Monday, 26 March 2012

Hanningfield Perch - One in Eight and a Half Billion Chance

A record perch. Hanningfield Reservoir. Where the hell do we start?

Well, there's only one place to start, and that's with probability.

The perch Hanningfield does contain in some numbers weigh approximately the same as a half Imperial gallon of water, that is five-pounds, give or take a pound either way. Four-pounders are the average stamp caught, but the largest recorded perch it does still contain, because the fish weighed on the fisheries official scales at the boathouse was witnessed as safely returned by the rangers, is a specimen of almost six- pounds, and others it is reputed, and quite feasibly does contain, are going to be even more than that.

There is an account, of a seven-pounder...!

The estimated figure was arrived at by direct observation, during routine work by the same rangers who'd seen the record equalling near six-pounder, of a massive perch found trapped in one one of the fish cages, that was simply 'beyond imagination' and estimated as at least a pound larger than the fish they'd witnessed, weighed and recorded.

It was released...

If we say that the ranger's estimates were correct and there really is a sole seven-pound perch swimming around in this vast water. Let's get it into some kind of true perspective ~

The fish weighs 7 tenths of a gallon. Hanningfield contains at full capacity, just under 6 billion gallons of water. That's 30 million imperial tons of water, or if you'd prefer it in record perch related quantities, 60,000,000,000 pounds of H2O. That's one seven-pound fish swimming around in 8,571,428,571 times its own body weight of the stuff...

And today, we are out on the reservoir, in search of it...!

Longford, Coventry. Waiting for a 5am pickup

This would be my second trip to the fishery. My blog entry for that day is titled 'Somewhere Under the Rainbows' and not a title that's some fancy thing I made up off the cuff, for it is the one fact that I'd established from the entire day, that the perch were indeed swimming below the trout and certainly not swimming with them. This would be Keith's first trip, so he would have to undergo what I'd had to and that is to cope with the scale of the place, and begin to compute the phenomenal numbers that dictate the way fishing there transpires.

The journey from my house is approximately two and half hours down South to Essex along the M6, M1, M25 and A127 respectively, and the fishery opens at 8am. We're there early, but there is a bit of a problem awaiting us. There's a long queue of expectant anglers already waiting at the fishery door, the majority Eastern Europeans, but a third of them all, including us two and only one other specifically here for perch and perch only, are destined to have a spanner thrown in our works by the English weather, and for us perch anglers that means delay that robs us of the precious hours that we must put in to narrow the colossal odds by even a gallon.

There's our boats on the jetty. We can't board em' though!

The bank anglers are free to go fish, but we are not. Boats are not allowed out in thick mist until the head ranger can see the bird hide on the nearby peninsular, and clearly. The mist did not clear till that point was reached till ten O'clock. Keith was having a heart attack meanwhile! Nevertheless, this was delay that turned out to be a golden opportunity that narrowed the odds considerably, and by the time we finally did get boats tickets and clearance to push off, we'd learned a great deal, and it was a great deal that shortened the odds in our favour by a far greater margin of gallons to perch than fishing blind those two 'wasted' hours ever could have, for we had been chatting the whole of the time with that 'other' perch angler, and his name was Sid Hawes.

Sid, I must say, is a lovely fella. An Essex boy like myself, though he sounds like one, but according to him, I don't any longer! Open minded, open hearted, and ready to relay what he does know about the reservoir and its perch, and what Sid knows is gold dust because nobody else knows even a fraction as much because he has caught the vast majority of the perch recorded by the fishery thus far, and all of them, every single one, by design.

He did not catch the biggest, that was a specimen caught by one of Hanningfield's loyal clientele of Eastern European spinning fanatics angling for trout, but he has caught by far the most and has put a string of fish under his belt in the short time he has targeted them to make the average perch angler weep with envy. I think he may well be the only angler to ever catch more than one perch in a session on Hanningfield, everyone else being out after trout, but what a session it was... Three four pound fish were caught that October day, and a five pounder to round things off nicely. That's three four pounders more than most will ever catch in a lifetime of fishing, and a fish of anyone's lifetime in just a few hours! It may well be one of the greatest catches of specimen perch ever made, and historic if it is.

I was all ears. By the time we'd boarded our boats and pushed off I knew exactly what I'd be doing the whole of the day, and that was exactly what I had already planned to do for weeks in advance given the right conditions, which was a spot of bass fishing. Given the wrong conditions, and it seemed we had those already and by afternoon they wouldn't change much, I was going to put my contingency plan into operation and do the next best thing.

