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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 II
MATCHING METHODS TO CONDITIONS
Choosing your lure
Whatever species we wish to catch, the best tackles, methods and lures to use depend on the same factors. Most important are the characteristics of the ‘prey, which the fish are seeking, such as size, shape, type of movement and colour. Also of importance is the way in which the predator is expected to attack its victims. Each species has a different style, but the usual ones involve a grab across the body from below, a similar attack from the flank (both common pike strategies), engulfing the hapless victim from behind or simply chopping or plucking at the tail end (perch are good examples here). These differences may make the type of lure and the disposition of the hooks critical to success.
Buoyant Rapala plugs with modified lips. The top one is the shallowest diver and the bottom one the deepest. The positions of the hooks allow for mid-body strikes and tail nipping. Reducing the size of the tail treble improves action and hooks tail nippers better.
The depth at which fish are swimming or feeding has a considerable influence on the angler’s best approach. Similarly, the speed of water currents relative to the movement of the lure affects the suitability of a method. The nature of the ‘ground’ over which the lures are to be fished must also be taken into account. For example, weed (soft snags), sand, mud, or gravel (clean, snag free) will each favour a different tactic. The presence or absence of suspended matter in the water, which may take the form of turbidity (colour) or of lure-tangling fragments of algae, weed, eel-grasses and so on, can influence the method of fishing. More hook points mean more chances to collect snags or rubbish, more difficulty in removing hooks from fish and often endow little (if any) more hooking capability.
Soft plastic lures designed to hook mid-body strikes. The exposed hook of the Redgill (top) will pick up loose weed the others have a (more or less) weedless embedded hook arrangement.
In some game-fishing circles a tradition of matching the size of the bait to the temperature of the water has become almost law. The basis for this idea is doubtful and, although the feeding activity of all fish is governed by water temperature, even if there is any basis for using small lures when the water is warm, factors which are only indirectly due to temperature changes may be responsible.
When we have considered the quirks of the fish we are after and the conditions in which we expect to find them, what next? Is there any way in which might be able to attract them to the spot where we are fishing? Many predatory fish (and an even greater number of anglers) spend (waste?) a lot of time simply searching the water for prey. What sort of signals inform predators how to direct their searches? If we know this it might be possible to predict where they will be hanging out; or even to attract them to an area – almost in the way that coarse fishermen use groundbait or loose feed. In the case of fast moving, active predators the sense of smell is usually of minor importance, but not so their reactions to vibrations and visual stimuli.
Probably the easiest way for predatory fish to find concentrations of prey is to latch on to where others have already found them. Blitzing fish and/or diving birds may be the best guide to the presence of a good meal – just as they are for anglers. My pal Paul Froom reminds me that it is always a good idea to watch what other anglers are catching too. However, predatory fish often have to locate their food the hard way.
The easiest way to find feeding predators is when you see them - like these bass on the Dorset coast.
The space in this shoal of bait-fish is caused by the presence of a predator (tarpon) underneath them.
Not only does this blitz show that predators are present, but here in New Zealand the kahawai are actively feeding on halfbeaks.
Two for the price of one - feeding terns and gulls, plus a group of anglers watching for the fish to blitz, before casting their lures.
The importance of vibration in attracting predatory fish has been tested; mostly with actively, hunting sharks. The frequencies are often quite species-specific. Pacific lemon sharks are attracted to low frequency sounds and move towards sources emitting 20 – 50 cycles per second. Frequencies outside this range are not attractive to the fish. Another species, the grey shark, behaves in a similar way and underwater loudspeakers were used to attract them to intermittent bursts of low frequency sound. Not surprisingly, the sharks were also attracted to recordings of fish struggling on a hook or to those of a fish gripped in the jaws of a shark. It was concluded that the source of the attraction was the ‘intense muscle sounds of the struggling fish’. In another study silky sharks were attracted to ‘white noise’, sounds of between 25 and 1000 cycles per second, proving that different species respond to different types of vibration. To attract sharks in tropical waters it is common practice to beat the surface of the water with the paddle of the canoe or to shake halved coconut shells beneath the surface.
Low frequency sound is emitted from the speaker (red) to attract sharks. The pictures depict the number of fish present after switching on.
Not many of us ever spin for sharks. However, it is certain that predatory fish other than sharks, also search for the source of sounds and vibrations which might signal ‘food’, yet most anglers continue to ignore this feature of attraction. Any species which feeds on large and active prey is, at least potentially, susceptible to attraction from a distance.
The foods of such predators fall into a few groups, which include fish, squid, crustaceans, and large insects. The fish which they eat swim either by long-wave wriggling as in eels, short-wave sculling with the tail as in mackerel, or by various forms of paddling with the fins. Squids and cuttlefishes also propel themselves by undulations of the fins but, more often and more quickly by pulsed jets of water from the siphon. Some large dragonfly larvae are also ‘jet propelled’. Crustaceans such as crayfish, lobsters, squat-lobsters, shrimps and prawns, dart backwards, propelled by swift thrusts of the paddle-like tail. All these animals are, more or less, streamlined in shape. In choosing lures the size, body profile and swimming action of the prey that they are meant to represent should probably be a prime consideration.
Varied sources of strong vibrations in different forms of prey. .
Flashers and teasers
Returning to the subject of how predatory fish locate their prey, we find that anglers have already devised several methods of using long-range signals as attractors. Usually, these involve vibration or flash or both. Richard Walker recalled that Col. Tattersall, fishing with live-baits for pike, used to repeatedly cast out and retrieve a large spoon with the idea of tempting pike to the location of his live-bait. However, the activity of a vigorous live-bait probably achieves the same end without the extra effort. Glass jars containing live minnows were used, in the past, to attract predatory fish, particularly perch, to the fishing position. Anyone who has caught minnows in a trap will have noticed the immediate increase in ‘customers’ after the first minnow enters and begins to turn, twist and flash in its efforts to escape. There are few things more effective than a keep-net full of small fish to attract pike or perch into the swim – presumably by both flash and vibration.
