Perch is one of our true estuarine species. They are only found in estuarine habitats, never out at sea and rarely in the surf, having specialised and adapted to estuarine life, and are fully dependant on estuaries to survive.
They are found in tropical and sub-tropical estuaries in the Indo-Pacific region, including the eastern coast of Africa, from around Port Elizabeth northwards all the way up the eastern African coastline.
Their scientific name is Acanthopagrus berda and they have a number of common names in the areas where they occur: river bream, sly bream and slimjannie are some of the South African names for this species; in the USA and the UK they are known as picnic seabream and in Australia they are called pikey bream or black porgy. Whatever their common names in their various habitats, one thing that is consistent is that they are always a popular angling species. Perch are a relatively small species of fish, growing to a maximum weight of around 3kg and a length of 750mm – which would be a huge perch! Any perch over 30cm in length is considered a big fish. They are slow-growing, reaching at least 16 years of age, and they only reach breeding maturity at around four years of age. Perch have very hard dorsal spines and a spike-like first anal spine. They have teeth much like those of a musselcracker, with large powerful crushing molars inside the mouth. These crushing teeth enable perch to eat their favourite foods – generally invertebrates.
Perch feed on a variety of crustaceans, especially crabs and shrimp. They also eat various marine worms, some molluscs, echinoderms and small fish. Perch are opportunistic feeders and will also take a grasshopper or insect that falls into the water and kicks around on the surface.
What is exciting about perch is that they are quite a hardy species and seem to somehow manage to survive in even the most disturbed and dysfunctional estuarine systems. They are one of the few species of predator that can be targeted with much success in our local estuaries right along our South African coast. They inhabit the whole of the estuarine system, from the mouth area right up to the fresh upper reaches.
They generally inhabit the same type of habitat as river snapper, so you can usually fish for both species at the same time in many of our river systems. Perch tend to hole up during the day, in or close to structure. At night they will move around and feed more freely.
The greatest concentrations of perch are usually in the area where water changes completely from salt to fresh each day with the tides, so that is quite high up in the estuary system.
They will congregate in numbers in areas which provide good habitat. This is normally shallow water, amongst rocks. They will, however, use any structure such as fallen trees, gravel beds, oyster beds, mangrove roots, bridge and jetty pilings, and even patches of reeds. Larger perch can often be found in deep water at the base of a rock ledge or cliff, where they will congregate along with river snapper and hole up there during daylight hours. Perch are tolerant of great changes
in salinity, meaning that they can survive in totally fresh water for some time; they do, however, need salt water and therefore will not stay in totally fresh water for extended periods. There are often pockets of more dense salt water in dips on the bottom of the river in the upper reaches, where the surface water is fresh and this appears to be enough to allow perch to live very high up in some systems.
Perch are a resident species that can be caught and recaptured at the same site over a period of time. They are also very tolerant of high water temperatures and can be caught in very warm water in shallow pools in the upper reaches of estuaries, where the water has been heated to extreme temperatures by the sun during summer. Most other species would not feed under these conditions, but perch seem to thrive in this environment.
In Kosi Lakes the perch population has taken a beating. This is probably mainly due to the fact that mature, adult fish move down to the estuary mouth area in order to spawn in winter and have to run the gauntlet of the maze of fish traps and gill nets that are almost impossible to negotiate nowadays.
This means that the mortality of mature perch in Kosi during the spawning season is very high. Perch spawn at night in congregations in the rivermouth area, where the females release large numbers of eggs into the water and male fish release sperm that fertilise the eggs. The fertilised eggs then wash out to sea with the outgoing tide and the fry are dispersed with ocean currents until they are attracted to another estuary by the fresh water.
HOW TO CATCH PERCH
Perch can be very shy and timid feeders, particularly if the water is a bit cool. This is also the case in bright sunlight, particularly when the water is clean. This is why they are named sly bream, or slimjannies in some areas. In the right conditions however, perch can be voracious feeders, particularly when targeted with lures.
I am going to concentrate in this article on fishing for them with artificials, as I find this to be the most exciting way to target this species. When fishing for perch, it is imperative to approach the spots with as much stealth as possible – making noise or splashing will often send them into a state of instant lockjaw.
To me, the first choice is always a surface lure. I love the visual aspect of seeing the fish come up and hit the lure. It is also a great way to check whether there are fish around, for even if they don’t hit it, they will often make a soft swirl on the water as they come up to have a closer look at the lure.
Perch do miss surface lures a lot, while striking aggressively and making a big splash. This is probably because their mouths aren’t that big and aren’t really designed for eating prey off the water’s surface. When they are feeding well, though, they can be caught regularly on the top. The other advantage of using a surface lure is the fact that it can be worked right over structure, even in very shallow water, without snagging up,
so you can get the lure right in to where the fish are holding.
The best times to fish for this species are normally very early in the morning, or in the evening, when the light is low. This, combined with the second half of an outgoing tide, is usually ideal, as water drains out of the shallows and bait organisms are forced into the channels.
I like to use very small lures for perch, although you do occasionally get them on larger ones; usually the smaller the lure, the better your success. A popper, floating stickbait, or floater diver type lure in the 3cm to 7cm range is ideal. I like either a transparent lure or a golden colour for this.
When fishing surface lures for perch you need to be very accurate with your casts, throwing the lure tight to the structure where the fish should
be holding. I like to leave the lure lying still for a few seconds, then move it with very small, subtle twitches.
A big splashing action will often just frighten the shy perch away. I use plenty of long pauses in my retrieve, as perch will most often actually strike the lure while it is lying still on the water’s surface. Many of the strikes come just after the lure has landed, before you even begin to retrieve the lure.
When perch stubbornly refuse to take surface lures, then it is sometimes necessary to use a lure that gets down to them and try to entice them to eat that. A small floating minnow from 3cm to 5cm is ideal for the job. I like to remove the trebles on these lures and just put a small, sharp single hook on the tail, with the hook point facing up. This makes it possible to pull the lure down into the structure and then float it back up and over without snagging up.
Small suspending jerkbaits or stickbaits are also deadly for perch. Again, I like natural, subtle colours or gold lures for this type of fishing. When fishing for perch, the slow retrieve is crucial – they don’t respond well to a quick jerky action, so rather use a slow, steady type of retrieve for subsurface lures, with some pauses thrown in.
Another very effective subsurface lure for perch is a soft plastic minnow, rigged weedless on a bass worm hook and fished weightless. This can be cast right into structure and fished slowly without fear of snagging up. Sometimes I add a small bit of lead or splitshot to the shank of the hook in order to ensure that the minnow swims upright and doesn’t roll too much.
Because I use such small and light lures for perch fishing, it is necessary to use light tackle in order to cast them effectively. A 6ft to 7ft light spinning rod with a small fixed spool reel, loaded with light braid, is ideal. I use 8lb braid, or 10lb Berkley NanoFil and attatch a 12lb fluorocarbon leader up front to handle the abrasion when fighting a fish in structure.
Although perch are a good eating fish, they are under threat and are considered a no-sale species by SASSI. This means that it is illegal to buy or sell perch. The minimum legal size for perch is 25cm. The fact that perch are highly adaptable can be misleading. This species is also highly specialised, and is totally reliant on estuaries for its survival. With the ongoing degradation of our estuarine systems in South Africa, much of the viable habitat for this species is being destroyed. For this reason, we need to look after our surviving perch and fish responsibly, releasing those that we catch.
Craig Thomassen is the presenter of Inside Angling, which can be seen on SuperSport 6 on Monday nights at 7pm.