Thursday, 17 December 2020

Perched Out, Found Out

 



Ever since my early encounters with perch I have been fascinated by their behaviour and sheer beauty.  Such wonderment is heightened when it involves specimen perch and becomes seriously obsessive once they’re over four pound.

          I have been fortunate to catch various forms of the species throughout the world, including Nile Perch beyond 100lb, but the real perching is done back home.

          The modus operandi has always been to find my own perch and target them in a circumspect manner.  Perhaps it’s coming from the good old secretive days of specimen hunting that I find it best to work alone, only sharing captures with a few close friends.  Big perch, like other predators, simply cannot stand too much pressure.  Nor will you do yourself or the fish any favours with publicity that exposes venues, especially in this age of social media where news is disseminated wide and far instantly.

          In my lifetime I’ve witnessed two perch diseases, the last in circa 1985 left many waters decimated.  It was a long, long journey until the late 1990s when signs of specimen perch started to show again.  I still have my old Ordnance Survey maps of venues that I explored and one such water, Marden Thorn, finally gave me a nice perch one Christmas Eve.  I was back in business!  However, no sooner had the festive period finished when the county was beset with ‘foot and mouth’ disease.  Fishing waters were closed and by the time the ban was lifted the controlling club had lost it to a private buyer.  I was devastated.  Fortunately, all the groundwork assessing venues meant I had others with potential.  And sometimes things happen for a reason as fate takes its toll.

          Although this story was partly covered in ‘The Biggest Fish of All’ the full events and aftermath have never been told.  To cut a long story short, working alone over the seasons, picking the days and times to go, I discretely caught a number of fours culminating in March 2004 with a 5lb 1oz perch.  In historical context, it was 8oz behind the existing record, zoomed into The Top 50, and was the first five reported in years, apart from a 5lb 0oz and a 5lb 4oz that same year from the then ‘Perch Mecca’, the Great Ouse.

          Those big perch had been there for some time and no one knew.  Indeed, I nearly gave up on the lake until, at the very last attempt after flogging its banks for a dozen days, a 2lb perch followed a retrieving bait to my rod tip ring.  With dorsal fin erect, he basked in all his glory for what seemed like an eternity, eyes changing between lobworm and me, then suddenly he slowly turned, flicking his tail, before moving off at snail pace in a display of utter contempt to the angler for insulting him.  Although I was impressed by this performance it gave me all the encouragement needed to return the next day, where I duly caught his mother at 4lb 8oz. It was the start of a perch journey I shall never forget.

          That experience culminated in the five which, for the record, measured 20” (from mouth to tail tip) x 15 ½” inches, and was caught with another at 2lb 10oz 8drms.  It was the highlight of a memorable week that saw me go through the card with perch in every pound division right up to five, including another brace of 4lb 0oz 8drms and 3lb 9oz 8drms.   My initial cool when landing the fish was probably due to recognising it on the unhooking mat as a big four from the previous season.  Naturally, I assumed it was a four - I fished for fours, 5lb perch were just never considered!  On the scales for the third time and only when it confirmed the previous readings, which was actually a shade over the 1oz mark, did my knees go. 



          Composure was soon restored when I needed some pictures.  A dog walker I befriended would do the honours and I knew when he’d be around on my short sessions.  Except this day he didn’t show so as dusk arrived I put my old 35mm camera on a bankstick and took 6 shots, all were out of focus apart from one here which is slightly so and dull.  Thankfully I decided, in the age when you had to wait for your prints back from the chemists, to call my wife, Alison.  In pitch black darkness the photo shoot was a bit like the ‘Golden Shot’ (younger readers may need to ‘Google’ that once popular TV programme) with me going “Up a bit, left a bit, down a bit.....fire!”.  It did give me peace of mind and I could include the 2lb 10oz which also gave a reference of scale to the size of the biggun.  Sometimes the easiest part is catching the fish! 

 We went home and got on with the routines of everyday domestic life, the only time I gave it thought was for a few seconds laying there in bed before falling asleep.  Back then a 4lb perch was a rare beast and it was only the following morning, when reflecting on that season and previous, that it all began to sink in.  I remember saying “No one is gonna believe this – it’s off the bloody radar!”.

          For sheer fun I went the following Saturday knowing other members would be present.  I just sat down after returning a 3lb 6oz and caught the end of the Grand National only to hear my horse from the work’s sweepstake win the race!  Talk about when your luck’s in!   Then the following day life became really surreal when my team, Millwall, reached the FA Cup final for the first time in their history!  The world had gone crazy!

          I had done it ‘my way’ and no bugger knew, but it left me ‘perched out’ for a number of years.  There was also a negative aftermath which involved a‘green-eyed’ man with whom I was once friends.  After one more session that year I returned home to be told by Alison “You’re in trouble!”.  One of the clubs where I was a member telephoned to say I was using banned livebait on their water to catch perch.  Well not only was I using lobworms, which anyone who knows me will testify I always do back end of the season, but the 5lb perch was caught from another club’s water!  The momentary grief was soon resolved but not before I found out who reported me to the wrong club.

          Spring arrived and I called in to the local Larkfield complex to get in the mood for the start of my tench fishing.  For many years you couldn’t help but bump into Ted Bryan on one of the lakes.  Ted greeted me with “’ere, that bloke you know, he was here last week asking where you had all your big perch from?”.  Now Ted is far from stupid and quickly sussed he was being spoken to for snippets of information, especially the location.  Ted didn’t know the venue, as I had not told anyone at the time, but took an immediate dislike to what the person was trying to do, so then strung him along something rotten.  Frankly, it was hilarious as he had him possibly looking for the location in all different directions!  

