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.
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