Caught by the River

Richardson in Zanderland

John Richardson | 11th April 2015


Sergeants on parade
Words and pictures: John Richardson

The Coarse Fishing season is over for yet another year and now it’s the long wait until June 16 but the summer months suggest a different kind of fishing; the pursuit of Crucian Carp and Tench. Very different from the autumn and winter quest for the predators of the drains and rivers in Fenland. I am referring, in particular, to that wonderful fish resplendent in his everyday autumnal colours, the Perch.

Perch are probably one of the first fish that almost every young angler catches, if not the first, simply because they voraciously scoff every offering; worms, casters, maggots, bread, cheese, even bare hooks. Nothing is too big or too small to be eaten, small perch are always so hungry and seem to be hell bent on growing big. Fast.


Big Perch however are a different matter. They are wily and cunning and very, very difficult to catch. If you believe all that has been written about them they lurk tight against the boarding and pilings that stabilise the river bank, in roots and under boats. If it’s a dark, deep and rather melancholy hiding place there will be Perch in there waiting to be caught but on the seemingly featureless Fenland rivers and drains there are no eddies, no weir pools and only a few trees, the swims just don’t present themselves in any recognizable form. There are no islands with bramble and willow trailing in the water and few boat houses; there are boats, sunken and floating but I haven’t seen any evocative ‘Mr Crabtree style’ swims, it all simply looks the same, well it does at first glance.

Just like fishing for Pike you have to locate the bait fish that the Perch feed on, the Roach, Rudd, Gudgeon, small Bream and yes, small Perch, so in other words, they’re often in the company of pike. It must be a brutal world down there below the surface of the water where two priorities, food and survival, are the order of every minute of every day. A big Perch is a fish that is truly special, four pounds is an absolute cracker, the fish of a lifetime but a one or two pound perch still looks a big fish even though, relatively speaking, it is not.

One sunny summer afternoon Sue and I were peering over a farm bridge looking down into the Sixteen Foot Drain watching a shoal of fry playing around a Pike of about ten pounds that looked for all the world as if it was fast asleep. Then agitation started to spread through the shoal of fry as six or seven big Perch from two pounds to probably five pounds cruised into view like a flotilla of warships, scattering the fry as they drifted through the middle of them and then slowly disappeared.

When the Perch had gone the fry returned to the same area and continued playing around the Pike totally unconcerned about the killing machine that was in their playground. Why were they so concerned about the Perch? Obviously I’ve fished that swim and the area around it several times but never a touch, the Perch obviously knew where they were going. I just wish I knew where they were going too.

Perch, big Perch, tend to feed in the same areas as Pike, probably because of the simple principle of easily available food, after all why expend your carefully stored energy chasing a meal? Just lurk and loiter and everything finally comes to you. The old jetties, trees, holes by reed beds and boats, both floating and sunken tend to shelter the fry rather than the Perch, acting as safe houses if you like and in my experience the Perch are patrolling four or five yards out into the drain on the edge of the navigation channel waiting for the chance to pick their prey off.

When a Perch does take the live bait you can be staring at the float and suddenly, without you comprehending what has happened, the float has gone and all there is to show of its previous presence are a few rings on the calm water as if a Trout has risen. No warning. No fiddling about. No bobbing up and down. Sometimes there might even be an audible plop but the float has disappeared, straight down and out of sight in a fraction of a second. Now you see it and then you don’t.


Just like the Pike, the Perch seem suit these mysterious Fenland waterways and whenever I fish for them there is always a sense of expectancy, nerves almost and particularly when it is a calm foggy day; my favourite conditions. Fog, like snow, muffles both sound and some senses, you feel as if you are immersing yourself deeper into the landscape or maybe you are being gently folded into the watery world. Distractions are eliminated by the grey enveloping blanket so your concentration increases, although sudden noises can make you jump and if you have a nervous disposition perhaps the Fen isn’t recommended, particularly as dusk draws in. Fishing on a foggy, chilly, Autumn or Winter day is a wonderful experience. Angling perfection.

The Pike are seldom far away in these waters, although there are times when you would think that there were no Pike anywhere in West Norfolk, but I’m never disappointed to catch one by accident when I’m fishing for Perch. Just to see that huge mouth, the dark stripes, the glorious fluorescent orange and pink fins as a Perch comes to the net makes it feel like Christmas morning did as a child. If you are fortunate enough to land one of these beauties beware the sharp gill covers and spines on the fish’s dorsal fin; perch spike and pike bite. I always think they come out of the water like a Jack Russell of the waterway, dorsal fins up displaying all their belligerence and attitude. I remember once saying to John Andrews when we were Perch fishing at Frensham Ponds, ‘imagine if they weighed up to 25lb?’ What a thought that is.

I’ve read about them being described as striped like a sergeant and also sometimes called sergeants but the big ones, well they’re more like a Company Sergeant Major resplendent in his best dress uniform. You can’t help but stare for a second or two before you weigh the fish and then slip it back.

Just after New Year, on a witheringly cold day, I landed a Perch of about a pound and in the bottom of the net was a bonus ‘specimen perch’ of about two ounces, the little Perch was just as handsome and on his way to being a proper sergeant. I hope he survives.

Zanderland archive

If you’ve seen the latest issue of An Antidote To Indifference you will, we hope, have been impressed by the cover art. It’s the handywork of ‘Bible’ John, perch fisher and lino-cutter. You’ll find more of his handiwork on The Two Terriers blog.