I'd been cueing up a trip to 'The Ditch' after its resident perch population ever since discovering by happenchance, a fresh and hitherto unknown contingent living happily in one of its pools. Now, I needed to secure a perch point on the challenge scoreboard, to pass the current British record weight for the species currently standing at five pounds and fifteen ounces, and I thought that perhaps, if I was very lucky, that there might just be enough in the way of perch living in the very few locations that I knew of, to get me over the hurdle. But if, and only if, I could catch the whole lot...
I mean every one...
That's every single fish known to me.
Without losing any...
Now you may think I'm exaggerating wildly when I say that that getting enough perch, one of the commonest of all British fish, is an easy enough task? Not so. I ranked this particular challenge as one of the very hardest of all the species, and for good reason. It's very easy to find perch, but very hard to find six pounds of them in the same swim.
It's like a rule with them...?
All waters seem to have a population but you start to catch steadily and then suddenly you run out of fish! The only option is, hop swims and find more concentrations, or find a location full of very large fish and catch as many as you can manage before the day runs away on you.
To the Ditch
I prevaricated endlessly about choosing the right day to fish. Yesterday morning seemed the ideal convergence of desire to go and potential to do so, as I had an enforced day off work due to the gallery being hired out for the day and my presence there, pointless. Unfortunately the day dawned too bright and cheery. I wanted, or had been led to believe, that big perch like it dark. Overcast would have been nice, downright gloomy better, but I had a lovely summers day ahead of me and perch fishing seemed a non prospect.
I dillied and dallied, dallied and I dillied...
Eventually, through lack of suitable bait and ready cash to buy any, I decided that the cut and the local free ponds were out of the question. And besides, I had a freshly dug supply of lobworms...
On arrival the stream was almost invisible inside a blanket cloak of lush vegetation reaching right across, and in places, meeting in the middle. The new pool where I intended to start is one of the largest features in the entire stretch and attracts dog walkers, so the biggest problem there, with the water being crystal clear, was finding enough cover, however, there's a sapling stump at the edge of the bank and I found to my delight that I could not only hide behind that thing, but also stand up and hide behind it whilst observing what was going on down in the pool. Perfect...
Tackle and tactics were simple and direct - pure summer eyeball stalking with freelined lobworms sunk by a single bb shot, 4lb mainline tied to size ten hook, a nine foot wand and fixed spool reel, no tackle bag, all small gear stashed in a vest, long landing net, keepnet to separate caught fish from those as yet uncaught, polaroid glasses, floppy hat, thick jeans, ankle boots and long sleeved thick cotton shirt, sleeves buttoned down, all clothing selected to avoid any possibility of nettle stings and as my bank would have no tree cover whatsoever wherever I went, all upper garments light drab and heron like in colour to maximise blending of outlines against a bright sky.
The perch were in residence in the pool, along with the roach, only there did not seem to be as many perch as before, just three, where there had been at least five. They were all drifting around unperturbed by any disturbance, until that is, I cast the poor lobworm amongst them, a morsel that was to have an enormous effect upon the pool, as we shall see.
As it sank the roach became slightly agitated and moved away slowly, the perch on the other hand rose in the water to investigate, but did not touch it. I cast the worm across the pool and had it sink nearly out of sight, where it was snaffled by one of the larger perch who was hooked and landed swiftly; a fish of about a pound weight, quickly despatched to temporary quarters in the keepnet. Suddenly a pike appeared in the pool arriving from upstream, attracted no doubt by the commotion. He began cruising around the pool putting all the roach and perch on edge - they would not have him too near, but didn't seem to have a real problem with having him around, I mean, they stayed in the pool, and did not choose to vacate it entirely.
I continued to cast the worm and then hooked another perch about the same size as the first. The pike made an explosive dash for it as it splashed on the surface but missed first time, turned around and had another go, but fortunately for the perch the hooked popped out just before those rapacious jaws could close! He got clean away and disappeared from the pool, never to return...
Then another pike appeared, from downstream, and the first pike, who was the slightly larger chased him around the pool too. Not to eat him I'm sure, as there wasn't that much of a size difference, but to dominate. The roach and remaining perch now avoided two pike but really, they still were not that perturbed by their presence, just avoiding them as one would avoid a couple of unruly drunks, simply by putting a comfortable distance between.
