Golden perch prove a worthy foe in the warmer months when the mighty Murray cod won’t come out to play
Golden perch are not often a freshwater species that gets much attention under the blistering rays of the summer sun. After taking centre stage in spring, which coincides with the Murray cod closed season, the yellowbelly fall down the pecking order, as the apex predator takes over the limelight.
As a result of playing second fiddle to the much-revered Murray cod in summer, anglers rarely target them specifically in our inland rivers and dams. I think this is a waste as they offer year-round sport for anglers looking to park their goodoo addiction for a trip or two. The challenge then becomes, how do you best target yellas in warmer weather? Glad you asked, as I have dedicated a decent chunk of time over the past decade specifically targeting golden nuggets during the warmest months of the year in both lakes and rivers. Not surprisingly, these lessons have been worth their weight in, yep, you guessed it, gold!
The biggest and most apparent observation when chasing gold in the warmer months is the difference in their river and dam behaviour. If you try to catch a yellowbelly or two with the exact same techniques and principles in both waterways you are limiting your potential. Generally, dams are wide, deep and slow-moving, while most inland rivers that have a healthy population of perch are shallower, skinnier and carry more of a flow than lakes. Those factors alone will see the behaviour of golden perch nuanced to ensure they are accommodating their environmental conditions to maximise their food intake. Just like my mannerisms differ when I dance around the breakfast buffet on a Sunday morning, compared with my behaviour as I circle the bain-marie at the local servo after a long day on the water.
Rivers of Gold
It was exactly ten years ago, casually bobbing three inches above the Murrumbidgee River in a kayak with good mate, Aaron ‘Hilly’ Hill, we started striking summer gold. Initially it was to seek respite from the brutal reality that is Murray cod fishing. When these brutes don’t want to eat, they simply will not give your bait a second glance. It was during one of these moments Hilly, almost defeated, proposed we turn our attention to the humble yellowbelly. I usually take some convincing, but on this occasion my arm was easily twisted, as I was keen to put an arc in my graphite – no matter what the size.
Now, the first few hours didn’t exactly go to plan, as all we did was downsize our baits to a small hardbody and lipless crankbaits and employed our foolproof early spring tactics. I vividly remember Hilly saying in a gruff tone, “But they’re only yellowbelly, why aren’t we catching them?”
After a quick mid-river huddle and ice-cold amber ale we started to think a bit clearer. While yellowbelly flood the edges in spring as the water heats, they often seek out milder conditions when the water temperature eclipses the 25-degree mark. With that in mind, we turned our attention to the cooler sections of the river that provide some reprieve from the sweltering shallows. The first area we targeted under the midday sun was the deeper section of the bigger pools.
With guns blazing we loaded our artillery with lipless crankbaits and 20g soft vibes, partnered with a 2-4kg rod and a low-profile baitcaster spooled to the brim with 20lb braid and leader. It’s worth noting the significantly different line strength compared with yellowbelly fishing in spring, when I prefer to roll 6lb to 10lb leader. The difference is you are more of a chance to encounter a greenback as by-catch in summer and the extra line strength gives you a fighting chance to land it for the camera.
With renewed vigour, it didn’t take long before we struck gold as Hilly picked up a solid slab that smacked his favourite 95mm soft vibe. A slow double hop off the bottom was all it took to instantly reverse our fishless fortunes for the day.
We both acutely knew that one fish doesn’t make a pattern, so we quickly deployed our sinking baits again to see if we could tempt another pent-up perch.
Literally on the next cast Hilly was bumped on the drop but it didn’t stick.
Bursting with confidence, we proceeded to hop and drop our way to a dozen golden perch over the next few hours across a handful of different deep pools on the edge of some fast-flowing water. As we pulled up for some afternoon tea and a dip in the water, we dissected the last few hours and decided, contentedly, that we would test our mettle in another cooler area of the river. While the slow meandering edges of a river heat up like your grandmother’s English breakfast tea, not all edges turn on the heat.
