Mind the menu
Want to catch more fish? Experiment with different baits until you find out what the fish are hooked on
I’ve never been a fan of fishing clichés. You know the ones, trite sayings such as “A bass is a bass no matter where you find it” or “Fish have brains smaller than a pea.” To me, these old chestnuts only denigrate the very creatures we find so fascinating. And instead of providing sound counsel on how to catch fish, they actually steer anglers off course.
I was reminded of this twice recently while discussing fish behaviour with John Casselman, former senior research scientist with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, and Pure Fishing’s Keith Jones, who’s broken new ground in the field of fish sensory perception. What they’ve discovered independently left my head spinning—namely, fish often become so focused on one specific food item that they won’t eat anything else.
Casselman came to this conclusion while researching lake trout feeding habits on Victoria Island in the high Arctic. “The trout were eating everything up there,” he says. “Lemmings, weasels, you name it. If you were in the water you were done. I couldn’t believe it.”
But here’s where it gets so fascinating. When analyzing the lakers’ stomach contents, Casselman and his fellow researchers found that one fish would be full of insects, another full of plankton and another full of snails—but never a mix of different forage. Moreover, the plankton would all be of the same species; the same with the snails.
“In other words, when they get on a certain species, they know it, they stay on it and they get hooked on it,” says Casselman. “It is as though they get habituated on something and they optimize it. It isn’t a case of eating 40 plankton, 20 snails and three types of insects.”
Now, how many times have you found a bass or trout cruising in shallow water, but it refused all your efforts to catch it? Or, how often have you spotted a school of walleye or salmon on your sonar unit but couldn’t entice them to bite? Usually, we like to let ourselves off the hook by rationalizing that the fish were in a neutral or a negative mood. The reality is, however, we likely didn’t offer them the food they were addicted to at that particular time.
Enter Keith Jones. Having studied captive fish in the laboratory, he believes individual bass, walleye and even carp will often highly refine their specific food choices. How refined? In order to catch the fish, you have to precisely match the size, shape, profile, colour, taste and smell of whatever it is they are keying in on. So if you’re casting a minnow-imitating lure to a bass hunting for crawfish, for example, you’re wasting your time.
To illustrate this point, Jones recounts working with fishing guide and consultant Ray van Horne on Florida’s Tarpon Lake. “It’s such a heavily pressured lake, the poor bass have seen just about everything ever invented,” he says. “I mean, those fish are tired of responding to artificial lures.”
As a result, Tarpon Lake has a terrible reputation among anglers. But not with van Horne. While fishing with Jones, he would net live threadfin shad and keep them in his baitwell to chum the fishing area around his boat. Then he’d put a lively shad under a bobber.
“He would catch the stuffing out of the bass for hour after hour after hour, never exhausting the reaction of the fish,” says Jones. “Those bass were looking for one thing and one thing only—threadfin shad.”
So, this summer, when you see fish cruising by or spot them on your sonar screen, keep experimenting with different baits and lures until you match the specific forage they’re addicted to. And whatever you do, don’t fall prey to those tired old fishing clichés.
Match the hatch
When it comes to cliché fishing sayings, at least one actually has some merit: Match the hatch. Indeed, by tying replicas of hatching insects—or whatever stage of insect the trout happen to be eating—fly fishermen can tap into the feeding frenzy. And consider the savvy dry fly anglers who add some yellow or orange to their flies to imitate the eggs on the underside of female mayflies. Now, that’s attention to detail—and to the selective feeding of the fish.