Fish Don’t Lie - but don’t write it off just yet.
As anglers, we’re all superstitious to an extent.
Maybe superstition isn’t the right word for it, maybe it's a constant ‘tinkering’ desire to dial in the perfect fish-catching scenario. Maybe it’s a deep fear of ruining our chances due to one bad apple in our setup.
This kind of attention to detail is key in developing yourself as an angler. It can help you to recognize patterns and avoid pitfalls to catch more fish. However, this desire to get it “just right” in order to catch the maximum number of fish...must be guarded against the wrong assumptions.
Whether or not they say “I’m just out here for the experience” every angler wants to catch a fish or two.
Photo by Matt Ghoelke
Ideally, we’d like to have opportunities to catch fish, and there is something satisfying about finishing up a day of fishing with success. It’s a tough pill to swallow when you work really hard, do lots of preparation and go home without a bite.
So what do we ‘blame’ when that happens?
Jumping to Conclusions:
I’ve heard it so many times before. “I fished those shrimp all day and didn’t get a single bite!” “We sat in the slot the entire tide and got zero action.” “Those spoons don’t work here.”
Our success measurement is determined by a pretty simple result: Did we get bit - and what happened after that? When no bite occurs, the first response is to wonder why, and this is the right response for an angler, but it is unwise to quickly blame one factor without considering them all.
On a year of incredible fishing, you’ll get people swearing by certain baits and techniques...and yet if it had been a bad year of fish numbers, those same people would be cursing those same techniques
Spring Chinook caught on a spinner that has proven itself year-after-year. Photo by Nick Amato
Was it your bait? Was there any fish there? Were they in a biting mood?
I jumped to a wrong conclusion:
I had a specific color of “pink worm” that was not pink in any way shape or form. I tried it on two trips and lost confidence in it, mind you I didn’t get a fish on any other color of worm - and only got one steelhead in both trips on a spoon. Despite this, I put that color away and never tried it again.
2 years later I’m riding in a drift boat with a guide Keith Johnson and he spills the beans about an ultra effective worm...that he has been hammering steelhead on...the one I had written off and lost confidence in.
My mistake was losing confidence in a lure that hadn’t been given a proper shot.
For this reason, I recommend running the new baits you are trying first, then follow it up with a “proven” killer.
Years ago a friend Lonny Brooks was trying a (now defunct) brand of spinners, fishing them religiously and not getting bit. He started following up the spinner with a proven spinner and started whacking fish immediately.
After multiple trips and success in the same hole on another spinner he was able to conclude that the new spinners he had tried were not effective.
Would they ever work? Perhaps, but he had given them enough of a shot in the exact same circumstances to decide to stick with his proven favorite.
This is the absolute, beyond-all-shadow-of-doubt, most important factor of all.
If every other thing in your situation was absolutely perfect, it would mean nothing if there is not fish where you are fishing.
You must choose the time and place correctly, where fish are present, if you are to have success. Some of the finest, most consistent anglers are ultra specific about choosing when and where they fish.
You cannot rely on expert presentation alone. Knowing migration patterns, seasonal timing and population levels can all come into effect here. This factor is largely influenced by taking in information, and using it to choose when and where to fish.
You may choose to fish a spot the night before and change your decision the morning of the trip due to a change in conditions. These decisions are absolutely crucial.
Fish respond to their environment in a big way.
The study of fish behavior is a never-ending, interesting concept that anglers have been obsessed with forever. We learn more and more daily from science, angler documentation and anecdotal evidence. Some major factors play upon fish behavior, including but not limited to:
- Water & Air Temperature,
- Water Clarity, Light Penetration
- Tidal influence
- Predator & Bait Presence
- Current Flow & Water Movement
- Time of Day
- Moon Phase
- Barometric Pressure Changes
- Spawn & Lifecycle
- Competition for Food
When you take into account any of these factors, one of them alone could throw away your chances at a fish.
In some fisheries, certain factors don’t have as much bearing, but in many - they must be taken into account and reacted to. If you’ve considered fish presence and fish behavior, you still haven’t completed the picture.
- Targeting Fish
Fish don’t wake up hoping to find your bait, they operate on their own time frames and with their own goals in mind.
Some bites are triggered out of aggression, some as a feeding response, others from curiosity and opportunity.
Those bites will only come if the bait/lure can be noticed by the fish.
To be “noticed” baits and lures are detected by sight, sound, vibration, smell...but beyond being noticed, it must be in the "strike zone" where a fish is inclined to take a chance at it.
An obvious factor is getting your bait within the line of sight of the fish, there is vibrations, smells and sounds that can bring them within range. Some fish are highly visual feeders, I would suggest that Largemouth Bass and Steelhead are mostly driven by visual cues. Neither like a dead bait sitting on the bottom, and prefer certain movements, profile and color.
Chinook Salmon and Catfish can be highly scent-conscious, although exceptions certainly abound for nearly all species.
Fish Are Near
Once within range you need to consider if it is in the area that the fish feels like making a move on the bait.
Now is when your bait actually matters. When the fish has a solid choice on whether to bite your bait or not...now you should start considering if the fish like it. The best bait in the world will not matter if its not in the "strike zone". For an aggressive smallmouth bass, this could be 30 feet away, for steelhead it may be a "game of inches" where you must have it within 2-6 inches of the bottom - in some cases the vibration of a lure can bring fish into the "strike zone". Again, they don't wake up hoping to find your bait - make it easy for them.
Some lures, like this Little Cleo spoon, always seem to produce. That doesn’t mean every single trip it will catch fish, but if the time is right, I can always rely on the Blue & Chrome.
Don’t Write It Off...Just Yet
The right bait at the right time, in front of the right fish...will produce.
Have you lined up all of the factors?
Before you claim that a certain bait, leader, weight size, float, rattle, wobble or spin doesn’t work - consider if they were even given a fair shake in the process.
Perhaps you got one bite all day.
You ran a specific plug for 2 hours while sitting on anchor in one slot. You decided to change the plug after the second hour and after 3 more hours of fishing you got bit by a nice steelhead and brought it in to the boat, pleased as punch with your plug.
Was it the plug? Was it simply that by the fifth hour, the right fish, in the right mood, swam up and saw your presentation?
Here is one thing you know: it worked!
Fish don’t lie, and that is a great sign! However, before you claim that the previous plug didn’t work, it may be wise to test it again in another situation.
We can start drawing conclusions after weighing multiple factors, and the best way to do this is with a good network of anglers.
If you are out trolling baits with 40 other boats, and everyone is only fishing herring - resulting in 15 fish, is it safe to say that anchovies or spinners would not have worked that day? If there was an equal spread of herring, anchovies and spinners and 13 of those fish came on herring with only 2 on the other baits, now we can start making some claims about the “bite” that day.
Keep your options open and give everything a fair shake.
Go With Confidence:
Very few of us, in fact, perhaps none of us have the fishing time to weigh every single factor and experiment with every single bait. That is why learning from others about what baits worked in which situations can catapult us past the experimentation phase into some reliable lures that work.
By sharing and learning from each other, anglers can put together pieces of the puzzle that help all of us catch more fish. There will always be outliers and new options to consider, but over time trends will emerge and start to prove themselves.
But if you buy a fresh new lure and don’t catch a fish on it the first trip, you better be very sure before you...write it off.
- Written by Lucas Holmgren