Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The perch
As it is now the season when this interesting and beautiful fish may be said to afford most sport to the fresh-water angler, and when indeed it is perhaps more sought after than any other river-fish whatever, a few words concerning some of its habits and peculiarities may possibly be acceptable to the generality of readers.
The perch may be reckoned (with the exception perhaps of the trout) the most beautiful of all fresh-water fish; it is well known and common in most of the countries in Europe, inhabiting ponds, rivers, lakes, and all pieces of fresh water where its natural food is abundant. The largest of the species are to be taken in the river Danube, where, as a rule, they run far higher (that is, are of heavier weight) than in British waters, or indeed than in those of most other European states. Very fine perch are also caught in the Scotch and Irish lakes; but there is no question that those of the Danube are usually the finest and best. In that river—one of the most noble and picturesque of the Continent—this fish is taken of three, four, six, and seven pounds weight; and instances have been known of still heavier ones; but in Great Britain the weight of the perch rarely exceeds three pounds, and one of two pounds weight would be considered a fine fish. The average weight in English waters is from half a pound to one pound and a half. The writer took one of three pounds and a quarter at Godstow, near Oxford, in the May of 1853, and one of nearly four pounds at Henley-on-Thames in the autumn of 1848; the bait in each case being a minnow; but such cases are quite exceptional, and rarely happen but to those who—as the writer has done—may make fish and fishing a study as well as an occasional pastime.
In the months of September, October, November, and so on until February, there is no fresh water fish that affords the angler more sport than the perch—perhaps none that affords so much—as he is a very greedy feeder, and, when the rivers and ponds begin to get clear of weeds, may be taken with almost any bait at any hour of the day. When the days are warmish, very early and very late is the best time for perch-fishing; but on a cool, cloudy day in autumn and winter they feed best in the middle of the day. An easterly wind is very bad for this sport, as it is indeed for the taking of all fresh-water fish. There are many ways of catching the perch into which the writer cannot enter at length; but the three best are by what is termed “spinning” (which, however, all true sportsmen eschew as next door to poaching), by cork-float fishing, and by using what is termed a paternoster, which is a line having a leaden weight at the end, and three hooks baited with three different baits, each bait being of a different size to the other two. The line is gently drawn through the water, somewhat after the fashion of trolling, but more slowly. The second, however, of these methods is, in my opinion,—and I am a perch-fisher of many years’ experience,—the best of the three I have mentioned. Use, with a stoutish line, a cork float, the body of which shall be the size of a pigeon’s egg, neither larger nor smaller, and a hook in proportion to the kind of bait you employ, since it is obvious that that used for a live-bait would be far too large for a worm. Perch anglers use in the way of live-bait a gudgeon, minnow, small dace, or bleak, at discretion; and I have often heard the first mentioned as the best, but I have no hesitation in giving my own testimony and opinion in favour of the minnow, with which bait I have killed perch in all waters, at all seasons, and at all hours of the day, when I had tried all the others, and also the brandling, in vain. The perch-fisher may obtain all the tackle he requires at Farlow’s in the Strand, and suit himself there far better than he could from any description of mine.
Perch can be taken in almost all our rivers, especially the Thames, Colne, Lea, Mole, and Dove, as well as in most large lakes and ponds. Henley, Marlow, Wargrave, Reading, Walton, Shepperton, Shiplake, Sunbury, and Kingston-on-the-Thames are excellent places for sport, and the intending perch-angler may note that from September to February a deep pool near a mill-stream, a clay-hole under a bank, and the piles beneath the arch of a bridge are certain haunts for this bold and beautiful fish. I have taken (in October) from ten to twelve brace of good fish, none under half a pound, under the wooden piles of old Walton Bridge; and should a skilful angler get amongst a shoal at this season of the year he may catch every fish. Still the perch, though a bold feeder, is wary, and if one hooked fish escape, in all probability you will fish in vain near the spot for another fish. Under such circumstances it is but lost time, and I would advise immediate removal to another hole. I may cite a striking example of this which came under my experience. Fishing one autumn in the river Isis, I had come upon a shoal of perch, and had taken upwards of a dozen—nay, so greedy were they, I could even see them swim up and take the bait—when two college friends, in sheer wantonness, knocked the rod out of my hand as I was playing a very fine fish (I should judge more than a pound), and of course the fish escaped. From that moment I could not take another perch, although I could see more than a score round the hook. I tried successively a gudgeon, a dace, a small frog, a brandling, a gentle, and a minnow again, but to no purpose; they peered at my bait, they swam round and round, and touched it with their noses, but not a fish would bite, though I had before been pulling them out of the water as fast as I could bait my hook. Since then the same curious wariness in these fish (after one of them has felt the hook) has often come under my notice.
Apart from the amusement which the perch affords to lovers of angling, it is by no means a despicable fish. The flavour is delicate, and the flesh firm and white, and many think (and I am of that number) that a water souchet of perch in season may challenge comparison with any fish delicacy that comes to table. An excellent way of dressing this fish is as follows:—Take four perch of from half a pound to a pound and stuff them with thyme, marjorum, bread crumbs and sweet herbs; dip them in egg and bread crumbs, and fry till they are a rich brown, then lay them on a clean dish (but with no napkin), and serve up with mashed potatoes and clear melted butter. A glass of claret or Madeira I think an improvement to the sauce, but that is purely a matter of taste. This dish, if properly cooked, is really a very superior one, and one which I can recommend to a “gourmand” without any misgiving.
The perch is a very hardy and, I am sorry to add, a most pugnacious fellow, and two fish of this species will frequently engage in desperate combat. Even the cruel and voracious pike is slow to attack the perch, and when urged to it by extreme hunger usually gets the worst of it. The formidable fin on the back of the perch, armed as it is with excessively sharp spikes, causes it to be much feared by other fish, and a roach or dace of a pound weight will often fly from a perch not one quarter the size. It is not at all uncommon for a baby-perch not two inches in length to attempt to swallow a minnow, and, as the perch has a most capacious mouth, the attempt is sometimes successful.
The scales of the perch are very beautiful, having serrated edges, not unlike the ends of the petals of a pink or carnation. Very handsome screens are embroidered with these curious ornaments, and the writer knows a lady who is very expert at making exquisite imitations of white moss-roses and white pinks with the scale of the perch. The scales, after having been frequently washed in salt-and-water, become of the most delicate snowy whiteness, and few readers of this paper who have not seen specimens of perch-scale embroidery would form any just idea of the chaste and beautiful effect they produce.
Perch spawn usually in April and May, and they are in perfection for the table and for the pastime of the amateur fisherman from September until the end of January.