I went fishing the other day. The plan was to catch pike by spinning for them from my canoe. I knew there were a lot of smallish pike in the bit of river I was fishing so I used small lures. The result was quite predictable - I caught no pike but quite a few nice perch.
Now it has to be said a nice perch is not particularly large. The Irish rod caught record is 2.75 kg (5lbs 8oz) but this was an exceptional fish. One a quarter of this weight is still a big perch and a ‘nice’ perch is probably only 200 to 300 grams.
But size isn’t everything and I’m fond of them. This is partly due to the fact that a perch was the first fish I ever caught, when I was eight years old. A lot of other Irish anglers would probably say the same. They are a very handsome fish, with a high, olive-coloured back, four or five vertical black stripes and red or orange fins and tail. They are also quite spiny, particularly in the front dorsal fin, and quickly teach a young angler to handle them with care.
Those vertical black stripes are a key to understanding perch behaviour, which is a big help if you want to catch them. They are predators and ambush hunters and the stripes are to camouflage them among the stems of underwater vegetation while they’re lying in wait for some unsuspecting prey. In the case of a ‘nice’ perch, or larger, that prey is normally a small fish, in fact it’s quite often a smaller perch, because they’re quite cannibalistic.
Pike are also ambush hunters but when they strike a prey fish they normally grasp it across the middle and crush it before turning it and swallowing it head first. Perch, on the other hand, usually attack a fish from behind, biting at its tail with their large mouths to disable it before they eat it.
Perch spawn quite early in the spring and form shoals consisting of fish of the same year class. Every year the shoals get smaller but the individual fish get bigger until, eventually, the largest fish end up solitary, or in twos and threes. Small fish eat quite a lot of aquatic invertebrates but larger ones concentrate on fish, along with occasional frogs and newts.
They are widespread around the country in rivers with a slow to medium flow, canals, ponds and lakes, being absent only from very acid or very fast water. Despite this they are officially regarded as a species introduced into this country some time after the 12th century. There is no proof of this and I’m a bit dubious about it. Pike were also regarded as non-native until a few years ago when the geneticists proved this wrong. To the best of my knowledge the same genetic research has not been undertaken for perch and it could have the same result.
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