At last! Off we go

First port of call was to a drop off that Keith had identified between a hump of shallow water and the deeps beyond. It was shallow off the prow of the boat where I sat handling the anchor, but deeper off the stern where Keith sat handling the engine, the very light breeze having pulled the boat around to sit downwind of the tether. I got out my spinning rod and threw around the bright orange Mepps I'd last week caught a small perch with on the canal, just to test the water, to get it out of my system, and within three or four casts had a hit that failed to find a hold. This was encouraging, even though it was almost certainly not from perch (nobody gets that much luck, that quickly!) but one of the ubiquitous trout. However, we were now fishing in the approximate area where the near six-pounder had been caught, and a second 'five' too, so I was on my mettle.

No other takes happened there in an hour to any method we tried, so we moved around to various places but eventually ended up by the fish cages over 38 feet of water. Keith decided to float fish here, rigging up a looney slider rig that would get his bait to the deck but still allow a big float to be watched, whilst I busied my self tying up a new rig to me, but one I've been looking into for some time prior to this trip, the drop-shot.

It is simplicity itself the way the Americans who invented the method tie it. Just a weight on the end of the trace with a hook tied some way above and directly on the trace with a palomar knot. This makes the bait, invariable some kind of plastic worm when fished American style, sit up level in the water whilst the angler twitches it about in various cunning ways from more or less directly above. I had no intention of dropping the bait straight down and twitching it about though, I wanted it to move in a slow direct line without any twitching at all on my part, just gentle lifts from the motion of the rocking boat. I intended to incorporate a second American method, 'slow death', whereby a live worm is trolled very slowly indeed off the end of a weighted and angled wire boom on a short hooklink. By casting the drop shot rig as far as I could, and retrieving it extremely slowly and carefully, I thought I could design a hybrid method that would cover a lot of ground and induce any perch that it came across in this vast sparsely populated water, to follow and take.

Keith float-fishing by the fish cage. Inside are two hapless gulls. Endlessly flying upward only to be thwarted in their attempts at gaining freedom by the very mesh they thought it might be a good thing to slip through in the first place, and doomed to starve to death exhausted unless the rangers free them very soon. 

It didn't work by the cages. Once it had reached bottom, the line was at an acute angle and could only be twitched, and that was not what I wanted, especially as twitching did not work anyhow, because I tried it and failed to catch perch. I had a go with spinners too, but neither did that because the spinner would of course, work its way straight up again at an angle and miss any perch that might have been interested by a mile, and even if it did find one, perch being extremely depth sensitive and loath to move more than a few feet upward or downward because of their extremely sensitive swim bladders, it would have moved out of range in seconds. And that's exactly why these Hanningfield perch are so rarely caught by that particular method, almost certainly over quite shallow water when they are, by deep working plugs that insist on diving downwards and staying there (the big one was caught exactly this way on a Rapala countdown, a fast sinking lure that falls at precisely one foot per second) and why any angler that does catch one by this method is extremely fortunate.

Spinning, is certainly not the way forward because it does not reduce the vast gallonage standing against the perch angler by any appreciable amount. It's a game of remote chance here that turns your expensive day ticket into a lottery ticket when after perch, and because that kind of gambling is a desperate loser's game, therefore, I decided to abandon it, only pick up the spinning rod and have a chuck about for a rest from time to time, and concentrate exclusively on getting this drop-shot x slow-death hybrid thing, under my skin. At least this seemed more method than madness.

Soon we moved again, but this time over to a place I'd fished last year with Steve Philips, and was familiar with. This was the valve tower, a concrete structure on the end of a pier jutting out into the water a hundred yards and where the water below gradually shelves away from the bank. We anchored over ten to twelve feet, Keith float fished around the piers, whilst I concentrated on casting and retrieving that drop-shot rig.

Amazingly, it worked. After numerous unsuccessful casts retrieving the rig at the slowest, smoothest speed I could produce without the whole thing collapsing in the heap on the bottom, and just as it was seeming just another hopeless dead-end experimental scheme of mine, I received a sudden drag on the line, the worm coming back with its tail nipped off. Now, I had no idea if the lead had snagged momentarily on a stone or if the worm had dragged through a sunken branch, but it felt like a bite. Two casts later I got a series of sharp raps on the rod tip that could only have been from fish, and they continued nearly all the way to the boat from 25 yards out, so I knew they were. The worm was mangled, there'd been numerous attempts at it, but the rig had failed to hook the fish.

