Catch Fish with
For anyone unfamiliar with the site always check the FRESHWATER, SALTWATER and TACK-TICS pages. The Saltwater page now extends back as a record of over several years of (mostly) sea fishing and may be a useful guide as to when to fish. The Freshwater stuff is also up to date now. I keep adding to both. These pages are effectively my diary and the latest will usually be about fishing in the previous day or two. As you see I also add the odd piece from my friends and correspondents if I've not been doing much. The Tactics pages which are chiefly 'how I do it' plus a bit of science are also updated regularly and (I think) worth a read (the earlier ones are mostly tackle and 'how to do it' stuff).
Lure fishing in the 2020s - Part I
Over thirty years ago my late pal Harry Casey and I published a little book on lure fishing. We were both ‘all-round’ anglers and at the time it was a decent account of the way to catch a variety of fish, from pike to pollack and sand smelts to salmon, by spinning. Most of the anecdotes were based on our personal experience. As anglers, I have to say that we were critical and difficult to convince when it came to tackle and tactics; manufacturer’s claims and journalist’s jargon did not impress us. We were just as happy legering or float fishing with baits as fly fishing or spinning with artificial lures.
Lure Fishing - The original cover. Note the seriously underfilled spool of the Cardinal (at the time our only suitable picture of the fish).
To come to the point, because I’m old, and still waiting to be called for my Covid 19 vaccination, I’m unlikely to be venturing to the water for a week or two. So, to keep the BLOG alive, I thought it might be interesting to write a few web pages about how my lure fishing has changed since the book was written. Thirty years is a long time, and many things are now different. For example, although the basic behaviour of fish doesn't change very quickly, the abundance and size distribution of various species have been altered by overfishing (mainly affecting sea fish), climate change and other human activities (affecting fish everywhere).
So, most of the significant changes have been in equipment and methods. Although there is no doubt that the tackle and tactics that we used in the second half of last century were highly effective, and they would (and often do) still catch just as many fish as they used to, it is time to have another look at possible improvements. As I've suggested, the way that the various fish behave, and feed is unlikely to have changed much, but sometimes we have learned things which help to put more or larger fish (assuming that they are still about) on the bank.
Unfortunately, in the ‘old days’ digital photography was still, more or less, science fiction, so pictures of places or catches were not so easy to come by and I’ll have to do the best I can with old photographs. The first few chapters will not be very different from the original book and most of the innovations appear in the later sections on catching particular species. To give a flavour of what it used to be like, I’ll start with a description, from the book, of one of the many sessions that Harry and I spent in the 1980s :-
One Sunday in early October we set out on what was intended to be a bass spinning trip. On arrival at the coast, we found that conditions were much too rough and weedy for us to fish our chosen beach. After a hasty, cliff-top discussion we abandoned our plan and decided to take advantage of a couple of free tickets allowing us to fish a ‘fly only’ stretch of the River Wylye, using our bass gear to spin for coarse fish (it was the trout close season). We turned our car inland and our thoughts to pike and perch.
On arrival at the River a lugubrious bailiff informed us that the recent trout season had produced nothing of outstanding interest. He said that “The biggest brownie was one of two-and-three-quarter pounds, caught on a mayfly.” In fact they had not landed a trout of over three pounds for a couple of years. He added that “If you’re spinning, don’t forget to use lures longer than five inches, so that you don’t catch too many trout.”
At the waterside we were disappointed and slightly upset to find that, despite the recent lack of rain, the water was the colour of strong, milky coffee. The construction of a new weir and bypass system was, through a recently dug channel, feeding chalky, clay-loaded water directly into the main stream. It did not look promising, but we decided to give it a go.
I cast my large Mepps-Mino across the murky mouth of the new cut. The big spinning blade, bright though it was, could scarcely be seen at a depth of six inches – but no sooner had it begun to turn than bang! A fish was on. It was hardly a match for the bass tackle (12ft carp rod, ABU cardinal 77 fixed –spool reel and eight-pound monofilament) and a 1.5lb perch was soon in the net. Meanwhile Harry was already into a second perch, and so it continued with fish up to 2.5lb following in quick succession. Suddenly, Harry’s rod arched over as a much larger fish took the lure and set off downstream. As it turned below the surface, we saw the green and gold flank of a decent pike. Harry landed, unhooked and returned the fish before retying his lure as insurance against damaged line (both of us later attached wire traces - these days I'd have started off with a wire trace).