We were looking for shallow boulders and constrictions that force the water to bubble and gurgle on the top. This helps pump oxygen into the water and effectively cool down the immediate area. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.
We slightly tweaked our tactics and parked the silent, slow-hopped soft plastic vibe on the bench and called up the noisy, rattling crankbaits. Initially we tried to slow-hop the baits, like in the deeper water, but we found they were getting washed downriver post-haste and spending no time in the strike zone.
Undeterred, we then proceeded to test-drive a new oxygenated technique. Casting upstream of the mid-water boulders, we slow-rolled our lipless crankbaits back around the flow point on either side of the rock. As we hypothesised, the crafty yellowbelly were waiting ready to pounce in the slow water behind the mid-water obstacles. And pounce they did. In a catastrophic cascade of flying fins in shallow water, we proceeded to plunder the resident perch population into submission. Racking up a rugby league score of perch for the remainder of the afternoon, we were content enough to retreat to camp early and revel in a few more celebratory frothies.
Our eye-opening river jaunt reinforced the notion that yellowbelly are far from a second-class freshwater citizen. They pack a decent punch and their prolific numbers, if you look in the right areas, can be a tonne of fun for anglers of all abilities. This golden fun isn’t ring-fenced just in our rivers, but also extends to inland dams and lakes. But, like the river experience, you have to slightly amend your technique and not simply unpack your springtime bag of tricks. For the anglers who are new to the yellowbelly game, you will not find a more fertile area to fill a bag of perch than in the shallows. As the water temperature races up from single digits well into the double figures, golden perch flood our inland edges looking to pack on the pudding they lost in winter.
But as that water temperature breaches the high 20-degrees marker, much like the rivers, yellowbelly will seek out more comfortable conditions. This usually means they will move down a step or two from the edges. The best dam depths to start prospecting for gold in the warmer months are around the 20ft to 30ft mark. Rarely will they dive straight away from the edges back to the real deep stuff, especially at the start of summer. Similar hop and drop techniques used to mine the deeper water in rivers translate well to the dams. We have also noticed that the burn and kill technique, where you slow wind before pausing or ‘killing’ the retrieve then briskly ‘burning’ your bait into action, is just as effective.
This latter technique proved especially deadly when we finally decided to park the goodoo tools at Googong Dam one early summer evening and pick up the yella gear. Casting at a thin cluster of sticks as a reference point, we were working the fish into a frenzy by aggressively burning the baits and killing them just as they passed the timber. In 24ft of water, it was like the stacked-up golden perch couldn’t resist the rattling flutter of our lipless crankbaits, as they wafted tantalisingly back to the dam floor. While we registered numerous plucks and hits, our hook-up rate was less than favourable, with only two perch hitting the deck.
Testing our technology we decided to push closer to the single strand of timber, keeping our eyes glued to the 2D DownScan on our bow-mounted Humminbird Helix Gen 4 unit. We were lucky we were wearing our polarised Costa sunnies, as the screen lit up like a bright Christmas tree stacked full of portly perch. Hovering over the stack of fish we slowly deployed our small soft plastics and lipless crankbaits into the school. After testing a few different retrieves, it quickly became apparent that the best way to tempt a bite was a quick deployment to the bottom, via a wide-open bail, followed by a slow roll back to the rod tip. You do need to pack your patience, as the yellas will follow your bait, like they are in an aquatic trance, right up to the boat – often hitting with the majority of your leader in your eyelets.
We all know and accept that the mighty Murray cod is the king of the freshwater jungle. You won’t hear any objection from me on that cold, hard fact. What you will hear me argue about till I’m blue in the face is that yellowbelly are a fantastic foe, no matter what the season. Yes, they dominate the discourse in spring, but are quickly downgraded as soon as 1 December rolls around. So, don’t wait until you’re pulling out your hair courtesy of another fishless freshwater session thanks to the wily Murray cod before you turn your attention to striking summer gold.
Words & Images: Dean Norbiato