Last week I wrote how I was weighing up whether to fish for perch or bass. This is an account of my day chasing spiked predators….

When travelling to the river only to see many of the valleys on the way shrouded in floodwater it’s natural to question the wisdom of your choice of fishing venue. Although my destination was a chalk fed drainage basin, relatively unaffected by flooding, it was getting increasingly difficult not to think it would have also have succumbed to the deluge. There were occasional optimistic signs as I drove, as some streamside meadows I passed remained green and relatively dry. Each of those fields seemed to have a dusting of gulls on it. Like my fishing plans, these birds had also been forced inland by the weather. They weren’t squabbling or fidgety in their normal manor, but stood still with their heads hung low, looking almost morose. It was hard not to ponder whether common gulls can get the blues. Not having fished for 2 months though, my own mood was anything but down – even if I was wondering whether if fishing gravel pits or dangling big lob worms under floats might have been a better call in these conditions.

The last few hundred meters of my journey took me down a rutted narrow track that leads to the water. In the woods on one side I spotted my first snowdrops of the year. The white flowers however were not only poking clear of the soil but also of the several inches of water that drowned the floor of the whole wood. The swamped trees, backlit by the sun looked more like a Louisiana bayou than deciduous Southern English woodland and catching a wide mouth bass was about as likely as a perch, given these conditions and the dislike of dirty floodwater of the perch.

swamp

Little chance of bayou catch

Arriving at the end of the track I craned my neck, desperate to see the water over a bramble thicket The river remained largely within its banks, did not seem obviously coloured and the car park was empty. My relief was tangible. With the trout fishermen gone for the winter, the 5 miles of river Julian and I had been lucky enough to get an invite to fish was our very own kingdom for the day.

I wandered towards the water to get a close look and spotted 2 tweed clad men and a Labrador headed in my general direction along the boundary of a nearby field. Despite my presence being legitimate, deep down I still felt like an intruder in such a place. They were more interested in flushing pheasants however and passed by acknowledging me with only a nod of the head – Other than Julian, they were the only people I saw all day.
I texted my fishing companion to tell him against the odds the river seemed fishable AND we were Lords of this valley for the day. It would be another 30 minutes before he arrived, so the dishonourable Lord Spence, wondered off to wobble soft plastics, hoping to arouse the interests of something predatory.

In this part of the valley the river has little clear identity. It is lattice like, having been broken up into a maze of carriers peppered with weirs, pools and sluices, the result of decades of management to maximise the benefits to the trout and wealthy fishermen who pursue them. Yet this diversity also benefits any coarse fish that manage to escape the river keeper’s attempts to electro-fish or net them out.

As my main target was perch, a close relative of the bass, it seemed appropriate that my tackle was predominantly redeployed bass gear. The reel was USA bought Shimano Stradic 3000 FI loaded with the (excellent) 8 strand Sufix 832 braid I have used for the past year. At the end of the line was tied (via a modified Albright knot) 6 inches of pike proof 12lb titanium trace. It all terminated with jig heads weighing between 5 to 10 grams, in 1/0 or 2/0 sizes, on which were slid various 2 ½ to 4 inch paddle tail or fork tailed soft plastic lures. The rod was my one bit of perch specific equipment; a cheap Rockfish 3-12 gram lure rod I brought the other year. Originally 7-6 foot, it was actually improved by a minor accident to the excessively soft tip that leaves it measuring about 7-3. It is sensitive enough to tell me what the lure is doing but has proven itself strong enough for pike of 15 pounds or more. I was clad in old waders and my wading jacket to keep dry, and the only other gear I carried was a landing net, and small waterproof backpack containing a spares lures, wire and hooks, pliers and (importantly) chocolate.

By the time Julian arrived my primary goal of catching was achieved as a feisty 4 pound pike lurking deep in a narrow gap in the rushes had taken my lure on the drop. Our day was spent wandering the valley, fishing in both in places our limited past experience suggested were good, or spots that we fancied purely on a whim, putting the world to rights as we went. The water rose slightly as the day progressed but still there remained around 20 inches of visibility.

jules and troot

By lunch I had also landed a near double figure pike (missing part of its tail) and had several near misses, while Julian had returned a few fabulous out of season brown trout that come April the fluff chuckers would be proud to hold. I did have one hit that felt perch like but other than that the spiked and striped fish that were our ultimate goal remained absent.

