There’s just something special about estuary perch. I doubt there’s any other fish in our coastal creeks, inlets and rivers that is laden with as much enigma as the EP.
They may be hard to locate and equally challenging to hook, but EPs inhabit most tidal waterways from the Richmond River in northern NSW right around Victoria to the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia, with small pockets found in Tasmania.
EPs frequent similar habitats to the Australian bass and the two are often confused. The easiest way to ID them is to compare body shapes. EPs have a slightly elongated snout with raised shoulders, similar to golden perch.
They also have noticeably larger eyes and tend to have deeper bodies below the dorsal fin. Wild river bass are evenly proportioned and more streamlined.
EPs favour water with more salinity than bass and are hardy fish, being able to withstand intense water temperature fluctuations.
They are also capable of residing in fresh or salt water, from gin-clear to mud stained floodwater.
Reproduction generally takes place in the Winter with massive concentrations of spawning fish aggregating around structure and deeper holes toward the mouths of waterways.
EPs feed on prawns, shrimp and small baitfish. They also attack most artificial offerings if the presentation matches the hatch.
They can be caught in deep or shallow water, during the day or at night. They average from 28cm to 40cm and 300g to 1.2kg. Trophy fish can weigh up to 4kg and EPs have the potential to grow to 75cm and 10kg.
During my pursuit of this enigmatic species, I have documented details of hot, and ‘dud’ sessions in my fishing diary to aid my quest in understanding these fish. I’m certainly not laying claim to knowing this species inside out but, over time, I have a few theories I’d like to share.
Broadly, if the waterway is deep then fish either side of low tide. The top of the tide is often more successful in shallower estuaries. This is not always the case, but a general rule of thumb.
I prefer the larger tides around the new and full moon, when I look for structure or current breaks.
Eddies on deep river bends, sudden drop-offs, timber snags, bridge or wharf pylons and isolated boulders are all good starting points.
EPs can hold close to structure or on the fringes of converging currents, where they can easily ambush their prey.
In between tidal flows, EPs venture into all levels of the water column, leaving the sanctuary of their holding structure. They share similar habits to mulloway, and it’s quite common to catch both species in the same water.
Like most fish, tide changes around dawn and dusk are most productive, with active feeding occurring right into the night.
Overcast skies will aid middle-of-the-day captures, with rising barometric pressure really bringing them on the chew at any time of day or night.
Freshwater run-off from recent rain will also spur a feeding frenzy. With this in mind, fish around structure or deeper holes where runoff enters an estuary – EPs actively feed in these areas.
In the warmer months, target the upper reaches of a system and when the water is cooler, concentrate around the lower areas.
Surface fishing for EPs can be difficult but spectacular. I prefer walk-the-dog style surface lures to poppers, which can be a little obtrusive and easily spook schooling perch.
I keep walkers to around 50mm to 70mm and use translucent colours in clear water and favour dark or solid colours in dirty water and at night.
My favoured technique is an erratic skitter, rather than a walking retrieve. The trick is to land the lure close to a snag or submerged rock, then get it moving the moment it touches down.
Skitter the lure in a zigzag fashion for about half a metre and then pause. If the perch are there and on the chew, they will snaffle the lure on the first pause – unless it has been eaten on splashdown.
The reason for the short walk and long pause is perch are clumsy surface feeders and tend to slap and tumble on the surface, often missing the lure. They can make multiple attempts to eat the lure if you leave it in the strike zone.
I particularly like this method after heavy rain when the water is discoloured. Floodwaters can choke timber snags with drifting debris, enlarging the cover of the snag, and enticing the perch further away from deep inside the snag.
I like to land the lure adjacent or on the up-current side of debris entangled in the snag. Casting surface lures at night over shallow weed beds can also achieve great results.
Pre-spawning months are also good times for surface action, from March to May.
Targeting mid-water perch is by far the easiest way to score results. Station your vessel adjacent to some likely perch-holding structure, cast a small diving minnow alongside it and simply crank it back.
Lures from 40mm to 70mm that dive to 1.5m to 3m are ideal. Translucent greens and purples work in clear water, with dark colours good for dirty water, as are lures with gold or silver flash.