I strolled along the bank and cast into the slightly clearer water of the mill stream. Within minutes the clutch was buzzing as a fish took line. Harry wielded the net and lifted out a five-pound brown trout. We thought it was a monster. Despite the ‘large’ lures and our attempts to avoid ‘trouty water’ our total for the day was twelve brown trout, all over two pounds, twenty big perch and eight pike including five good-sized ones. Harry even had a bonus grayling.
There can’t be many anglers who would be disappointed with a trip like that. However, like everyone who wields a fishing rod, over the years we had our share of blanks and missed bites, so it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty business of going lure fishing.
Tactics of the hungry fish
It is only when you try to tell an inexperienced angler how to set about catching a particular kind of fish that you realise just how much is involved. To make a decent catch is not quite as easy as it may seem to the experienced hand. There really is no substitute for years of trial and error - but what about the written word? Most lure fishing books have a similar format. They list as many different lures as possible and then speculate, at best on the basis of personal experience and at worst on second-hand information, which might be the most appropriate for each species of fish and set of conditions. This sort of treatment has been applied to all branches of our sport – coarse, game and sea and to be honest is of limited value.
Grandson Ben and a few of his catches, in twenty years of trial and error fishing with grandad.
Spinning tactics are not always the best way to catch fish and no one would believe that they are. However, what we can say is that it is certain that by adopting the methods outlined
(1) You will catch fish
(2) You will enjoy exciting sport
(3) You will often catch more and bigger fish than others who stick to more conventional approaches.
Firstly, to try and dispel a few of the frequently quoted myths. It is a fact that most fish take your lure because they think it is something to eat. Feelings of jealousy, frustration, or annoyance on the part of the fish, in the sense that we know them are never involved; whatever you may have read to the contrary. There are a few exceptions to the feeding response being the motive for an attack on your lure; such as – when a fish is defending its territory as wrasse do or when competing for spawning sites in the case of pre-spawning salmon and trout.
This nice wrasse nipped the tail of the plug 'possibly thinking that it was a competitor in its territory?'.
As they approach spawning time, to protect their spawning sites salmon will attack almost any lure.
The feeding behaviour of fish can be complicated but it depends mainly on how hungry the fish is. This, in turn, is governed by how full its belly is and this of course depends on how recently it has eaten. The hungrier the hunter then the more actively it will search for prey, the more persistently it will press home its attacks and the longer it will sustain its feeding spells. While the fish fills its belly by eating it is also emptying it by digesting the food. Both activities are, to some extent temperature dependent. Generally, the warmer the water the quicker food is digested and the more active the predator. This means that in warmer water the fish will feed more energetically and so they are likely to bite more positively. Of course, what is warm to a northern fish like the cod, salmon or pike, is likely to be distinctly chilly to a southern softy such as a snook or even a bass.
Water temperatures vary not only with the season of the year but also with the time of day. Even more important to predatory fish may be the variations in light level at different times of the day. Fish which are normally sight feeders in the daylight hours are likely to take lures best after a long, dark night with nothing to eat. Many predators are ‘crepuscular’, in other words they tend to feed at the dawn or dusk change of light when their large, sensitive eyes give them an advantage over their smaller prey. Remember that because of surface reflection and the low angle of the sun, 'first light' comes a little later (in the morning) and goes a bit sooner (in the evening) for the fish, than it does for us. Also, it is sometimes it is even possible to decide where species such as bass, may be feeding, as they seek out sandeels which bury in sandy patches at dusk and emerge again to feed in mid-water at dawn.
There are four main strategies by which fish catch their prey and each of these requires a different approach from the angler. Many species of predatory fish will change their tactics according to the nature of available prey and/or the conditions.
'Angler-fish', and some other species use moving lures of their own to tempt smaller fish within range of their mouths. Lure fishermen could do worse than watch the style of an angler-fish in an aquarium. Lying perfectly still on the ‘sea bed’ it relies on perfect camouflage of form and colour to conceal it. The small, rather drab coloured, flag-like lure suspended on a fine filament (a modified dorsal fin ray) over its head, is extended and twitched seductively above the narrow, thorny crevice which represents the mouth. A little fish such as a poor-cod, searching the sea bed for small but active crustaceans, approaches the gently jigging lure. The angler fish, (unlike many of its human counterparts) never shows signs of panic or haste and simply sustains the unhurried ‘swimming’ movements of its bait. The smaller fish closes on the ‘artificial’ and in a blur of snapping jaws it is engulfed and swallowed.
The ultimate luring predator, an angler-fish, often marketed as 'monkfish' these days.
