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December 2009 cover image Birdwatching at San Bernard River National Wildlife refuge

Skill Builder: Think Like a Fish

If you want to catch a fish, learn how to act like food.

By Larry Bozka

If there is indeed a “secret” to consistently catching fish it has to be the ability to think like one.

Successful fishing, especially with artificial lures, boils down to convincing a creature with a pea-sized brain that whatever we are throwing at it looks and acts like the real thing. Fortunately, predator species share many common behaviors.

For the fish it’s all about getting a meal. We don’t eat everything that’s put in front of us every time we see it. Neither do fish.

Also, game fish instinctively conserve energy. The easier the meal, the more attractive it is to an opportunistic predator.

By understanding these tendencies and others, we’re far better equipped to con and catch the allegedly feeble-minded creatures we so avidly pursue.

Take Me Fishing 101 Series for Beginning Anglers

Let ‘Wounded’ Lures Lie

If a topwater plug is hit but the game fish fails to take the lure, it’s a big mistake to immediately reel it in. The fish, having burned substantial calories to “cripple” the lure, is almost invariably still watching it. Let the plug sit. Game fish will frequently return to make “kill strikes” on motionless lures. If it doesn’t happen inside of 10 seconds, a faint twitch of the plug to mimic an injured prey will often trigger a vicious response. “Wounded” lures are strikes waiting to happen.

Mimic Forage Fish

When fishing plugs or any other _mullet-imitating lures, saltwater anglers often employ nonstop retrieves. Likewise, some bass anglers cast crankbaits or spinnerbaits and never stop reeling after their lures hit the water. Doing so is poor technique at best. Close observation of active bait fish reveals why. Mullet tend to swim short distances and then momentarily pause before moving on. Freshwater shad gather in pods as well, milling about with erratic stop-and-go surges as they migrate. It only makes sense to work lures accordingly.

Go With the Flow

Inexperienced anglers tend to crank lures in against the prevailing current. Bad idea. Predators aren’t alone in conserving energy. Forage species are carried about by tides and currents. Accordingly, lures worked in tandem with the flow appear natural. With everything from sinking trout flies to quarter-ounce spoons to large suspending plugs, natural presentation is the key to convincing a fish that a slab of metal or cigar-shaped piece of plastic is actually a living creature.

The ideal retrieve pattern is sometimes no retrieve pattern. With fast-moving currents, the most potent presentation can be to simply let the lure tumble with the flow.

Focus on Color Changes

Where stained or murky water meets clear water there is a visibly defined line that almost always presents a promising strike zone. Game fish lurk immediately inside the cloaking fringe of off-colored water, where they patiently wait for forage species to swim past the edge of the clear-water layer.

Like cats hiding in the shadows, predator fish pounce upon passing bait fish, retreat into the off-colored area and then wait to repeat the process.

In this scenario, and most all others for that matter, keeping the lure inside the strike zone is critical. Cast parallel to the color change and retrieve the lure down the clear-water fringe.

Be Aware

As weather, wind and water conditions change, fish react in unison. Ultra-clear water is best fished with thin, clear line and transparent lures. If game fish are attacking smaller forage species, use smaller lures. Avoid making noise and minimize splash.

These are seemingly small things. And yes, so are fish brains. Still, despite our intelligence, thinking like a fish can frequently be a frustrating challenge. If it weren’t, however, fishing wouldn’t be nearly so much fun.

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