Estuary perch, the story so far
  |  First Published: December 2013

Estuary perch were once a mystery fish with their habits shrouded in obscurity and caught by a select few.

These days estuary perch (EP) have become prime targets predominantly for lure anglers who are now well aware of their aggressive nature. In fact when in the mood, they will attack just about anything cast in front of their nose, but the whole sticky problem to working out EP - is finding them.

They are well known for schooling in huge numbers so catch rates are often mind-blowing. But as with all fish EP have their quirks and foibles and are at times very guilty of lockjaw. Let me share with you the shadowy world of estuary perch one of our finest Victorian (and Tassie?) sport fish. I will explore some of those lesser known details of EP and you will understand my passionate, fanatical and almost senseless devotion to these wonderful fish. You'll see that my quest is far from over and so here's the story so far.

Search for perch

I've spent about 15 years now addicted to EP. I've nearly worn out two vehicles with the 1000's of kilometres required to track them down and I've also just about worn out my welcome at home! Each year I chalk up about 120 days on the water, with maybe half of them devoted to perch alone. I've walked into remote wilderness, pushed into far flung creeks only accessible after hours of ocean boating and even caught them in drain like murky water around heavily populated areas with houses and people all around me.

I've found them under ocean waves and to the other extreme, up in rivers of total fresh water, at least 10km above tidal reaches. They can live almost anywhere and will turn up in the most surprising of places. Sometimes they arrive almost over night in massive schools, only to disappear weeks later, seemingly for no reason. They never seem to stick to the same seasonal patterns like other fish and it's taken many hundreds of hours to try and understand where and how to trick EP.

They can hide better than any fish I know and I will often spend days looking for them. Sometimes I hit the jackpot and spend twelve hours catching the absolute hell out of them. They provide my greatest angling challenges but also my biggest rewards and that explains my sick obsession.

EP by numbers

If you question my devotion to them let me put those doubts to rest. I'm quite sure a few blokes may have caught more EP than me over the years but I've yet to meet them. I keep detailed fishing records that go back 15 years now. As I type this my diary tells me I have now caught a grand total of 8,433 estuary perch over the years. My best 12 months was when I caught 2013 EP last year and it was a very busy time. This year so far I have found 930.

My PB perch to date is 55cm and I can recall about 10 times I've reached this mark but I can’t for the life of me get one bigger! My best tallies have included days of 149, 135, and many days of 60-100 perch. On one occasion I hauled in 108 EP with nearly all of them between 40-53cm.

And if all that sounds like bragging then yep, I reckon you're right!

I'm proud of what I have done because it's all balanced up with failure too. I'll talk a whole lot less about my total flops without a single bump for the whole day, after driving and paddling hours and hours to try and find them. That's the thing about EP, I guarantee you we will never totally work them out!

The real facts

Many rumours and tall stories have surfaced about EP over the years especially about their size. The biggest perch any of us are likely to encounter will be a tad either side of 50cm. They grow larger than that with 60cm+ not out of the question, but stories of them growing to 10kg are fables and far from reality in my experience. This 10kg mark seems to be often documented and quoted in text books or on the internet, but why have we never seen pictures of such monsters?

I think someone over time has got pounds mixed up with kilograms! In fact my heaviest EP weighed on digital scales have never exceeded 3.2kg, and a 2.7kg perch is a real horse, usually just over 50cms. The biggest perch I have seen reliable pictures of or had trusted mates measure are 57cm and 58cm. Some people tell me of bigger perch and I hope they are out there, but show me the money honey.

Habitat range

As for where they live, well this is the part you wont believe! I put it to you that they have, and will inhabit every single estuarine system right along the entire Victorian seaboard, then right up the NSW coast almost to the Qld border. And yes they are right now caught in lesser known EP haunts like the Barwon or Anglesea rivers and even in Western Port. In the east they are in Growler, Chinamans, Boxes, Shipwreck and Clifton creeks, the Latrobe and Nicholson rivers and despite much conjecture, they do in fact live in Lake Tyers.

The biggest strongholds are well known and documented like the Glenelg River and Mallacoota at the two extreme ends of the state. There's a whole mess of other systems they call home and in some areas big perch are stacked up in huge numbers almost on the doorstep of town centres, busy fishing ports and even not far from the suburbs of Melbourne.

Perch are probably living right under your nose each time you fish your local estuary. Other hotspots are in far away wilderness. All of those places you'll need to explore and discover for yourself and that's 90% of the perch allure, uncovering their hidey holes and not telling anyone!

