You Never Know …

Sometimes you decide to go fishing and everything just feels right.

As you put your tackle in the car you notice that the air is pleasingly mild – too warm and the fish will be dour, similarly if it is too cold – somewhere in between is usually best.

As you drive to the lake you notice the roadside trees are swaying a little – just enough breeze to ensure there will be a ripple on the water to stir your quarry into action.

On arrival, there is not another soul around. You hurriedly pull on your boots, throw your bag over your shoulder and grab your rod. Crossing the field towards the water’s edge you notice a couple of fish move in the distance.

You stand on the bank and assess your options. The water has good clarity, but with just a tinge of colour to leave something to the imagination.

Another fish moves. Your confidence couldn’t be higher. You nervously thread up your rod and prepare for your first cast.

This was not one of those days.

It was early autumn and a dawn session on a local lake targeting perch was the plan. The weather had been settled for a few weeks and another gentle, balmy morning was expected. It was therefore a surprise when the alarm clock sounded at 6am and a howling wind could be heard outside.

As usual, I was up earlier than I really needed to be. It was still pitch black outside, so, being only a short drive to the lake, I could take my time getting ready and still be on the water by first light. Over a leisurely coffee alone in the kitchen I willed the gale to die down, but Mother Nature didn’t obey.

By 6:45, the sun’s glow was beginning to emerge over the horizon so it was time to make a move. Stepping outside, the full force and direction of the wind became evident. The roadside trees, silhouetted against the dawn sky, still full of stars, were swaying violently in a direction that confirmed a cold, easterly was blowing. This, combined with the clear skies heralding a bright, sunny morning to come, did not bode well for the fishing. I was reminded of the old adage – wind from the east, fish bite the least. Hesitating momentarily on the front porch, the thought of returning to a warm bed crossed my mind, but I was up now and decided to stick with the plan. Fish or no fish it would be a fine, bracing morning to be outside and I certainly wouldn’t find a specimen perch under my duvet.

My first perch of the autumn’s campaign was taken on a traditional fry pattern – a Muddler Minnow

Since late August, the perch on the lake had been active. Most mornings and evenings schools of these striped predators could be seen herding and harrying baby roach along the margins. Sometimes their spiky dorsal fins would even break the surface, like the sails of an armada, as they scythed through the masses of fry in the warm, weedy shallows.

I had chosen to target them on my fly rod. Now, it should be noted that such an approach is not the most common (or arguably productive) tactic for pursuing specimen perch – typically anglers would use live bait (small fish or worms) or artificial lures made of metal, wood, plastic or rubber. However, with the fish actively hunting and brazenly revealing themselves, I assumed any small baitfish pattern cast in their vicinity would draw a response. How wrong I was.

Several evenings were spent stalking these fish up and down the banks, but to my amazement, even when I threw my flies right in to the middle of the mayhem, among the scattering fry and slashing perch, the results were disappointing. I never returned fishless from those trips. A handful of pretty, but tiny, perch each session kept me going. However, I had hoped for better when there were clearly bigger fish hunting in the area.

Numerous baby perch had been caught – this one falling to a roach fry pattern – but the bigger specimens were proving elusive

The conditions when I arrived at the lake that particular morning however were a far cry though from those previous tranquil evenings. The wind was blowing hard across the lake creating white horses that were crashing into the roadside bank. It had clearly been going like that all night as there was a build up of foam in the margins caused by the churning of the waves.

Having parked the car, I again hesitated. Was I really up for it? The conditions seemed dire for fishing, and if I went straight home now there was still time for a spot of breakfast before I was due on the school run at 8:30. However, after momentary waver, I again resolved to stick it out. Whilst the chance of a fish seemed slim, soon it would be winter and the remaining chances to enjoy a sunny morning by the lake were at a premium.