Nevertheless I continued to fish it, giving it at least a whole chance to prove or disgrace itself before modifying it in any way now that I was certain it would induce fish to have a go, and unsure whether or not alterations to what has become a classic rig design, might well have a negative effect upon its action.

Every now and then I'd get another odd drag on the line, some of which were from fish, the evidence of which was a damaged worm, and other from the lead catching, which felt precisely the same as true bites. Sometimes I'd get a sharp rap and a damaged bait, sometimes a sharp rap or two without damage. Nevertheless, the thought that the bites might have been from perch was enough to keep us in that area for a long time, though until it produce the goods in the form of a perch of any size, let alone a monster of one, Keith was not about to abandon his preferred style of fishing, and fished on with the float.

By way of a break from what was becoming totally absorbing, frustrating, fruitless, but still hopeful work, I decided to chuck the Mepps about a bit and was rewarded with a sudden bang, a kicking tail, a shaking head, few short but powerful runs, and a small trout flapping in the net. After hours waiting for, expecting any moment, but not receiving that awesome sensation of a fish on the line, my legs were shaking and heart beating fast. They fight like fury these trout, small or not. At least it was not going to be an outright blank!

It was released because I had no way to refrigerate on the first day of a two day trip, and it had a small, red, angry blister on its belly, so wasn't about to eat it raw!

I had the second half of my double Snickers bar instead.

Ah, the pleasures of messing about in boats! 
Then we moved around to various shallower places where I received only a handful of true bites resulting in worm damage amongst a plethora of 'might be' indications. This was useful information as it proved one thing, that my method, whether or not it would catch fish as it stood, would not do half as well in attracting the most important thing, and that'll be bites of any kind, in water much less than ten feet deep, and it was becoming increasingly clear exactly the reasons why as the afternoon wore on and slipped into evening time.

Keith had not had a single bite all day long using the time worn method for perch wherever they might swim, that of float-fished worm.  It was abundantly clear by the time we motored back to port and decanted, that either my bites had not been from perch in the first place, or if they had been from perch, that they'd no interest whatsoever in static baits. The wind had never once reached the point where my 'bass fishing' was possible so that would have to wait for another day, and the forecast for Sunday was just as settled so it might have to wait for Autumn now, but I'd done the next best thing under the circumstances and it had proven at least attractive to fish, so there was something to work on further.

On the jetty we met up with Sid Hawes once more. He'd fared as badly as us, had notched up his third blank in a row, and him fishing over his reliable marks and with his reliable methods and approaches in operation too, which was some small comfort for us, but a head scratch for all of us. Where the hell had the perch gone?

On the way up the jetty I collared Sid and asked a few pointed questions that had not occurred to me earlier in the day, not having the experience to form them back then. Just small details you understand, not outright and flagrant breaches of etiquette about exact marks and the like. Just bait and hook and line and weight and stuff. Important things, but small things.

We went to the hotel, booked in, dumped our gear in the room, and went off for a drink at the bar with Lee Fletcher, who's birthday bash this trip was hatched around, and Leo Heathcote, who'd just turned up for their own Hanningfield baptisms at eight the next morning, where we'd also meet up with four more anglers of the eight in four boats comprising our party, and all hungering after one of those big, big perch.

Would tomorrow bring the desired result? Would a single perch fall to whatever method we could fling at the water between us all?

One thing I knew was this. I was going to fish all day long the same way but change nothing about the method other than small details in the rig tying and bait hooking, details that from my Essex coast bass fishing experiences, I knew must be changed or I'd be destined for another long, long day of frustration. Something had not been quite right, but it was obvious by now, exactly what it was that was so wrong-headed about it.

To be continued...


  1. An enthralling read Jeff and some serious odds to be up against, but with Perch like that swimming about it will certainly make the capture of one rather special. The scene has been well and truly set and I'm really looking forward to part two of your Hanningfield quest.

  2. As good a write up of a blank as one could get - better luck the next day I hope!

  3. Mark, sorry I couldn't deliver. It's a tough nut to crack.

    Phil, thanks for the fish finder. It was fascinating and informative to watch. I think it told us more about the bottom than the fish though. There were a lot of chunks of warmed up crap coming off the bed that it saw as fish I think, then again, everywhere it saw fish, there were fish, but it needs a perch alert !