Neighbouring states

What about Tassie? Yes they live there all right and I've seen the recent proof. When the island was part of the mainland it seems only logical perch called it home.

DNA testing has identified two slightly different populations, one in western Victoria and the other in the east. The dividing line seems to be Melbourne, or more to the point, when the two states were joined, EP probably didn't migrate around the far southern tip of what is now Tassie.

It seems even though Bass Strait then filled up with water the perch wont swim from east to west and for the two disparate populations to mix. They may be scarce but it's also fair to say that only a few dedicated anglers target them in the Apple Isle and it may be the last unexplored EP frontier.

In the coming years my grand plan is to unlock that puzzle so stay tuned! As for NSW well there are incredible numbers living in heavily fished waters like the Clyde, Shoalhaven and Hawkesbury just to name a bare few. I have a good mate and well known fishing identity who has explored some of the northern estuaries of NSW and he has uncovered truck loads of EP to 52cm! He also tells me hardly a soul knows about them and he plans to keep it that way!

Other EP fanatics

I want to acknowledge other fanatics and we cautiously swap notes and have cagey discussions about perch for hours, trying to unlock each others secrets. Mitch Chapman and especially Gez Hawthorne have seen more giant perch (and Victorian bass) than almost anyone alive. And just like all EP extremists they refuse to spill info on where or how they get them, it's the unwritten code!

Gez has sent me photos of monster EP that scare the life out of me, and I think his PB is close to a 60cm dinosaur! Chris Burbidge is another very cagey angler that lost count of his perch tally many years ago. He remains one of the very first lure specialists to stack serious numbers of EP back in the 80's and 90's. Martin Fellows tells me about his triple figure tallies that go back many years. There's a good reason he called his boat the ‘Perch Plucka’!

Neil Morrison needs a special mention as I have seen him hook cricket scores of perch while frustrated anglers around him (including me!) fail to get a touch. He has an incredible knack of tweaking a soft plastic that EP cannot refuse. Mick Selzer has shown me a few tricks as well and he also has a certain flair for tricking shut down perch. I've seen him sit in the one area for hours and pull perch non-stop.

He is also quietly going about uncovering new waters where the biggest and fattest perch I've ever seen, fail to hide from him. Other gurus like Ritchie Egan, Anthony Havers, Dylan Brennan, Jordan Trusty, Justin Digwall, Matty Leach and Owen Pierce have also caught serious tallies of big perch over the years. One thing we all have in common, we rarely talk about where perch live and refuse to even tell each other!

Bank of knowledge

So the reason I mention all those guys is because combined, it adds up to such a vast bank of knowledge. We have all discovered that EP have made a remarkable comeback over the last 3-4 years and their numbers have grown unbelievably right across the state. At the 14 or so different places I fish for them regularly, I've seen their numbers explode in some areas: big and little fish all mixed up. Those six years of serious rain events starting from 2007 have worked wonders for EP.

For example, on one particular day in September 2012, Mitch Chapman and I made a visit to an east Gippsland creek and we caught just over 200 fish for the day. We got about 100 each with most of them 34-38cm and the odd 40cm amongst them. We caught a heap with the fly rod and a whole lot more on soft plastics. Just two days before at the same location, I had Mick Selzer join me and we got about 75 each with even more on flies.

Both times were extraordinary days of fishing and created great memories with trusted mates. About a week later I went by myself for a third trip and I released 135 more. In other ‘swampy’ locations I've recently caught dozens of big perch on surface lures all day long providing incredible visual sport. I think you get the picture, when EP school up the number of fish can be staggering.

Underground tricks

Now for the bad news. If you reckon you know about half of what there is to know about EP then think again! Be assured they can shut down totally just like the crankiest bream. A few lucky people might fluke one while chasing bream, tailor or maybe salmon but EP usually require specific angling requirements and great attention to detail to successfully target them.

Therein lies the greatest rewards and with that, also bitter disappointment. At times they have totally beaten me and I have nearly accepted defeat. Despite all this, I somehow become more passionate about EP with every passing year. I will finish up now with a few sly luring methods that you should keep up your sleeve.

Perch will rarely refuse a very small soft plastic and I mean tiny fish or shrimp patterns 35-50mm and make sure you work them dead slow. Another recent discovery I've made is that perch don’t always huddle in snags, bridge pylons or around structure.

Some of my biggest tallies over the last year have been when I sprung loads of EP schooled in deep open water while I was blading for bream. I started stacking up embarrassing totals of thumper perch without a snag in sight.

This has blown my mind and opens a brand new chapter in unlocking their endless secretive behaviour.

Long live the magnificent estuary perch.

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