Deep in a magazine so old its pages have yellowed over time, I found a story on how to fish a jig by former Cleveland newspaperman Hank Andrews. In the 40 years or so since that piece ran, several thousand other articles in various publications have covered the subject, and that doesn’t count numerous television segments or Internet chat room discussions.
My point is that anglers today have access to unprecedented amounts of information, and as a result, those who are even remotely serious have mastered the mechanics of fishing the sport’s most effective baits. This has leveled the playing field to the point that even those after-work tournaments are highly competitive.
It’s also the reason we are not going to cover nuances here; those little tricks for making cranks, spinner-baits or topwaters more effective. But I do want you to consider this question: Why is it, despite this wide spread pool of knowledge and skill, that a relative few anglers are consistently more successful than the masses?
The key to success today is finding fish that others don’t, and one piece to this difficult puzzle is understanding both the fish you are targeting and its prey.
But don’t be duped into thinking that success is always as simple as find-the-prey, match-the-hatch, because it isn’t. I’ve always wondered why fish eat night-crawlers. After all, the odds of the average bass or walleye encountering a nightcrawler naturally introduced into the system are tiny. They don’t feed on them consistently, if ever. So, why are they so deadly?
In this discussion, keep a couple things in mind: At a minimum, understanding the relationship between predator and prey will help you focus your search for fish. In other cases, it will not only help you find them, it will help you develop the best approach for catching fish that day.
One final thought. There appears to be a very real difference in the role prey plays in determining predator location in Southern versus Northern waters, but more on that in a minute.
Forage And Gamefish
“Research Update” columnist Dr. Hal Schramm is a professor in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at Mississippi State University and sums up the predatory/prey relationship succinctly.
“If you want to catch the predator, know the prey,” he says. “When a predator wants a meal, it has to go where the food is. If it’s a bluegill, it’s going to pick invertebrates off plants, logs and sticks. If it’s a bass, it may lie in ambush and wait for something edible to pass by.
Bass master Classic winner and NAFC Fishing Advisory Council member Kevin VanDam has a similar view. “Knowing a lake’s seasonal habitats and the forage base is going to put you where the fish are.”
Prey, purely defined, is anything a fish eats, and that covers a lot of things from small fish to insects. You hear many top anglers break bait down into two main types, open-water species like shad, herring, ciscoes and smelt, and those that relate to in shore cover, like bluegills.
Some anglers, like NAFC Life Member Bill Siemantel, break forage down even further, looking at bottom baits like nymphs, crayfish and sculpins, those in open water like shad, and in his home waters of California, trout. There are also foods on or above the surface in the form of frogs and even birds.
Siemantel uses forage and forage position in lure selection and approach; in some cases he wants to match the hatch, in others he wants a bait that stands out.
Spotlight Your Lure
Siemantel has caught more than 400 bass over 10 pounds, most coming from highly pressured waters, so his resume commands respect. His thoughts on mimicking forage are not only unique but counter to what most anglers have learned.
“I try to create the illusion of realism to get bass to do what they normally do,” he says. “The closer I get to cover and structure the more erratically I work the bait because that’s what typically happens. Watch a shad underwater. They swim smoothly until they meet a stick or rock, then they flare. People don’t get that. If you create this, a predator will hit.”
On the other hand, Siemantel sometimes goes out of his way to stand out. He shares one such situation.
“When I’m fishing a big ball of shad, I tie a barrel swivel in front of a soft bait fluke and leave tag ends of line off the swivel,” he says. “It does a couple things. When you rip it hard, the swivel and tag ends hit the baitfish in front of the fluke, popping scales off the shad. It also opens up the water, creating a ‘sphere of influence’ that draws predators to it.”
He says this is important because the downfall of matching the hatch is that your lure looks just like all the other forage—and how does a predator pick your bait out of 5,000 real baitfish?
“You have to change sizes, colors or something to spotlight that lure so you’re not competing with the rest of those shad. In the case of the swivel with tag ends, you’ve isolated your bait and spotlighted it. You created a sphere around it.”
VanDam relates his experience on waters with blueback herring.
“Probably the most selective I have ever seen bass is in herring lakes,” he says. “That’s where it is really critical to match the color, size, and location of those herring. Bass key on them, and they prefer them over anything else. These lakes might have a good shad population, too, but those bass know the herring are there for the taking and maybe they’re easier to catch.”
Structure vs. Bait
When rating the predator/prey relationship relative to structural elements, weather patterns, water temperatures and other factors, it seems each angler has a different reason to put it higher or lower on their priority list.
While VanDam considers the predator/prey relationship a very important factor in determining bass location and lure choice, my old friend and a long-time fishing educator Spence Petros sticks to the opposite end of the spectrom. He admits he is an advocate of depth and speed control, which is the old Buck Perry style of fishing.
“I don’t think it’s always a forage-related thing,” he says. “I think in many cases fish hold on good structure, and whatever comes by to eat, comes by.
The most important thing is to learn the structure and habitat of the fish as opposed to where the food is. Depth, speed control and not spending too much time on a non-productive spot are the most important considerations.”
Still, Petros doesn’t ignore forage.
“If there is an abundant, easy-to-access forage base, gamefish will take advantage of it,” he says. “If you have a big perch hatch and you can’t find smallmouths on the rocks in summer, they’re probably in the weeds chasing baby perch. If there’s a full moon, lows in the 40s, and a fall tulibee migration toward rocky spawning areas, pike and muskies will follow that.”