Jules and pike

A fat winter pike

Eating lunch the weather seemed both unfeasible and unseasonable, with even a hint of heat in the sun and not a hint of the predicted winds that had kept us from the coast. Yet once the thought we should have gone bass fishing occurred the weather subtly began to change. This gradual transformation from tranquil and bright, to dark and threatening, was not initially unwelcomed as it seemed to switch the pike on. As it started to drizzle we retried a stretch we had failed to catch from in the morning. Julian quickly landed 3 pike to double figures, while I lost a beast that chugged up and down deep in the river, resisting all attempts to raise it, before the single hook straightened and it was gone.

Then the storm hit. At first just it seemed like a standard shower with heavy rain and a breeze but then the wind changed several gears at once and was suddenly a roaring storm. Bits of wood rained from the trees around us and a few large branches crashed into the river. I dived behind the bow of an alder that was not shedding dead growth like the surrounding beach trees. Julian opted to stay in an open patch, cowering with the horizontal rain against his back, laughing all the time. The rain only lasted 20 minutes and the damaging winds around 5. The temperature had dropped 7 degrees or more and failed to recover even as the front tore off to the North-East. Our wet hands tingled with cold and the pike had gone off the feed – which was hardly a surprise given the quantity of debris that had splashed down above their heads. Our decision to walk to our favourite spot for the last part of the session was welcome just to get the blood pumping again.

The thing about fishing for big perch in general is the longer into the day you fish the more hopeful you can be the next cast will be the one. So after a brief feeding frenzy at first light they become generally illusive until lunch. They then gradually become more inclined to take your bait or lure as the afternoon goes on. So quite regularly (especially in December and January) I see barely a sign of one until around sunset, but end up catching (or seeing friends catch) several in a final mad rush. As we wandered downstream and the as the day neared its end, it was obvious both of us were well aware of this pattern and the banter decreased and our fishing intensity rose.

moody river

Before the sun disappeared the remnants of the storm clouds caught alight and still the striped fish we craved remained absent. We wondered if the otter I had previously seen here had eaten all the perch (we had also seen perch scales scattered on the bank). Then the first signs of admitting defeat as Julian mentioned he had just heard the first few notes of tune about log fires and ale being sung by a rotund female vocalist. It sounded like a fine song. But just as he had uttered the words, a fish hit his plastic minnow imitation right at his feet. After a few dramas, I netted his striped fat lady, and then took their picture.

jules and perch

Spikey, stripey and probably 2 pounds

Experience suggested this perch weighed a touch over 2 pounds, but I looked in my bag I found my scales were still at home. Yet the precise figure seemed far less important than its impressive form and the fact we had succeeded. I made the comment, that without a means of weighing fish I was bound to catch a monster now. My words were probably intended to tempt fate. Five minutes later after a missed take, I squealed I might have actually hooked such a beast, as a perch as fat as a football was attached to my line and rolling at my feet. The fish got second wind when it saw Julian approach with the net and dived into a cress beds in front of me. Luck and gentle coaxing brought it out again and it was skilfully netted before I could mess things up again.

My initial declaration of it being a 3 pounder (my goal and definition of a whopper) was however somewhat premature, as lying beaten in the net it was no longer angrily puffed up and seemed to have shrunk in size. Had I scales I am sure this fish would have joined my long catalogue of perch between 2-8 and 2-15 pounds I’ve caught over the past 4 years. It is a list though that still does not have one over the 3 pound mark. Yet it didn’t matter, the fact we had both had caught good perch on lures at the death of the day, and we were both buzzing.

mat and perch

The author and his perch

We tried for another 15 minutes, with a variety of lures, keen to see if there might be other feeding perch but we didn’t have a touch. With it the descent into total dark almost complete, a beer was now definitely in order and we called time on the fishing. Walking back we agreed how easy it is to forget that days like this are an important part of the rhythm of our years – as well as being about as much fun as you can have without actually fishing for bass.

There was still one final incident to add to a memorable day, as driving back to the main road we found the estate track littered with bits of tree. This was no problem, but the 3 fallen dead trees we encountered almost were. For a moment we thought without a chainsaw we were trapped, but an intense spell of branch snapping and hernia inducing trunk dragging cleared a way to the pub. The next day out of idle curiosity I searched on line for news of this storm. The cause according to The Express was “a tornado” that had apparently “even lifted 4 cats off their feet” in one garden. It seems it’s a miracle I lived to tell the tale.

Words and pictures: Matt Spence

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