With a new series of Autumnwatch currently airing on BBC2, regular programme contributor Jack Perks is fast gaining a reputation as one of the UK’s leading wildlife photographers.
Famous for his stunning underwater images of fish, when he’s not filming Jack loves nothing more than a spot of fishing.
Dom Garnett caught up with him to discover more about his love of watery worlds and his new book, the Field Guide to River and Pond Life of Britain and Europe...
Q) How did you get into aquatic wildlife? Taking pictures of birds and other animals is one thing, but actually immersing yourself and a camera must have been quite a leap – or plunge.
Jack Perks As far back as I can remember I’ve had a interest in rivers, ponds and lakes. I used to catch bullheads and sticklebacks with a net and enjoy watching the tadpoles develop in my pond. There’s just something tranquil about being next to a river, hearing the water passing or the sound of a kingfisher whistling by. There’s no place I’d rather be.
Q) We know you’re an active contributor to programmes such as BBC Springwatch and Autumnwatch, and The One Show, but what have you been up to most recently?
JP One of my projects has been to film every species of freshwater fish in Britain. I have only four left: the vendace, river lamprey, allis shad and pink salmon, so I’ve been busy tracking them down. With next year being the International Year of the Salmon I’ve been getting closer to these amazing fish too, filming them in chalk streams, and I plan to get footage of them spawning.
Q) You’re also a keen angler. What kind of fishing have you been enjoying the most this season?
JP It ought to be a bit of a busman’s holiday for me, but I do love it and I wet a line when I can. I did a bit of fly fishing in the Cairngorms – beautiful, but I blanked. Otherwise, I’ve enjoyed centrepin fishing for roach and chub on my local River Trent.
Q) Do you think getting underwater gives you a better understanding of how to catch fish? Or does it take away some of the mystery that anglers love?
JP I’ve had anglers joke that I’ve ruined fishing for them because they can see exactly what goes on beneath the waterline, which for me is a huge compliment! I think it greatly helps to understand the fish from how they react to other species, what natural food they prefer and the habitats they spend the most time in.
Q) What are your favourite fish species to film or photograph when you’re in the water? We’re guessing some must be a lot more co-operative than others!
JP There aren’t any fish I dislike, to be honest, even lampreys. Grayling are my absolute favourite, but barbel come a close second. I’ve filmed lots of aspects of grayling life from males fighting, spawning, feeding and communicating. Some days I’ve had grayling hit me in the face when snorkelling, they can be that curious.
Q) Your most recent book, the Field Guide to Pond and River Wildlife, hit the shelves recently. What can readers expect?
JP There are, of course, plenty of fish featured in the book but also many other species you’re likely to come across on the riverbank, from insects to birdlife and plants. It gives a full spectrum of aquatic species. It’s an easy read with all the information you need to perhaps name and describe some of those species you’ve seen but not been able to identify.
Q) Many of us were taught to be quiet and keep a low profile when fishing, but is this key when fishing do you think? How easily can fish detect us under the surface?
JP It’s a funny one, as I can be flopping about in the water and some days the fish really don’t care, and when I place my remote cameras within a minute or two of me entering the water fish can be on the camera. Yet sometimes they can take hours to come out. I truly believe that fish have certain characteristics, almost personalities, making them more confident in certain places. They have a lateral line so can pick up on our footsteps and voices. Some species have very good eyesight, too, so a silhouette on the skyline will soon clear them off. Anglers scare more fish than they imagine.
Q) Can anyone now be an underwater film maker? What impact is technology having on the industry?
JP Since I started there’ are certainly more people putting GoPros and other cameras into rivers to film fish. On the one hand, it’s great people are taking a interest but it does dilute the market somewhat. That said, it takes serious time and commitment to get the best footage and I think most anglers would rather be fishing! I use fairly specialised kit and techniques and taken years to build up a network of locations and contacts for the best filming opportunities.
Q) What is the weirdest or most surprising thing you’ve ever seen while filming?
JP Well, the obligatory shopping trolleys and traffic cones make regular appearances. I did some filming in the Regent’s Canal for the Canal & River Trust a few years ago and I’ve found all kinds of weird items like iPads, a gun and even adult toys underwater. I also once filmed a 30lb-plus pike in the centre of London – a monster!
Q) As someone who literally spends hours under the surface of our lakes and rivers, are you optimistic about the future of these environments?
JP Rivers have improved in water quality but many are still in a pretty bad shape. The amount of chemicals and toxins that enters our rivers is shameful. Habitat degradation is another issue. If we improved nursery areas and channels for fish to get out of winter floods we’d see a marked difference in fish recruitment. It’s great to see the improvements now on rivers now like the Severn and the Trent, including fish passes and better protection from predators. It’s up to all of us to do our bit, though, and support river conservation groups and the Angling Trust.