I like to slow-roll minnows over submerged boulders, adjacent to timber snags, along sheer rock faces, shadow lines or bridge pylons. I use two or three short pauses before speeding up the retrieve all the way back to the rod tip – and I mean the rod tip; I’ve had perch crunch the lure less than 30cm from the tip and it’s heart stopping.
Most of my captures have come when the lure retrieve rate is increased after a brief pause.
This method can be used year-round but I really prefer it in the Summer when the water is warmer.
The bonus with this method is you usually bag a few bream among the perch. The downside is chopper tailor love minnows, too, so it can become quite expensive with lost lures.
This is the most favoured method for many perch anglers, who use vibes and plastics. Plastics have been the most successful method for years because they are the most versatile.
Both categories are year-round prospects but lend themselves to the colder months when the water temperature is lowest, around September and October.
By selecting the correct weight jig head for the water depth and current, you can successfully cover the entire water column.
In water less than 4m deep, I’d use a 2g head with No 4 to No 2 hook. In deeper than 4m, I’d go to 3g to 5g but no heavier.
I just love prawn imitations and grubs for this caper. The wrigglers have the versatility of imitating a prawn or a worm, (both of which perch love).
You want your offering to hang in the water for as long as possible before resting on the river bed, hence the light jig head.
Once the plastic touches down, just use a simple lift and drop or double-whip retrieve all the way back.
Position your offering tight to all potential perch-holding structure and allow it to sink.
Braid line is superior for this style of fishing because your line becomes your bite indicator. Braid reveals the slightest pick or touch from an EP’s subtle bite.
Perch can inhale and spit a plastic quicker than you’d believe, so if you see your line move, strike!
I like 4lb to 6lb fluorocarbon leaders to maximise the realness of the presentation, plus, you get the best out of the fish’s fight.
Vibes are making their mark as ‘Winter’ fish-takers. There’s a multitude of brands in all sizes, shape and colours.
I tend to think the vibration calls the fish in, rather than colour, and with a lift-and-drop or double-whip technique, you’re likely to attract anything from flathead, bream, whiting, luderick, trevally, mulloway and, of course, estuary perch.
Use vibes where you are less likely to be constantly snagged, such as over sandy drop-offs on deep river bends and adjacent to bridge pylons.
When looking for isolated schools of perch in deeper water, a depth sounder is crucial for success.
The weight of your vibe is not as critical as with a jig head and soft plastic but use the lightest you can get away with – more hang time means more fish.
Vibes imitate wounded fish and really come into their own in deep water but in the lighter weights can be practical tools in shallower water. Be alert for sudden line movement and be ready to strike, although most takes will come on the lift.
When you catch an EP, take the time to admire its gleaming flanks, pose for a photo and then release it unharmed.
The safest way to handle a perch is a thumb grip on the lower jaw while supporting the belly. Be careful of the spines around the gill plate, they are extremely sharp and can inflict a painful sting.
• Light 2kg-4kg spin rod around 7’, 1000 to 2000 spin reel, 3lb braid, 4lb-6lb fluorocarbon leader, (10lb nylon for surface lures)
• Surface lures like the Bassday-Sugapen 70 and Jazz lures Zappa 55
• Midwater lures like the Ecogear-SX40, Viking Crank Minnow, Bushy’s Stiffy Minnow 60
• Bottom; 80-100mm soft plastic grubs; metal blades.
• To protect spawning activity, estuary perch and Australian bass have a closed season in from June 1 to August 31, when it is illegal to possess them.
• EP and Australian Bass have a bag limit of 2 in total per angler per day, with only 4 in possession. An angler is permitted only one fish over 35cm.
• The old theory of stowing them in the livewell prior to release to prevent the bite shutting down has its elements of doubt. I’ve never experienced a bite shutting down from releasing them directly after capture – and you can legally stow only the bag limit of two per person.
• Pretending to fish for bream but really targeting EPs during closed season is bad practice, even if you intend to release the fish. Stress may cause females to absorb eggs, which obstructs the breeding cycle and reduces future stocks.
• EPs should be given the respect they deserve. I strongly urge you to practise safe catch and release, but if you intend to take one for the table, pick on smaller fish around 25cm to 30cm; the bigger specimens are the more productive breeding females.
• When I venture to a new estuary looking for EPs, the first place I start casting a lure is around bridge pylons perch love ’em!