Estuary perch are one of the many things in life I enjoy, but haven’t quite mastered yet. Sure, in some places where I flick a fly, EPs seem to be a ‘regular’ fish, which you can expect to catch… if not with ease, then without the need for miracles.
Then there are the systems I visit where I know from Fisheries surveys and the occasional reports from other anglers, that EPs are in fact present – and yet on my own trips over many years, I’ve never landed one. I have to accept the perch are there, but they’re ghost fish, somehow hiding out among the salmon, bream and mullet without being caught – at least not by me.
Such a system is the Gellibrand River estuary in south-west Victoria. Here, I’ve caught salmon and bream, but estuary perch have never been far from my mind. Once, on a stormy winter’s day a few years ago, with the ocean roaring and thumping in the background, I cast to a disturbance in the last row of reeds before the sea. On the initial strip, I hooked something which, in the brief glimpse before it got off, looked like neither a bream nor a salmon. A perch? In the rain-streaked and murky water (the Gellibrand is always murky) I couldn’t say for sure. But when I swore out loud towards the looming cliffs at the river mouth, it wasn’t for the frustration of losing a fish, it was the possibility I’d lost the fish.
As with most west coast trips, my most recent visit with Nick and Mark focused on other estuaries besides the Gellibrand, and the generally more predictable bream and salmon. It wasn’t easy fishing, but we saw plenty and caught a few.
Our late move to the Gellibrand was encouraged by the presence of lots of boat trailers at the Princetown ramp when we’d called in for a quick inspection earlier in the day – more than on the Aire and Curdies combined. Aha! We deduced that something must be going on to bring so many boat anglers to the Gellibrand.
Our initial drift on the Gellibrand did indeed reveal several promising arcs on the sounder, though holding deeper (3m plus) than ideal for the fly. However, just when we were getting into the rhythm of the river, we rounded a bend to see a jet ski rider and his passenger beckoning for assistance.
Now I know what you’re thinking: why would you ever bother to help a jet skier? (Michael Leunig’s rhyme usually sums up jet skis for me.) Then we realised that the jet ski was towing two surfboards, and our disgust turned to admiration – these guys were big wave surfers, using the river mouth to access the giant surf beyond. Of course we’d help.
As we towed them back up the river, the surfers explained that the ski’s motor kept overheating and cutting out as they made their way back in, and they only just got into the river mouth before it failed again. Oh, and all those trailers at the ramp? Fellow jet ski surfers, not anglers!
I felt a bit like the red car driver in Scholes’ story, but we were there now, and we had seen those arcs, so staying to fish seemed like the sensible option.
As the sun sank lower, I got out of the boat and began wading the same shore where I had that possible EP encounter a few years earlier. After several casts, I had a good hit on the Bream Bugger and I was soon fighting a strong fish. Of course I was hoping it was an EP, but the first glimpses in the dark water revealed a nice bream – a perfectly acceptable alternative.
No more hits followed though, and as Mark and Nick came closer in the boat to pick me up and head back to the ramp, I resigned myself to another in a long list of perch-less trips to the Gellibrand. Then, when they were about 50 metres away and I was on my last cast, it happened. The fly stopped with that distinct pull that’s a fish and not weed. At first, I assumed I’d hooked another bream, but there was something about the fight which felt different. As I brought it to the net, I could see the big eye in the twilight. Yes! “Estuary perch!” I called out victoriously as I lifted the fish up for the boys to see.
That was enough for Nick and I to persist for another 15 minutes while Mark generously volunteered to take the boat out back at the ramp while there was still a skerrick of light. I had one more good hit which I like to imagine was another perch, before the headlights upriver signalled it was time to go.