The fish twitcher


An­drew Grif­fiths meets ta­lented fish pho­tog­ra­pher Jack Perks

Cap­tur­ing film of spring-spawn­ing rain­bow trout – or a grayling in the throes of pas­sion – is a dif­fer­ent type of re­ward for days on the river­bank

It took four years to cap­ture pic­tures of a grayling spawn­ing; ‘I was on Cloud Nine for a few days af­ter that’

We were on a pack­horse bridge over the River Wye, just up­stream of the de­light­ful mar­ket town of Bakewell in the Der­byshire Peak District. Jack Perks was do­ing a fine, if un­in­ten­tional, im­pres­sion of a young John Cleese in his “Min­istry of silly walks” hey­day. Perks’ long legs probed the air as he crept across the bridge, his gaze hang­ing over the para­pet like an over­laden pan­nier.

“My girl­friend says I am like a heron,” he whis­pered over his shoul­der, “be­cause I am al­ways star­ing into rivers.” Then he stopped, bolt up­right, and stared into a river.

“There!” he said ex­cit­edly af­ter a few mo­ments. “Down there, look.”

I do. This is the point where I feel I should write about the “crys­tal clear wa­ters of the Wye” but it was a bit murky, ac­tu­ally. The river was still high af­ter the cold, wet, early spring. But this idyl­lic lime­stone river was still clear enough for me to make out a dark shape be­neath us, in a fair flow of wa­ter, finning down near the riverbed.

“It’s a grayling,” Perks says. “And up there, look – that’s a rain­bow.”

I strained to look up­stream, where Perks was point­ing, but with­out the ad­van­tage of his Po­laroid glasses or hy­per-tuned eye. I could just make out a smaller fish, which as it turned re­vealed a tell-tale flash of crim­son. It was one of this river’s famed wild stock of rain­bow trout, the only river in Eng­land in which this Amer­i­can im­port breeds suc­cess­fully. The rain­bow trout spawns in the spring, like our coarse fish, and un­like its cousin our na­tive wild brown trout, which spawns in the au­tumn. But it was the spawn­ing be­hav­iour of the rain­bow trout we had re­ally come to see.

fish pho­tog­ra­pher

Jack Perks is a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher who has made a name for him­self pho­tograph­ing the se­cret world of the UK’S fresh­wa­ter fish. You have prob­a­bly seen his work on Coun­try­file and Spring­watch, where he re­vealed to the na­tion black­berry-eat­ing chub and a spawn­ing grayling that ap­peared to be – and there is no del­i­cate way of putting this – in the throes of sex­ual ec­stasy. The clip was shown on TV, went vi­ral on­line and spawned (sorry) a thou­sand jokes around the theme of: “I’ll have what she’s hav­ing.”

The Daily Ex­press even com­plained that it was too ex­plicit and ques­tioned whether it should have been shown be­fore the wa­ter­shed. It couldn’t have been bet­ter pub­lic­ity for a young film­maker. (“I thought, if you can an­noy the Daily Ex­press that is al­ways a bonus,” says Perks.) Thank good­ness no­body told the Ex­press that the grayling is known

as the “lady of the stream”. They would still be in the throes of pruri­ent apoplexy now but, all in all, it pro­vided Perks with a firm foun­da­tion upon which to build his ca­reer.

That tremu­lous grayling was filmed just a cou­ple of miles up­stream of where we were stand­ing on that bridge at Bakewell, and it is tempt­ing to think that he must just have got lucky. Tempt­ing, that is, un­til you learn that it took four years to cap­ture footage of grayling spawn­ing.

“At the time, I had a pole cam­era with a mon­i­tor, so I could ac­tu­ally see it while it was hap­pen­ing,” says Perks. “I was jump­ing up and down on the river­bank, I was on Cloud Nine for a few days af­ter that.”

One rea­son I wanted to in­ter­view Jack Perks was to see how his hunt­ing in­stinct as a pho­tog­ra­pher com­pared to my own as a fly-fisher. There are clear sim­i­lar­i­ties – on that bridge in Bakewell, Perks had stalked those fish as surely as I would have done had it been my in­ten­tion to cast a fly over them. But, the mo­ment of con­sum­ma­tion, his mo­ment of con­nec­tion with

the fish, is rather dif­fer­ent.

thrill of the chase

Perks has an angling back­ground him­self, coarse mostly, which he learned as a boy be­side his grand­fa­ther on his Nottinghamshire rivers. But he says that the “thrill of the chase” is now found more in film­ing the fish than in the catch­ing of them.

“It is that ex­cite­ment, when I get the cam­eras out of the wa­ter,” says Perks. “I rush home to see what is on the me­mory card and I am like a kid at Christ­mas. I can’t wait to see what is on the card. Nine times out of 10 it is just a bit of blan­ket weed for two hours not do­ing any­thing, but ev­ery now and again you might get some­thing spe­cial and it makes it all worth­while when you are sit­ting in the mid­dle of a cold river in Der­byshire wait­ing for these fish to do some­thing.”

