John Bailey: Cornish lessons on perch and conservation
PUBLISHED: 06:00 17 October 2018
I landed a 3.12 Norfolk perch back in the 1980s but I've never had the like again.
Some low threes have come my way but nothing approaching four, so when old pal, John Deprieelle contacted me to say fish of that ilk were coming from a lake in Cornwall, I got the gear ready. Of course, to really count, my four should come from East Anglia, Norfolk preferably, but beggars and all that, so I got going.
The lake was in fact a reservoir, set in blissful, quiet, rolling southwest countryside. Country lanes. No road noise. A plethora of birdsong and plenty of perch. John had been baiting a double swim for two days and had pulled in a veritable swarm of silver fish. As a result, the predators were on the prowl, all around. He hadn’t tried for the perch yet, bless him, leaving them for me but he sensed they were there along with herons, grebes and an evil-eyed cormorant or two. John told me the latter didn’t last long in Cornwall, one way or another.
John’s idea was to keep the bait going in by cage feeder attack and to put on a size 8 hook loaded with a dead bait of one type or another. He told me anglers had done well with small live baits but we didn’t fancy that route. And, anyway, most of those baits had actually been killed by cormorants before the perch had arrived so the anglers were, in fact, fishing deads anyway much of the time.
This method interested me hugely but what really got to me was John’s insistence that we used the heads of silvers, not the tails. I have spent a lifetime using the tails of dead baits for both perch and pike. Wrong. If you think about it, John is right in theory. The heads contain far more in the way of blood and juices than the tails and even the eye of the bait acts as a target, a trigger if you prefer.
In practice, too, John was spot on. Out of 20 runs over the two days of fishing, 18 came to the head of a dead, despite me persisting with the tail on one of my rods throughout. The best fish was a beauty of 3.8 and the 600-mile round journey was suddenly worthwhile. It actually looked a tired old warrior, as did most of the other big boys and it made we wonder if this fabulous generation of perch might be drawing to an end. This is how perch waters are, here today, gone tomorrow but generally reappearing some way off in the future.
The water John and I were fishing is controlled by the South West Lakes Trust and I drove round a handful of the rest of their venues along with the fishery boss, Ben. We visited three, all glorious, all holding perch to four pounds, Ben told me, but time restrictions meant that I had to skip seeing the other dozen or so. The Trust has created some jewels in the southwest. Beautifully managed, carefully stocked, well-protected and all catering for anglers, birders, ‘water sporters’, walkers, runners, cyclists and picnickers, in what looked like unusual harmony to me. Truly, you could fish down there on one beautiful water after another for a lifetime and not get jaded.
Once back in Norfolk, I tried John’s method locally and had perch to a pound. They were brighter fish than the Cornish ones and the colour and the distinct bars down their flanks told of a future, not of a past. The lake, though, was battered and rubbish-strewn and getting back on the equally battered A1067 was a nightmare at 5pm. I hear there is still talk of a 10,000 home ‘garden town’ along the Wensum Valley and the spectre of a dystopian waste recycling dump on it grows ever more serious. We love our county for sure but we have a strange way of showing it.
I’ll tell you the vision of Norfolk and its perch that I still hang onto. We have to go back to summer 1962 when most days, my mother drove me along the coast road, all cornfield and poppies, to that heaven called Holkham Lake. I was a titch who had just discovered tench and they nearly pulled my spindly arms off. This particular afternoon, though, Fakenham tackle shop owner, Len Bryer was there. As a midget, I’d always been unfairly terrified of Len, when I could see him through that cloud of tobacco smoke that is. I was especially wary this particular day when he told me to forget the tench and go for the perch. His reasoning was plain to see. Hanging from the fence behind him was a planet-sized perch that Len told me weighed six, amazing, gobsmacking pounds.
That’s how big fish were treated way back then so it’s not like I have any issue with him on the killing of such a fish. It was the size of that perch that has consumed me for over half a century. Six pounds? Was it? Could it have been? I’d never doubt Len but I’ve rather come to doubt my own memory. I became older and more experienced but I never emulated Len’s feat. In part, because the 1963 winter that followed did for a lot of fish in lakes like Holkham. However, it would be fascinating if older readers of this column have any memory of what might have been Norfolk’s perching golden age.