The world of angling is like a sphere perforated with a billion keyholes. Anglers gather at these keyholes, peering in for a glimpse of some truth that might help reduce the percentage of time they spend on the water in a disconnected existential drift hoping random chance will bestow good fortune upon them.
They are arguing. At one keyhole they're shouting, "Blue! The world of fishing is blue."
At another keyhole they're saying, "We catch more fish than you and we say the world is green."
They are all correct in their observations, but it could be said that they are looking only in two dimensions. In order to get a 3D view of what's going on in that sphere, one must peer through as many keyholes as possible.
This takes great effort. Does it pay dividends? Yes, but one caveat: Much more often than the statistical odds would dictate, the gods smile on an unwitting angler when he or she least expects it. It happens. We've all been there.
Unfortunately, if you're reading this, odds are if it hasn't happened already, it won't happen for you (see Dahlberg's Immutable Law of Angling). You are a hardcore fisherman. You have a boat and lots of gear. All the right stuff. You want it too badly. You deserve it. (The zen: "Inducing a big fish to bite is like picking up a wet bar of soap. The harder you try to grab, the farther it flies.")
The best way to make your own luck in fishing is to be thorough and efficient. Every great angler I've fished with in both fresh or saltwater has an approach that involves three basic elements: strategy, mechanics and tactics. If you look at it broadly, all kinds of fishing can be broken down into those elements.
START WITH STRATEGY
Strategy is your plan. It's based partly on the knowledge you have from previous success and partly on your current observations.
Some of the first questions I ask when developing a strategy: What is the size of this lake or river? How much of it can I actually cover? How deep are the basins or channels? How far apart are they? Do shelves extend into them? Where did the fish spawn? Where are they now in relation to the spawn cycle? Is the water temperature fluctuating greatly from night to day? How clear is the water? What cover is available? At what depth do the deepest weeds root?
What about sand, rock, gravel, mud, steep cliffs, narrows, natural barriers, tributaries or changes in water color? Which way does the wind usually blow? Does it always blow like this? Where do you think the most or biggest fish are right now? Where did you catch your last fish? Do you have pictures of what you've caught? When did you catch them? How did you catch them? What time, what tide? How deep? Are there commercial fishermen here? What do they catch? Can I see their fish? May I talk with them?
How fast does our boat go? How much gas do we have? How far will that take us? Is gas available there? Can we take more gas? If I travel beyond that set of islands will those soldiers shoot at me? (I have asked this!) How far can they shoot accurately? Do they have a fast boat? Where can we get extra gas and an additional motor?
Putting together a solid strategy requires many questions and solid no voodoo-type observations. It requires breaking these observations down into bite-size pieces while not losing sight of their relationships to one another.
The mechanics are much less existential. They aren't about questions, they're about possible solutions to prove or disprove assumptions you've made based on observations. Your mechanical skills determine the success with which you physically execute your strategy.
Day 1. If we use both motors simultaneously we can outrun any boat here, plus I won't be tripping over the spare and getting black goo all over my fly line. Given the fuel we can carry and our speed, the basin north of the islands is as far as we can go. We'll take off at dawn tomorrow, but right now let's mount the transducer on your boat and get it set so it reads at top speed.
Next day. It's foggy, but my GPS says the peninsula sticks out over there about a quarter mile. Let's run this underwater point. We can check the depth and contours against the chart we bought.
Look at all the bait. Look at those big hooks at 45 feet under the bait. Let's spool up with wire and egg sinkers, and drag an orange Rap past 'em.When I hit neutral, let out your line. Use the clicker so you don't backlash but still thumb it. Let me know when it hits bottom. When we take off, let out just enough line so you keep bumping. I've got the transducer tilted forward a little so it'll look deeper on the screen, but we'll also see the suspended fish sooner in case we have to reel up and put the lure in their faces.
You don't have to set the hook because wire line is non-elastic.That roller-tipped rod is so stiff you have to absorb the shock with your arms. I've added 5/0 4X hooks so they don't open up easily.
Double back. The points and inside turns on this underwater flat are so close together that all we can do is buzz the points and corners- lots of wasted effort. If we put a drift anchor off the bow and travel in reverse, we can hover right over the spots and turn on a dime. We'll jig spoons on top of them. When the line goes slack or you feel a tap, set the hook and reel like crazy.
Fish On. Let's move out over deep water so he doesn't cut you off on the ledge if he sounds. Short stroke him. Lift crank, lift crank. Don't stop at the top. Immediately after you lift, drop your tip and take one or two cranks as fast as you can. Without hesitating, pump back another foot or two and do it again. If he wants to run, let him run against the drag but don't reel. You can add a little heat with your thumb if you put your glove on.
