Mysterious, enigmatic, elusive and temperamental are just some of the words used to describe the somewhat frustrating characteristics of our native estuary perch.
Other than a few wily fisher folk, perch have remained a mystery to the greater percentage of estuary anglers for many years.
In recent times, however, two major developments in the recreational fishing industry have lead to more frequent encounters. Firstly, the soft plastic and light tackle lure fishing trend has transformed and perhaps forever changed the way many of us approach our estuary fishing. Secondly, the advent of tournament angling for bream, bass and barramundi in Australia has also been highly influential.
The past decade especially has seen many southern bream anglers make a successful transition from bait to artificials. Since estuary perch are opportunistic predators and often feed in similar locations to bream, it is little wonder captures of these magnificent sportfish are becoming much more common and widespread.
While they are still quite cagey and difficult to locate at times, today’s modern lure fishing techniques and finesse presentations have contributed to some remarkable captures of late.
Estuary perch or EPs, as they are referred to locally, inhabit many of the coastal rivers and creeks dotted along the eastern seaboard from northern New South Wales right through to the South Australian boarder.
While they also exist in some parts of Tasmania, EPs are most prevalent throughout the southeast corner of Victoria, from the Gippsland Lakes through to Mallacoota.
Another significant population reside in southwest Victoria, which is where I do the majority of my perch fishing. More specifically, the Hopkins and Glenelg river systems provide suitable habitat for large schools of EPs, while smaller numbers also prevail in many of the nearby coastal waterways.
Perch are highly regarded in Victoria and admired by many for their sportfishing attributes. Renowned for explosive takes and an immense burst of power when hooked near structure, chasing EPs on lures is about as close to top-end barra fishing southern anglers can experience without actually venturing north.
Although there are distinct similarities between the two species, estuary perch are actually related to and often confused with the Australian bass. Like bass, and barramundi for that matter, estuary perch can tolerate a range of salinity levels, from fresh and brackish waters, to the lower tidal reaches of saltwater estuaries.
Most perch encountered by anglers range in size from 30-45cm, with fish over 50cm considered a trophy specimen. Depending on the location, their diet consists mainly of small baitfish, shrimp, prawns, crickets, grasshoppers, yabbies and worms. In southwest Victorian waterways, spawning is believed to occur throughout the summer months, while further east it may commence a little earlier. In NSW spawning generally occurs during early spring.
As mentioned earlier, now that more anglers are targeting southern black bream with lures, perch encounters have become far more frequent. During my first few years of bream spinning, perch were regarded as an incidental, but very welcome by-catch.
As captures became more common we started to take note of the type of structure that held EPs and began to piece together a bit of a pattern. Nowadays we can go out and specifically target perch with a reasonable degree of confidence and expectation, given the right conditions of course.
Knowing roughly where to start searching for EPs is the first part of the equation, which sounds obvious, but it is important to eliminate unproductive water. Any specific information that can be gleaned from local anglers is a huge advantage, but you will still have to do your share of exploratory casting.
Estuary perch actively pursue their prey in open water when conditions are suitable, but more often than not, they are lurking around various forms of structure.
Natural features such as fallen timber, undercut banks, over hanging foliage, reed beds or rocky shorelines are all good starting points. The presence of multiple fish attracting features also increases the likelihood of finding a few fish. Try to locate snags that provide shade, nearby tidal flow, food supply and access to deeper water.
Eddies created by larger snags that obstruct the flow or bends in a river course are also worth a few casts as bait often congregates in these areas. Occasionally fish school up and feed over seemingly barren ground, but in most instances, the closer you are to structure the better.
A modern, purpose-built boat equipped with a bow mounted electric motor is undoubtedly a huge advantage, enabling the angler to quickly cover more ground, without the need to continually tie up to a tree or deploy the anchor.
While breeding cycles and feeding patterns vary somewhat from one year to the next, the warmer months are by far the most productive. Perch have been known to chew at anytime throughout the day, but dawn and dusk often coincides with the peak feeding period.
When conditions are just right, surface activity is quite common in the evening and can continue well into the night. If you manage to strike a warm, balmy evening, coupled with a high barometer and impending storm front, chances are you’ll be in for some sensational sportfishing action.
But don’t be fooled into thinking this is the only time to catch perch. When conditions don’t seem all that favourable rest assured the fish will still be there. It might just mean you have to work that little bit harder to get them interested.
Once you’ve decided on a location or particular stretch of water, the key to catching perch is to get your lure in close to bank-side structure.
Casting hardbodied bibbed minnows at timber-laden shorelines is my preferred method. After making an accurate cast, try to get the lure to swim, flick and pause alongside logs, in between rocks or underneath overhanging foliage.
Standard bream luring techniques are highly successful, although a few subtle variations may be required at times. Repetitive casts at the same snag, more erratic flicks and twitches of the rod tip, longer pauses or perhaps a faster more aggressive retrieve are just some of the methods incorporated to induce a strike from wary or lethargic fish.
When they are aggressively hunting and competing with one another for a feed, EPs can actually be more willing and easier to tempt than bream. While most fish still need to be coerced into taking the lure, others will strike within seconds of commencing the retrieve.
Bites or hits vary from the most subtle tick on the line to more aggressive smash and bolt style takes. I’ve even seen perch peel off a snag and follow the lure right back to my rod tip before swiping at it at the last moment.
When fishing with a partner, it’s worth employing two different methods until you find the fish. While one peppers the bank side vegetation, the other can search a little wider and deeper with soft plastics or blades.
Often fish will school along the first or second drop-off during the day before moving up into the shallows to feed later in the afternoon. With a two-pronged attack you will cover the water more thoroughly and once a pattern is established both anglers can adopt the same method.
The safest way to handle EPs is to grip the lower jaw with your thumb to avoid their razor sharp gill-rakers. Make sure you wet your hands before touching them and remember to support the belly of larger specimens.
EPs don’t cope very well with being handled, so it’s best to get them straight back in water if you plan to practice catch and release. Releasing fish back into the same snag is almost certain to spook the rest of the school so it’s well worth letting them go along sections of bank you do not intend to fish.
Despite all the mystery, targeting the ‘elusive’ estuary perch we so often hear about might not be such a daunting prospect after all.
There’s no denying it may take some time, patience, skill and commitment, but once you establish when and where they’re likely to feed in your local estuary, you will soon realise that catching a few EPs is not mission impossible.
Suggested Lures & Tackle
Bushy Stiffy Minnow
Rapala Huskey Jerk
Jaz Zappa 55
Lucky Craft 65mm Sammy
Bushy Stiffy Popper
Blades and Soft Plastics
Berkley Gulp 3” Minnow
Squidgy Wrigglers (80-100mm)
Rods and Reels
2-5kg graphite spinning rods ranging from 6-7ft in length, matched to a 1000-3000 size reel.
Line and Leader
4-8lb braid or gel-spun main line connected to a 6-10lb fluorocarbon leader.