Commercial tuna fishermen not only take great pains to ‘groundbait’ with small live or dead fish, but actually play powerful hoses onto the surface of the sea to both attract and stimulate feeding in the tuna. On a smaller scale I am always pleased to see small fish leaping from the water at the approach of my lure for exactly the same reason. The use of surface popping lures in fishing for bass and other predators is probably an excellent simulation of this type of bait-fish activity. Every twitch of the lure causes a spray of water resembling a ‘flash expansion’ of small fry. In this case the predators are attracted precisely to the position of the lure. Anglers trolling for sailfish or marlin in tropical waters, often fish a number of hookless ‘teasers’ to supplement the trolled lures. Presumably, the idea is that all the fish-like activity will attract predators from a distance and may also stimulate them to feed.
Surface-popping lures and sliders attract predators by creating a spray of water which resembles the flash expansion of escaping preyfish..
In sea-fishing, baited spoons, originally designed to attract flounders, have been extended in the form of flashers, rautos, baited pirks and so on. Perhaps the most striking example of an attractor which works by both flash and vibration, is a device which brings the fish from a wide area but is itself totally unsuitable for inducing a bite or strike. Off the Pacific coast of North America there are six species of salmon. Like our own salmon they spawn in the fast-flowing streams and rivers along the Pacific seaboard. The young salmon migrate to the sea to feed on the prolific shoals of small fish, planktonic shrimps and squid off the shores of British Columbia and California.
Almost all the Pacific salmon species are swift-cruising, free-swimming hunters. They grow quickly and are streamlined and fiercely predatory. Some types stay close inshore and there feed actively, particularly in the salt water near the estuaries of rivers. Although many of these salmon will take lures during their upstream, spawning migration, most of them do so with even less enthusiasm than our own Atlantic salmon. In the sea however, as you might expect, they are caught on a wide variety of natural baits and imitations.
Despite the general view of North American anglers being ‘gimmicky’ and their lures as being 'too fanciful', and “designed to catch the anglers rather than the fish”; many of the methods employed are totally practical and based on sound principles. Fish-strips mounted on the simplest of spinning flights; whole, small fishes similarly mounted; spinners and bucktail ‘flies’ are all used to good effect for catching salmon.
Fishing is from the shore or from small boats and careful consideration is given to the fact that the different species feed at different depths. Notably, the relatively small coho or blackmouth normally hunts close to the surface, and provides prime sport for anglers using light spinning tackle or powerful wet-fly gear with large bucktails. The much larger chinook or king salmon is a deep-water feeder, and lures must be presented at considerable depths. So that this can be achieved with reasonably light tackle, a downrigger system with the fishing line clipped to a separate, heavily-weighted line is used.
To return to the point, one of the best methods for catching chinook salmon is almost unbelievable. It involves the ‘ultimate’ attractor; a huge metal plate or ‘flasher’. So, what’s unusual? The salmon flasher is a sort of giant spoon (say 40cm long and 15cm wide), it has a split-ring and swivel at one end and travels in great swinging circles or loops on the end of the line. The diameter of the swing, if the angler gets it right, is about one metre. Tied to the business end of the flasher is a short, nylon trace (about 30cm) and on the end of the trace is tied a small, soft-plastic squid. The squids are what anglers in the UK have come to call ‘Wonder Shines’ or ‘Muppets’. Canadians have been using these soft-baits for many years and refer to them as ‘Hoochies’. The range of colours and finishes available over there is enormous (suggesting that colour may not be too important to the salmon?).
The bizarre 'flasher' used to attract and stimulate feeding of chinook salmon in the Pacific Ocean.
The most interesting aspect of the method is that the trace between the flasher and the small lure is so short and that the wild gyrations of the flasher are intended not just to attract the attention of salmon but to make the Hoochie dart and twist wildly in its wake – yet the fish still take it! Would anyone here dream of trying a method like this? I doubt it. Yet bass, cod, ling or pollack might be expected to respond to similar tactics. Scaled down it could possibly be applied to other species.
Why does it work? Presumably, when they feel and see the movement of the flasher, the salmon assume that they have located other feeding chinooks. The massive turbulence which it causes must be similar to that caused by the twists and turns of a feeding salmon, and the jerking, plastic squid simply looks like a small food animal (fish, squid or shrimp) swept out of control by the flourish of a mighty predator’s tail.
There are, of course, simpler methods of simulating a feeding fish to attract others to the lure or bait. For example, there is no better way of tempting flounders than a fish already hooked, and the same is true of a mackerel hooked on a string of feathers. Since there are not many instances of ‘multi-hooked’ spinning rigs, examples of fish-to-fish attraction are few, but commercial line fishermen fishing from small boats off the south coast often fish two rods. When a fish is hooked on one bait it is left in position, twisting and turning, until it attracts a second bass to the other bait. A well-designed flasher rig would surely increase catches. Similar hookless spoons or attractors might be expected to work for perch or zander. Of course, it is much easier to use tactics such as these from a boat than from the shore.
It must be obvious that attractors are less likely to be effective for stalking or ambushing predators, which are often solitary in their habits and do not normally swim far to obtain their food. However, the merits of long-range attraction and short-range stimulation should always be kept in mind.
NEXT TIME - Lure fishing in the 2020s - Part III The Predator.
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