I'll tail it so it doesn't get beat up in the net. Let's spin the boat upwind and move those rods. Where are the pliers? Hit the free spool and keep your thumb on the reel in case I can't hang on to him.
In summary, knots and rigging, boat control, fish fighting, choice of equipment and the skill with which you use it make up the mechanical aspects of fishing. All of these are things you can both practice and, more or less, control.
Tactics are where most of the voodoo sneaks in. What lure? What color? What size? What should I do first?
Here's how I approach it.
All fishing situations take one of two forms: Fish you can see or fish you can't see. In a totally foreign body of water, my strategy (and this could vary depending on species and season) is to look around in each of the different kinds of areas available to see what I can with my eyes.
I like to visually scope out as much water as I can during my initial reconnaissance. I'll usually start looking shallow around major structures and working my way out over flats and edges until I can no longer see the bottom. I prefer to do it when the water is calm and the sun is shining. Viewing from a 10-foot stepladder secured to the bow of the boat with turnbuckles is more effective than viewing from lower angles.
Sometimes you get lucky and stumble on a mule. If you can physically see the fish, catching it becomes purely a matter of tactics and mechanics. Attract it, trigger it, hook it, land it. Avoid the psychological and physical pain of having to find a fish by making him bite.
As I said, if you can actually see the fish you're after, everything boils down to tactics and mechanics. The only challenge is to get the bait/lure/fly to the fish without scaring it. A fish that knows you're after it cannot be caught, another Immutable Law. If you spook the fish, don't cast again. Leave it alone until it settles down. You may have to come back in several hours.
Before it bites, watch the fish closely. How does it react to your presence? How does it react to your offering and what you're doing with it? Watch the gills. Watch the fins. Speed, size, sink rate, color, angle, flash, buoyancy, bottom contact, action and sound can all play a part in triggering the fish. As the fish's mood changes, the triggering factors often change as well. Be quiet. Be sneaky. Be accurate. Come across in front of him and angling away. One good shot is all it takes. Read the fish.
There are many tricks, and the fish will teach them to you if you are observant. (Read "Lunkers Love Nightcrawlers," and other early works of Bill Binkelman for some interesting and pioneering underwater observations about how fish react to live bait.)
FISH YOU CAN'T SEE
If you can't see the fish, you've got to employ some kind of strategy for searching. The key in this is first accurately defining the options available to the fish. In natural lakes, I like to first locate the main basins, followed by locating the main structures related to them. Classify the relative sizes, depths and cover available. You'll need this information to search methodically and to establish patterns.
In rivers and reservoirs, I like to get a feel for where the channel is located and where and how deep the holes are. I also like to locate all natural barriers and tributaries if there are any. It's usually helpful to get a feeling as to the relative vertical drop and note the places where the vertical drop goes from fast to slow or vice versa. I like to see at least 40 or 50 miles of water.
If possible I'll try to cruise the water from an airplane before getting in the boat. With the map in my lap and a GPS, I'll make notes. Mostly what I'm noting are physical features that appear unusual or different. Giant rocks, gravel, sand, points, underwater shelves, flooded terrestrial cover, and wind-funneling geographical features.
As far as your specific approach, as I see it, you've got only about four options: 1. Trolling 2. Drifting 3. Flogging 4. Picking a spot and sitting on it.Whatever you're going to do, look at all the spots. Give each a relative value based on how much life it can support.
When you fish each spot, be sure to clearly define the area first. It has a beginning and an ending. Pay attention to all the points and inside corners along the upper and lower edges of the drop-off. Note any variation in the steepness of the drop-off and how far it continues to drop into deep water before leveling out. Look for cover.
Mark the edges and corners. I often use balloons for this.
Be precise. If you haven't read Buck Perry's book on spoonplugging, read it. One keyhole maybe, but it's pioneering work on using an efficient system to fish and define "structures."
Depending on depth, how large or detailed the area is, and how much time you have, systematically cover all the options with whatever tactic gives you the best efficiency. For me, especially on larger bodies of water, speed trolling and clanging into the bottom with the lure (sometimes using mono, at other times wire) has been universally effective. In blue water environments, smoking a lure on the surface at speeds up to 12 knots and keeping track with a GPS on a grid of the drop-off has proven successful.
If heavy cover or shallow water presents a problem, I like to bomb out super-long casts with lures that run on or near the surface while moving at trolling speed, or vertically fish soft plastics or live bait in the pockets on weedless hooks.
Buy the best electronics you can afford and pay close attention to them. I use a Lowrance LMS 350. I even carry it with me as a portable.
As you cover water, you're doing more detailed recon. In water less than 20 feet, I am thinking mostly about what my lure is doing horizontally as long as it's ticking bottom or being sexy on or near the surface. Focus on edges, tips of the points, inside corners and along the base of where any dense weedline roots or emerges in a canopy.