Three pike in a pool the size of the average living room, left, top right and bottom right
Then, amazingly, for a river that would not seem capable of supporting so many in such a short distance, another pike turned up out of nowhere making it one apex predator to every ten prey fish. I then hooked another perch, still feeding despite the overwhelming presence of those who would eat him if they could, and two of the three pike went for him at once as he splashed about, missing completely and turning on each other, pandemonium ensuing, and a swiftly netted perch the result !
Into the net with him, and a return to get the last remaining perch in the pool out, if I possibly could. In went the worm but on the retrieve the newcomer pike snaffled it for himself. I now pronounced the pool, well and truly finished with...!
Dazzled by the brilliant display of jungle warfare pyrotechnics that I had just witnessed, I moved down to less troubled waters. Here I found again, a reduced number of perch in residence amongst the usual large roach and to make matters worse, they weren't the stamp of fish that I needed. I had two perch for a pound and half total so far, so would need a further four and a half pounds of additional prime percas to get the challenge point, but the swim simply did not contain that kind of weight, evidently.
I decided to fish as many out as possible and then go search other potential lies for enough makeweights to just scramble over the line. They were fairly easy to catch and in an hour I'd very nearly emptied the swim of perch but I lost one of the larger and crucial fish to a hook pull (later on I found this fish hiding beneath a stick) and then another pike turned up to end things.
I now had no choice but go to all the places I knew of that fish might be. First port of call was a swim that in even winter with spare vegetation growth and bare trees was tricky enough with its low overhanging branches and snaggy waters, but now, in the height of summer it was almost invisible beyond a dense growth of plant life and with the weight of leaves bringing the branches almost to the water surface. Nevertheless, undaunted, I forced an entrance.
Beneath the worryingly low canopy I had just enough room to hold a rod, push a net and land a fish. And I mean, just. The fight would be conducted off the end of the rod on tight line with a three foot drop, maximum. There would be no raising of the rod top or I'd tangle with the branches and landing the fish would mean scooping it up as it thrashed. Hook and hold, at its logical extreme.
This swim and its severe limitations illustrates perfectly well why my first rod of choice for this small stream work is an eight or nine foot soft action wand or winklepicker type affair. On this occasion I had my nine footer on me, but here I really needed the eight footer (left at home...) to make life a little easier, it being, A. shorter, and B. so soft that I can allow the rod to do all the work and never give an inch of line. You see all operations performed under this kind of cover are accomplished pole style, that is to say the tip does the work and you always ship the rod backwards to bring fish close, rebait or unhook, because you cannot take the rod backwards, any other way.
First cast in and the worm was pursued avidly by a gang of three or four good looking perch who fairly rocketed out of the gloom to greet it. Clearly, I was going to have no trouble catching these fish, but would I land any of them?
Well, I'll cut a long story shortish. I did manage to land just about every fish in that swim, but it took over two hours of hard graft to do so. They came one after the other. A seemingly never ending supply of fat strapping perch eager to eat my worm. The fights were astonishing, adrenaline fueled scraps, the like of which I have not enjoyed since the days of my carefree youth, jumping in and out of reedbeds with carp. Amazingly I only lost the one fish, and that was when the inevitable pike crashed the party and chased it under a snag.
I knew I had my point in the bag when a brace of pound and a quarter fish, the largest of the day, were caught in quick succession, but I stayed on to empty the swim in a kind of in-the-zone, battle frenzy. Eventually the bites ceased, I'd evicted all the residents, one by one.
I stopped fishing, hoist the net, weighed and documented the fish as quickly as I could, and to avoid drying them unduly, did it all whilst the sun was hiding behind a cloud. The first batch was all the small fish well below a pound in weight and down to a few ounces of which there were thirteen. They went three and a half pounds in total ~
This picture is a perfect reprise of the picture of five, one pound plus roach caught in the same swims, precisely six months ago, in the snow
Next were the five largest, all estimated 'around the pound' with a properly weighed brace four ounces larger still to gauge them by. So, an average of a pound - five pounds for them all, and a gross day total thus far of ten pounds, and all but one of which (who we will return to at the very end) fin and scale perfect.
Virgins, one and all.
Thing is I couldn't just end it there! I walked down to the very end of the stretch and set up by an overhanging tree, just to come down off the buzz and prepare for a walk home, only there, instead of winding down, I had another brace!
Oh, before I go, I nearly forgot. Stick around just a while longer and meet my mate, the only 'name' Perch in all of England who has the most amazing, and quite natural as it happens, hairstyle ...
I give you, Beckham.