perch generally spawn between September and November, with spawning triggered by appropriate inflows of freshwater into the river. When conditions are just right, the perch migrate rapidly downstream (within 24 hours) to spawn near the estuary entrance where water salinity levels are higher. Spawning is thought to occur on shallow flats adjacent to deeper water, where eggs are laid on rocks and underwater plants.

Eggs hatch within five days, then the resulting larvae metamorphise into juvenile perch by four weeks after hatching. Adults remain in the lower parts of the estuary for around a month, then migrate back upstream. Again, this is information that should be useful to anglers targeting estuary perch.

Growth of the juvenile fish can be rapid, but growth rates vary between individuals and waterways. Some fish reach nearly 30cm inside three years while elsewhere fish of the same length have been found to be more than ten years old. In terms of diet, a study by the predecessor of the Victorian Fisheries Authority (VFA) several decades ago noted that 50 per cent of the stomach contents of estuary perch was the remains of small fish, while 41 per cent was shrimps and prawns and the rest small crustaceans and worms.

Research also shows that most estuaries have only a small number of year classes of estuary perch present, meaning that successful recruitment into any given estuary is episodic. In other words, it is highly variable and significant recruitment occurs only in some years, and as little as once in every decade or so in some systems. It is known that in years when more freshwater enters the system in spring and summer there is greater spawning and recruitment success, which makes EP populations vulnerable to both man-made and natural disturbances in water flow. The presence of mostly very old fish in some waterways possibly indicates repeated recruitment failure in recent years


To address concerns of a decline in estuary perch stocks, the VFA has over the last few years been restocking perch into freshwater impoundments, estuaries and rivers around Victoria. Large scale production of estuary perch fingerlings is now possible at a hatchery in Narooma, NSW, using brood stock captured in Victoria by volunteer anglers as part of ‘The Great Perch Search’. There are two genetic variants of estuary perch in Victoria, so fish from the western and eastern parts of the state are kept separate and flown directly to the hatchery. The subsequent fingerlings are then transported back to Victoria for release, with the site of release depending upon where their parents were captured.


When targeting estuary perch in Victoria, try and consider the information provided above when deciding where and when you should be fishing the various parts of the estuary. Target structure like fallen timber and weed beds along drop-offs whenever possible. Remember that EP are schooling fish and that once you have caught one you are likely to catch a lot, so mark the spot by whatever means you have available and work it thoroughly. This is one of the reasons that many keen perch fishers are so secretive and loathe to give away their prime spots; particular schools are vulnerable to over-fishing by unethical anglers.

Perch love lures. In fact, they love lures so much it’s kind of hard to make a recommendation about what to use. The hardest part about catching an estuary perch is finding them because once you have done that I reckon that just about any lure will work on the right day. Nevertheless, some will work better than others. Remembering that EP are mostly mid-water and surface feeders (hence their upward facing eyes), it will pay to favour topwater lures like a Bent Minnow or shallow-diving suspending lures such as the Jackall Squirrel. Soft plastics will be very effective too, as they are with most species. Plastics like 2.5 inch Z-Man Grubz or Squidgie Fish and Wrigglers will work well when used in conjunction with a jig-head just heavy enough to get them into the strike zone. Surface lures and poppers are also effective, especially in low light.

Despite being enthusiastic consumers of lures, bait still takes its fair share of estuary perch by anglers in the know. Small fish and prawns are the baits of choice, and you will do best if these can be presented alive. I was told long ago that EP like to engulf their prey head first. The person who told me that showed me how to rig a live prawn when targeting perch. The secret is to thread a strong hook through the prawn’s horn above and behind its eyes. This way not only will the hook be positioned towards the front of the prawn, but the prawn will be uninjured and stay alive for a long time. When presenting such a bait, position yourself upstream from the structure, lower you bait down into the depths un an unweighted line, and hang on!

So, there it is. Estuary perch provide unmatched light tackle lure fishing in Victoria’s estuaries and our researchers have provided some good clues about how and where to target them. Why not get out and a crack at the barra of the south, and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

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