Other than the occasional angler-fish caught by accident there seems to be no common spinning method which would be effective for such predators. Only a live-bait fished very close to the sea-bed on a slow retrieve, would seem to give any hope of success. Clearly, the major difficulty in angling for luring predators is getting your bait into the right position for the fish to take it.
Predatory fish which hunt from ambush are only a little less extreme than those just described, and they present the angler with almost as many, though slightly different, problems. Since the fish will not usually move far in its search for prey your lure must be placed virtually on the end of its snout. Again, some form of camouflage is an important feature of fish which hunt in this way, and concealment may involve merging into the background by being the appropriate colour or shape for the habitat. Consider how the pike, in its green and yellow livery, copies to perfection the dappled light which penetrates surrounding weeds, how the turbot alters the intensity of the gritty, dorsal speckling and flips its fringing fins to hide its outline under the disturbed sediment. Perhaps the most subtle ambush of all is that of the john dory. With ragged, trailing fins, like fronds of drifting weed and a compressed, disc-like body, it swims lethargically, leaning over to one side and looking (to its potential prey) nothing like a predator.
The john dory, with a huge mouth, ambushes its prey by imitating a drifting piece of seaweed.
All these fish have the common feature of a massive, capacious mouth to ensure that the ‘strike’, which is only made possible after a long wait, has a strong chance of being successful. The method of preparing for an attack is rather slow and clearly seen in the pike. The fish, perfectly camouflaged and, like the john dory, leaning over to one side, carefully lines itself up on its victim and slowly approaches within range, before darting forward at high speed for the kill. Ambushers may, if necessary, stalk very slowly after particularly wary or elusive prey and strike repeatedly at them.
Just as there is overlap between the tactics of luring and ambushing predators there are also strong similarities between fish which ambush their prey and those that stalk. The stalker sneaks forward to within striking distance before making the crucial lunge. Many predators will stalk single, lone prey fish and the tactics which they use are often similar. The large fish fixes its eyes on the victim and turns slowly towards it presenting the least fish-like profile of the body. Inch by inch it approaches, sculling gently with the paired fins or rippling the dorsal and ventral fins and often rolling the body to one side (like the john dory) so that it looks even less like a predator. The tail is curved round to one side, thus ‘setting the spring’ which provides the impetus for the final mighty burst of acceleration. The wrist of the tail is usually thick and there is a large fin area at the back to provide the necessary sudden thrust.
The tail end of a pike with a thick tail wrist and all the fins at the back for a quick start.
Stalking (and ambushing) predators will normally only take lures which are either fished very slowly, giving the fish time to line up and track them, or they may attackbaits which are presented very close to them. In using artificials for such fish it is usually worth several casts in each place to attract their attention and then to offer them a good opportunity to take.
Hunters and chasers are the real ‘meat and drink’ of the keen spin-fisher. Fish using this method generally chase, overtake, capture and swallow individual prey animals. They are mostly fast, slick swimmers with the form and ability to turn quickly. They catch their prey because it is less ‘fleet of fin’ than they are or because they have the speed and stamina to herd, trap or exhaust it.
Mackerel have the narrow tail wrist, finlets and sharply forked tail to reduce drag.
Examples of free-swimming chasers are mackerel, scad, seatrout and salmon which cruise at high speeds in open water. Although they are often fast swimmers these fish have rather poor acceleration, a ‘design’ problem caused by specialisation to reduce drag (slim, cut-away tail wrists, and reduced fin areas). Due to this poor acceleration the mackerel, for example, catches only about 10-15% of the fish which it attacks, whereas a specialist accelerator like the pike may be successful in 80-90% of its strikes. Chasers compensate for this inefficiency by continual action which brings them into contact with many prey, whereas fish which normally stalk or ambush their prey encounter only those victims which swim into their territory.
A second group of chasing predators includes near-bottom living species such as cod or perch, which harry their prey from one hiding place to another. Lastly there are more versatile opportunists like bass, trout, pollack and many others which can adapt their approach to the nature of the available food. It will already be clear that there are no hard-and-fast differences between the four main feeding strategies of predators. Some fish are specialists and others are less set in their ways. There are also large numbers of fishes which, although they normally feed on plants, insects or other small creatures will, at times, take larger and more active prey. This may occur only at certain seasons of the year or when the fish reach a large size and is of special interest to the lure angler because it provides the opportunity of catching specimen sized members of such unlikely species as wrasse, mullet, roach, barbel, and bream.
NEXT TIME - Lure fishing in the 2020s - Part II Matching methods to conditions.
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