As we stood watch­ing over that bridge, we were wit­ness­ing one of na­ture’s dra­mas play­ing out, but one that is sel­dom seen. Rain­bow trout and grayling both spawn at the same time, and here they were be­neath us, per­haps two me­tres apart, pre­par­ing to do just that. The big grayling was in slightly deeper, faster wa­ter, and the smaller rain­bow in slightly shal­lower, nearer to the bank.

As we watched, a tourist party passed by us, edg­ing us into the cut­wa­ter. They were obliv­i­ous to what was go­ing on be­neath them. But then most peo­ple are like that. Rivers are two-di­men­sional things that may look pretty or cause roads to need bridges and, very oc­ca­sion­ally, may mis­be­have and end up in peo­ple’s front rooms, but most peo­ple have no idea what goes on be­neath their sur­face. Even an­glers, who may walk

up rivers in pur­suit of their quarry, have lit­tle idea of what is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing be­neath their feet.

“It’s very typ­i­cal of fish, and any wildlife re­ally in the river,” says Perks, once the noisy party had crossed. “There is all this amaz­ing be­hav­iour and life cy­cles that these an­i­mals go through, and peo­ple are just obliv­i­ous to it.” And it, it would seem, to them.

Perks had found his stage and his cast, now he had gone down to the river’s edge to fig­ure out how to film it. He uses Go­protype cam­eras, weights them and places them strate­gi­cally on the riverbed and then leaves them film­ing. There is rather more skill in­volved in this than you might at first think, or in­deed Perks wants you to think. He com­plains that peo­ple treat him as though he just drops his cam­eras in the wa­ter and it all just hap­pens ef­fort­lessly, but he com­plains lightly, and you get the feel­ing that, se­cretly, he rather likes that. At least he is smil­ing while he says it.

But to a cer­tain ex­tent he has to pre­dict the fish’s be­hav­iour, where it is go­ing to be, and place his cam­eras ac­cord­ingly. And as any an­gler will tell you, pre­dict­ing what fish are go­ing to do next is far from easy.

Then there is al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources. There are five cam­eras: does he use them all here, or some here and look for an­other spot? The cam­eras’ bat­tery life is about an hour-and-a-half, so when is the best time to set them run­ning, to cap­ture the be­hav­iour you are af­ter? There’s a lot of thought goes into get­ting those few sec­onds of record­ing.

Watch­ing him place the cam­eras, I was sur­prised how tol­er­ant the fish were to his pres­ence. As he waded in to place the cam­eras, I asked if he wouldn’t scare off the fish?

“They are not both­ered by it at all,” says Perks cheer­fully. “I’ll be will­ing to bet that in 15 min­utes they will be back on that.” It didn’t take a frac­tion of that, and they were.

Jack Perks’ quest is to film ev­ery fresh­wa­ter fish in Bri­tain, which, de­pend­ing on which author­ity you speak to, num­bers at least 57. By that count, Perks has four more to go. So far, he has rid­den the tech­no­log­i­cal wave and shown us un­fa­mil­iar views of fa­mil­iar things. I am in­ter­ested in what he sees him­self do­ing next. Is he con­tent, Gil­bert White-like, to make this small tri­an­gle of Der­byshire riverbed with its myr­iad at­ten­dant sto­ries the ex­tent of his am­bi­tions, or is there some­thing else?

“I get asked a lot: ‘Oh, you’re a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher. Have you been to Africa. Or have you been to the Ama­zon?’ I say, no, I went to Derby last week or what­ever,” ex­plains Perks.

“I would like to do more species un­der­wa­ter in rivers, so things like the river­flies, wa­ter­v­oles, dip­pers, ot­ters, all these species that we are more fa­mil­iar see­ing on the top side, but we for­get that a lot of them spend half if not more of their life un­der­wa­ter.”

Perks does at some stage hope to travel – he plans one day to film bar­bel in Spain, the mas­sive cat­fish snatch­ing a pass­ing pi­geon in France – but for now he is happy hop­ping in and out of Bri­tain’s rivers.

“I am never hap­pier than when I am sat down next to a river,” he says. “I can’t help but have a big cheesy grin on my face, when I can hear the trickle, the dip­pers and the king­fish­ers go by. If I can do that for the rest of my life it still won’t be long enough.”

Jack Perks’ first book, Fresh­wa­ter fishes of Bri­tain, fea­tures his un­der­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phy and is avail­able from all good book­shops or on­line (pub­lished by New Hol­land Pub­lish­ers, RRP: £17)

I would like to do more species un­der­wa­ter in rivers, things like the river­flies…

Above: Jack Perks po­si­tion­ing his cam­eras. Above right: pike spawn­ing in Stoney Cove, Le­ices­ter­shire Pre­vi­ous page: rain­bow trout cap­tured on the Wye

Perks uses Go­protype cam­eras, which he weights and then places strate­gi­cally on the riverbed

A zan­der pho­tographed by Perks on the River Trent; he has now “shot” all but four of the at least 57 species of fresh­wa­ter fish found in Bri­tain

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