I headed to a corner of the lake that I thought might be sheltered from the worst of the wind, but even there it was still extremely choppy. I struggled to cast my light 4-weight outfit into the gale that continued to pound into the shore. My rod was still rigged up from the last evening’s session with a roach fry pattern on the point and a chartreuse fry pattern on the dropper. After a few casts, however, it was clear that with the wind and waves these light patterns were barely scratching the surface and in such conditions I needed a heavier fly to get down through the turbulent surface layers to where the fish may be lying. I replaced the point fly with a brown and white Clouser Minnow, chosen for two reasons: firstly, its heavy tungsten dumbbell eyes would cause it to sink quickly; and secondly, the colour combination could suggest both a small fish and also a crayfish (which are numerous in the lake and a favourite delicacy of large perch).

A selection of proven fly patterns for perch (clockwise from top) – Muddler Minnow, Chartreuse Baitfish, Roach Baitfish, Clouser Minnow, and Roach Fry

A few more halfhearted casts were made, but it seemed hopeless. In the wind, I could barely flick the flies more than a few yards out into the lake. I decided to give up on the fishing and just have a walk – at least get some exercise out of my early start. I turned away from the lake, my flies still trailing in the water, and began to reel in. Then, to my surprise, the rod suddenly sprang to life as a small perch grabbed the trailing Clouser Minnow less than a few feet from the bank. Perhaps it was worth just a few more casts?

The surprise perch that took my Clouser Minnow and convinced me persist a bit longer

I pulled a few yards of line off my reel and flicked my flies back out into the lake. I made a slow figure-of-eight retrieve to give the flies as much time as possible to both sink and be found by any waiting perch. Suddenly, again as the flies were virtually under my rod tip, the line drew tight and the rod hooped over. This time it was something more substantial. However, as quickly as it was on it was off again.

I was gutted, the first decent fish I had hooked in my perch campaign and I didn’t even get to see it. Was it even a perch? Could it have been a jack pike? I tried another cast and instantly, in the very same spot, I had another take. Another good fish was on, this time I got it to the surface and it was indeed a sizeable perch. I played it carefully and it was soon ready to be brought to hand. I knelt down and drew it towards me, but just as it was inches from my grasp it rolled and threw the hook. Surely I had blown it with two chances missed. I had one more go, the textbooks do after all say that perch are rarely alone and often hunt in packs. Amazingly, on that third cast I hooked another big perch and this time it stayed on. It had also taken the Clouser Minnow. To my amazement, as I was playing the big fish, a smaller fish even took the dropper fly. They were clearly feeding hard against the near side bank. After a few photos both fish were safely returned and I tried again, but that was the last of the action in that corner of the lake.

Two at a time – the elusive perch were clearly feeding hard on the windward shore

By this point the wind had actually softened a bit, not quite to a breeze, but the white horses on the lake had at least reduced to a steady, rolling wave. Twenty minutes remained before I had to leave and, invigorated by the capture of my first specimen perch from the lake, I decided to have a few more casts on the way back to the car.

Walking along the shoreline and reliving the surprise of hooking those big perch in the most unlikely of conditions I saw a good fish swirl just out from a promontory ahead. With time running out I jogged into position and cast out to where the fish had moved. A few quick strips were made and I was in again. It felt like a decent fish, but on my light set up, even the small ones give good sport. The fish splashed several times on the surface and it clearly wasn’t a perch – it was longer and thinner and I assumed from a distance it was a small pike. However, on closer inspection as I brought it to hand it turned out to be a lovely little zander – the first one in fact that I had ever caught. Such a bonus fish was a great way to end what had been an unexpectedly productive morning session.

An unexpectedly hectic morning’s sport ended with this bonus zander

After that morning’s session, I thought I had cracked the code for the big perch in the lake – heavy point fly, craft fur baitfish on the dropper, fished carefully along the margins. However, whilst a few more palm-sized perch continued to fall to my tactics on the next few visits, the bigger ones evaded me once more. As the water has cooled with the onset of winter even the smaller ones have now disappeared, likely seeking the sanctuary of deeper, warmer water beyond casting range. Hopefully, they’ll be back in the spring – you never know …

Even in the most unlikely conditions, there’s always a chance!

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