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Choked waterways and poor fishing days

Outdoor Living

SECURE PERCH Perch are as plentiful as trout once were – but is it pike or water quality that is to blame for the trout decline?

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

When James and I went to find a trout in the River Robe we found it incredibly low, with barely a trickle over algae-encrusted stones between pools that have become more weed than water. James threw his worm bait into an eddy while I sat on the bank and watched.
A tremor showed in the line almost immediately, and seconds later a small perch was swinging through the air on its way to the bank. He released his fish into a shallow, metre-wide pool at our feet, where it darted to and fro before settling, pressing itself against a rock and into invisibility.
“Just look at that,” said James in wonderment. “With all those green and black stripes and bright orange fins you’d think it’d stand out like a sheep on a hillside. Let’s get another.”
So that was our pastime for an hour. While James took himself back to his boyhood pleasure of catching tiddlers, I just sat in the sun in a half-doze and watched. Every few seconds another small perch was extracted from the hole under the bank and placed with its companions in their new home. There were 20, then 30 and, I imagine, eventually three score four- and five-inch fishes taken from one place to another before they suddenly went off the feed; either that or they had all fallen victim to the contents of James’s bait box.
The captive shoal showed no sign of distress in their temporary home, but lay quietly, all facing the same direction. We were both taken by the clever camouflage. “You’d never know they were there,” I remarked. “But think of this. You’ve just caught a whole bunch of fish in no time at all, all from the very same spot. Who knows how many more might be in there? And it’s not just there either. What about the deeper water further down? And the big pool down at the bend? I bet there’s thousands of perch here, not to mention roach and rudd.”
“Pike too,” said James thoughtfully. “And you can eat pike again now. Those laws that were in before, where you could kill a pike while it was small and nothing more than bones and have to let it go if there was much more than a foot to it, well they just didn’t make sense to me. Not where there’s trout, anyway. Pike must eat a heap of other fish, and I’d bet they’d rather a fat trout than those spiky little perch, just the same as we would. A good pike must eat at least once a day. A thousand pike eat a thousand trout today, tomorrow, and every other day through the year. It’s no wonder there’s only perch to be caught.”
“I wouldn’t go eating those pike just yet,” I told him. “It’s true there’s a public consultation underway, as to whether they should be cared for or culled, but so far the laws haven’t changed. One pike a day, and under 50 centimetres, that’s all you’re allowed. What do you think?”
James was thoughtful. “Some say pike are native and were always here. I don’t think they were. And even if they do rightly belong, if they do harm they need to be controlled. I wouldn’t like to see them gone altogether. But look at this….” He gestured to the densely packed perch in the small pool at our feet. “There was a time the trout were that thick in the water. What happened, so they aren’t there any more?”
“Perhaps the answer is in the water too,” I replied. “Look how green the river is, so full of algae and weed. The answer might be this; not to worry about putting fish in or taking them out, but to put the river back the way it was, so the gravel is clean and the water shines once more. If that happened these grubby little perch would be confined to the few areas they like best and the rest would be filled with trout again, just as we remember.”
After returning the perch to their deep-water lodge we walked the river for a mile or more and finally found a decent trout feeding at the surface. I threw my little dry fly over him and he definitely meant to murder it. The tiny hook stuck firm in the corner of his jaw as he bore away to faster water downstream, where he came unstuck in a tangle of weed.
That was it for the day. One solitary trout in a mile of what was once one of our finest streams. We might blame the pike, but I think the real problem lies elsewhere. At least we still have perch, if we want them.