Petros also points out that not every individual of a given predator species will be doing the same thing at the same time—even on the same lake.
“There might be a group of walleyes suspending to eat open-water forage while others are weed-related, eating bluegills, perch, shiners and suckers,” he says.
That brings up a good question: In waters with multiple forage species, which one do you key on? Here’s an example that might help clarify such situations.
Years ago, I was fishing a tournament with Ted Takasaki on Big Stone Lake, a reservoir on the Minnesota River. On the first day of competition the wind was blowing, so we pitched jigs into wind-blown rock shorelines. We caught fish that were eating the crayfish and minnows stirred up by the wind.
The next day was flat calm, and the spots where we caught fish on Day 1 were no longer productive—the walleyes were simply gone. Instead, the anglers who pulled crank baits out on the main lake caught fish. In other words, when the wind died, the deep suspended shad became the preferred target.
The more I travel to fish, the more I’ve realized that I use forage as the starting point when developing a plan for fishing any new water, particularly in the South. VanDam takes it a step further.
“When you look at how differently bass act in the many regions of the country, it’s clear that it’s not the area that makes them do that; it’s the forage,” he says. “Bass act totally different in a system with blueback herring than in a system where shad is the main forage. Go to a natural Northern lake that has no open-water baitfish, and bass eat bluegills, crayfish and stuff like that, and their behavior is different still.”
VanDam’s mention of South versus North is interesting, because Schramm brings it up, too. “When I compare bass North to South, there is a difference,” he says. “During summer in the South, I have to go to where bass are feeding. In the North, I just go where bass are. There is so much good cover in Northern lakes and the cover holds so much food, I just fish. In the South, on a lake like Pickwick for instance, I look for the shad.”
Which takes us back to Petros’ point—good structure. In many waters, particularly in the North, the best structure, particularly with good cover, holds predators and forage. This also holds true in many natural lakes in the South.
So how do we explain those periods when using a lure that resembles the forage won’t generate a bite and yet a plastic worm or spinner bait gets hammered? And as Petros puts it, “What do fish feed on chartreuse?”
I posed this question to VanDam.
“I believe, especially in the case of plastic worms and lizards, that most bites are actually reaction strikes,” he says. “The lure drops through the grass and a bass bites it, thinking it’s a bluegill or shad darting by. It moves, so it must be edible.”
VanDam’s philosophy holds when fish get a better look at the bait, too.
“Even if you’re fishing a shaky worm in a really clear body of water, I don’t think bass necessarily think it’s a nightcrawler,” he says. “It could be anything from a leech to a shiner to a sculpin. They’re just seeing movement and going for it. We probably put too much into our thought process, because bass seem engineered to go after anything that moves.”
Space considerations limit going any deeper on the role of forage in determining fish location. There’s plenty here to chew on for the time being.
I can guarantee this: If you haven’t been giving forage much thought, doing so will open a new world filled with concepts, theories and, of course, no easy answers. This is the reason so few anglers have mastered the art of consistently finding fish and all the more reason for you to move in that direction.
Case In Point:
Fall Flexbait Walleyes
For years, long time walleye tournament angler Marty Glorvigen has lived for ink-black nights during fall’s new moon. That’s when spawning ciscoes push up onto shallow rocky points en masse, followed by walleyes. Glorvigen would follow, too, trolling shad-style crankbaits into the rocks at 1 1⁄2 to 2 1⁄4mph. The approach sometimes worked—but failed almost as often.
“The only time I could catch many walleyes was when they were really active—feast or famine. It was one of those things that haunted me,” he laughs.
So it was one October night a few years ago. After about four hours of trolling traditional crankbaits, he hadn’t caught a single fish. In desperation, he picked up a bass rod he had on hand and tied on a Strike King King Shad, a sinking segmented “flexbait” that looked extremely similar to the lake’s native ciscoes.
“I started trolling it just like a normal crankbait, banging bottom—and nothing was happening. But then the bait got stuck, so I backed up the boat and popped the rodtip to free the lure. That’s when I saw my line take off. It was a 5 1⁄2-pound walleye.”
So, Glorvigen changed his approach, crawling the boat along at about 1 mph, while sweeping the rod forward and then letting the lure fall back on slack line. “It was totally unbelievable. I started catching one walleye after another, and the takes were incredible, they would just smash the lure.”
After coming upon the pattern, Glorvigen tested it on other waters with strong cisco populations, using other segmented lures such as the Strike Pro Phantom, and it came through in those fisheries as well. He continues to test and tweak the presentation, and his findings lead him to believe action sometimes plays a bigger role in triggering fish than a bait’s mere resemblance to the preferred forage. “This goes one layer deeper than the match-the-hatch stuff. This pattern is centered on a type of lure that not only matches the hatch—it matches the motion of what’s actually triggering walleyes to bite in this situation: a dying cisco falling out of the school.
The lesson is one anglers can put to work whether they fish walleyes or wahoo: Just because you decipher the predator/prey connection, the work doesn’t stop there. To ensure consistent success, anglers must also predict what specific prey will trigger an attack from neutral to negative fish, and then create a presentation that matches that. It could mean imparting a different action to the lure, or choosing a lure style that does so. In the case of Glorvigen’s fall night-bite walleyes, it was both.—Ryan Gilligan