          

This chancer was the most blatant, but he was not the only one, and it really did feel like “the hunter becoming the hunted”.  Late one Sunday afternoon this scenario played on my mind until I suddenly had a burning instinct to visit the fishery to see if there was anyone after my perch.  I recall thinking, whilst driving along, how irrational my behaviour was.  However, upon arrival my suspicions were confirmed by the sight of his Volvo estate car.  My curiosity had to be further satisfied so I made my way towards the water without trying to be noticed.  Suddenly, I could see him on the far side next to an obvious perch holding area.  Thankfully it was too obvious, even to the perch and not much came from that spot.  However, as I carefully approached a favoured swim my heart sank when I saw a loose perch float snagged in marginal rushes.  My secret had been found out!

          It was a relief in a way though because it was getting awkward with friends, one of whom interrogated me the entire journey from mid Kent to Buckinghamshire on a Great Ouse perch trip.  The most bizarre was my old angling mate John Lawrence.  He was convinced of the correct venue but, in order not to lie, and in true politician style, I would neither confirm nor deny.  Having retired for some while, John always went back to the work Christmas dinner and that year sat next to someone who, knowing he fished, told him about the big perch he would photograph when walking his dog.  Yes, you’ve guessed, it was my aforementioned canine cameraman!  What were the odds on that happening?  Despite John getting an accurate description of me I still didn’t confess!

          If the five I caught put the same weight on as it had done from the previous season then it could be a record contender.  I can honestly say it’s the only time I’ve targeted a repeat capture.  I kept away until the following March but my attempts were half-hearted.  I never saw it and, with big fish being on borrowed time, assumed it was dead.  I eventually told my Great Ouse companion who quickly filled his boots, winning numerous angling weekly magazine awards, before finally being convinced of repeat captures.

          Imagine my surprise when yet a further year down I heard my five had been caught at 4lb 13oz – I was delighted.  Particularly so because it was caught by my friend Jim Gibbinson.  Ironically, the previous year I was at Jim’s home and we spoke of my perch but I never volunteered venue nor, being the gentlemen, did he ask.  I would have happily shared information if I thought he was seriously interested. 

          Now Jim discovered the venue by researching the club’s website and seeing a picture of a four in a competition.  If it was weighed in a match then the size had to be correct he thought.  At that very same time, while sitting at my desk in work, I also saw this picture.  In fact, it was the first publicity that named the place and I was horrified to see it.  I actually phoned the club official and asked him to take it down.  After a lengthy conversation, he rightly stated that if a member submits a photo for the website gallery then they have a right for it to be displayed.  Although he was sympathetic to my view I asserted my actions were not just selfish as I feared the perch would become pressurised.

         

That kind of marked the end of my love affair with the water and those big perch.  The following year I had a reciprocal arrangement with Ian Welch who let me guest the RMC stock lake which held big crucians.  The day before Ian’s arrival I went to the venue to pre-bait only to discover two speci-looking type individuals that were clearly after the perch.  Thankfully, they were not resident in the swims I was targeting.  Just as I catapulted the last of the lobworm halves and 3mm betaine pellets I met a passer-by who rented a house on the landowners’ estate.  Evidently, he was an occasional angler but I was most surprised when he spoke of my friend who, in his words, was “always in the angling press”.  “Have you heard of him?” he asked.  “Name sounds familiar” I vaguely replied.  Upon leaving I immediately phoned my friend who told me he had an arrangement with this chap.  Apparently, every time a big perch was caught he would ring him to come and take the pictures.  Well if this local told me of the perch within minutes then who else had he told!?  If a few people already knew about the water then it had now been well and truly found out!

          I discovered the following day that all was not lost when Ian Welch banked one of the fours.  Better still, the following year on the very same date, he bagged a brace of fours.  I couldn’t have been more joyous as I walked to assist a very emotional Ian with the biggest at 4lb 9oz in his landing net.  In fact I had to grab the pole has he was unknowingly lowering it (and the fish) back into the water, such was his state of euphoria.  It was testament to the anglers and their care that those big perch were still going strong but for me it would be my last visit.  Other venues needed to be explored and my pike fishing had been neglected.

          Rarely, in angling, do you discover such a rich goldmine of specimen fish and have it all to yourself.  I have had similar since with tench and you struggle to keep the lid on others finding out.  That period when you’re the only one is what I crave.  Not just a privilege but a true blessing.  Sod the accolades, awards, prize money or tin-pots (such distractions have never really tempted me).  Nothing can match that feeling of being first to the angling equivalent of reaching the summit and the ecstasy you experience alone, in total isolation.    Usually, you’re already on borrowed time and have to make the most.  When known, some may even doubt your success but who cares?  Yours is the kingdom and glory, so just enjoy the ride.

          As expected, the venue became extremely pressured.  Those big perch have long since died but it still produces specimen sizes, although never a four to my knowledge.  Frankly, for that to happen, it could do with being neglected for a few years but judging from reports and even photos on social media there’s little chance of that happening.

           Within two years of my 5lb 1oz there was a boom in big perch and there’s no denying the past decade has been the best time for a leviathan.

          Today’s young generation of specialist anglers may find it difficult to comprehend the dark ages when a 2lb perch was hard to find.  Don’t take these peak weight productive times for granted though has characteristically they have been rapidly followed by decimation.  Enduring those entire bleak years, hungry for decent perch, all the effort, anguish, miles and blind alleys, was momentarily forgotten after that one capture.

Mike Cutler

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