Steve Partner - Perch are the country's greatest species

A week after a matchman landed a shock 5lb-plus perch, Steve Partner explains why it was the latest example of why they must be the country’s greatest freshwater species…

As fishing stories go, I still reckon it was perhaps the best I’ve heard in recent years. It might even rival the greatest ever.

The ingredients were absolutely perfect. It took an 11-year-old schoolboy, threw in an unheard of day-ticket venue, added a new British best, then sprinkled some of angling’s magic dust over the top. What it left was something memorable, history-changing and utterly amazing. If there hadn’t been pictures, you’d have thought it was made up.

Dean Rawlings and his record perch was – and remains – surely the ultimate in fishing fairytales.

For those who need reminding, here are the facts. In April 2002 the Oxfordshire youngster accompanied his dad to a tiny commercial pool that sits just 12 anglers. Armed with the most basic of kit, he crammed a bunch of maggots on to a size 6 hook and attached it directly to 10lb mainline before thrashing the water in typically youthful impatience. Only the last time he reeled in the unlikely combination, it was grabbed by a perch bigger than anything that had ever preceded it.

At 5lb 9oz 8dr, it wasn’t just the heaviest stripey landed in the history of angling, it was a glowing testament to fishing’s sheer unpredictability and mystery – a true example of what makes the sport so compelling.

I was reminded of Dean’s incredible story again this week after matchman Nick Keeper landed another giant perch, this one at 5lb 2oz. Once again it was caught by accident and, crucially, once again it came from a commercial venue. Although the captor – and the rest of the competing field – have done their level best to keep a lid on the exact location, we know it was a venue somewhere in Sussex. And we know it was a place with little, or no, perch history.

But that’s the thing with the species. Giants can turn up literally anywhere – and to anyone, regardless of talent, tackle or experience. And for me, that surely makes the perch the greatest of all our coarse fish. They level the playing field. They make bad anglers heroes. And they have perhaps the greatest quality of all – they are wholly unpredictable.

I’m not talking about small fish, of course. Since the disease that nearly wiped them out in the 1970s, they are plentiful in just about anywhere with water. Rivers, canals and stillwaters alike are all filled with greedy tiddlers hell-bent on gorging themselves on your hookbait.

No, it’s the big fish that interest me. Those lone giants that lurk in places you’d least expect to find them. Monsters that grow fat on the abundant shoal fish, creatures that thrive on the neglect the carp-obsessed masses give them. It’s these spikey dorsalled warriors, their golden flanks painted with familiar war stripes, that provide the everyday angler with his greatest chance of a meeting with a giant.     

If the stories of Rawlings and Keeper aren’t enough, just look at the current British record. Les Brown was a carp angler fishing another commercial pool in Sussex (the grapevine suggests it is definitely not the same one that produced last week’s giant) who presented a clip full of maggots in the hope he could catch whatever came along. It just so happens that was a 5lb 15oz new British best.

The point, though, is this – perch, more than any other species, have retained a sense of unpredictability, a sense of mystery and – best of all – a sense of attainability.

You, as Dean Rawlings, Les Brown and latterly Nick Keeper have proved, could catch one of monster proportions.

What other species can possibly boast similar? If you want a big carp, you head to one of the known circuit waters – that is if you can get on. And if you fancy a shot at the record, you’ll need to join the queue before shelling out for a syndicate ticket.

Pike are similarly predictable. Each season the giants routinely come from places like Chew Valley, Blithfield or any of the other vast trout waters that open their doors to predator hunters. Again, access is limited and relatively expensive, and a precursor to entry, should you be lucky enough to get it, is specialist tackle. It is not the domain of the average angler

We get that same feeling of déjà vu with numerous other species too. Big barbel, before most were ravaged by otters, came from places like the Great Ouse, the Wensum, the Kennet, the Thames or the Loddon. Again, it was named fish from named stretches.   

And on the subject of rivers, what about chub? Basically, if you see a 7lb-plus fish in the press these days there’s a more than reasonable chance it’s come from either the Dorset Stour, River Lea or the Hampshire Avon. The element of surprise is restricted to who, rather than where.

Then, of course, there are bream and tench. Both these species have been the unexpected beneficiaries of the boom in carp fishing, growing ever fatter on the vast amounts of high-protein baits that have become a staple of their diet. As such, it is entirely typical for most of the season’s super-sized specimens to not only come from the huge gravel pits that are dominated by carpers, but to be caught by them too. The days where more traditional, intimate and angler-friendly venues like estate lakes produced huge tench and bream have gone, replaced instead by enormous and inhospitable pits that can resemble inland seas.

Even the angler’s favourite – the roach – is in such scarce supply nowadays when it comes to specimens that surprises have been rendered virtually impossible. The rivers are largely bereft, leaving stillwaters to provide a definite second best. But even the likes of Linch Hill in Oxford – once a banker for 2lb and 3lb specimens – has suffered at the hands of pressure and time, making the frequency of such captures increasingly intermittent. 

So you’re left with perch – and I reiterate, I’m talking outsize giants here – as the last of the mainstream species to have retained that sense of tantalisingly attainability to absolute anybody.

Let Messrs Rawlings, Brown and Keeper act as inspiration. What each of them achieved was much, much greater than simply catching very big fish. No, more than that, they helped restore faith in every person who has ever picked up a fishing rod.

In an era of known faces catching named fish from circuit waters, they lived out the fantasy and caught specimens most of us have only ever dreamt about.

That, above anything, is a great reaffirmation of why so many of us started fishing in the first place. It reminds us that the next time the float goes under, the tip goes around, or the bobbin hits the rod butt, it might, just might, be the fish of a lifetime on the other end.