Moving deeper, you have to pay attention vertically. Instead of breaking an area into a 2D grid, you have to look at it like a 3D cube. Keep your eyes peeled for suspended stuff. You may have to modify your tactics to something slower or even vertical. You have to get your lure close enough to the fish that it is at least aware of it.
Sometimes you have to be within a few inches. Sometimes you have to keep it in his space, in his "zone of awareness," for a period of time before he will react. That's what bobbers are for.
Live bait is, of course, another great searching option. It is the ultimate reality check, and there are a million tactical variations. Most cover water more slowly than approaches with artificials.
WHY FISH BITE
From the moment they begin feeding after they first hatch, fish are compulsive samplers. They will take a taste of something they have never before sampled if it exhibits the right cues.
Early in life, almost every cue is the right one. As a fish gains experience and receives negative feedback from certain choices, its sampling becomes more refined. I believe latent memories of organisms successfully sampled in the past remain even after a fish works its way up the food chain.
In essence, there are two distinctions:
1. Fish that eat insects.
2. Fish that eat other fish.
Early in life, almost all fish get their sustenance from the bottom of the food chain. They eat insects, zooplankton and other small, highly abundant organisms. Most of these organisms have a handful of common characteristics;
1. They are quite tiny and squirmy.
2. They swim, crawl or drift.
3. They are approximately the same color as their environment.
4. Most are highly vulnerable when "dead" drifting and spend a good deal of time doing it.
5. Some struggle to swim a few inches per minute or can only crawl.
6. Some go only where the wind or current takes them.
7. Others are jet-propelled.
8. Many are in a complex process of grand metamorphosis on their way to becoming adults and exhibit different behaviors as they transition from one stage to the next.
There is an interesting spatial element to insect feeders. It's about the cube of space in front of the fish's nose that is equivalent to the volume of water that passes through his gills when he takes a gulp.
If a fish is oriented in current and you cast a dark-colored, articulated (jointed) fly or jig just the right distance upstream for the fly to dead-drift into that cube of space in front of the fish's nose, 99 times out of 100 the fish will inhale it. It's like God tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Pal, this is a free meal, take a deep breath or you'll starve to death."
The problem is, when the fish takes the fly presented in this manner you feel nothing. You'll see a white flare of the gill but feel nothing because you are executing a drag-free drift. If the hook catches flesh and stops, current will put tension on the line and you'll feel "a bite." The fish's latent memory of eating tens of thousands of organisms such as this is so strong that the reaction is automatic.
Unfortunately, fishing with this presentation is only effective for small areas or for fish you can actually see because it is so slow and tedious. I've found a dark-colored jointed jig or fly that is much larger than the actual insect is more visible to the fish and, if it exhibits the right visual cues, is often more effective than a smaller one.
As fish grow, many reach a size where they switch over from a diet of primarily insects to foraging on other fish. The predator/prey reactions when a larger predator fish chooses to eat one of its kin also have many common traits between species. Curiously, they are almost the opposite of what works for insect eaters.
Often predators in both fresh and saltwater seemingly come out of nowhere rushing up to your lure or bait. Sometimes they take it, other times they fade at the last minute as if something isn't right. If they weren't going to eat it, why waste the energy? In the natural world this kind of behavior could lead to starvation. Introduce man, and this type of behavior is the only thing that keeps fish out of the frying pan. For sure something attracted their attention, but for some reason, some cue, or lack thereof, turned them off.
I've found the most common reason fish fade off lures is that, when the angler sees the fish, he or she puckers the poo poo and slows down the retrieve. At other times, the angler just keeps doing what he's been doing and doesn't react to the presence of the predator by changing lure speed or direction. Result? You get a looker instead of a biter. I've seen marlin, muskies, pike, tigerfish, peacock bass, Nile perch, tarpon, bass, payara and big trout exhibit this frustrating behavior.
Again, the key presentation trigger for a fish that eats other fish is just the opposite of what pushes the button of insect eaters. Rather than dead-drifting a bait like an insect, it's usually best for the prey (your lure) to appear as though it is reacting to the presence of the predator. No wonder trout fishermen often have trouble switching to bass or saltwater, and vice versa.
I mentioned the idea of sampling. Predators have an interesting quality in this regard. Most of the time, anglers think about trying to imitate a specific food fish are feeding on. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. Another approach is to appeal to predators' built-in "natural selection" program.
Natural selection is when a predator fulfills its role in nature by eliminating things that are weak, struggling, clearly out of place and vulnerable. Consider, for example, albinos. How many mature albino fish have you seen? The answer is not many. Most get gobbled up because they stick out like sore thumbs. One of my main go-to lures is an orange Rapala Magnum in sizes from 7 to 18. It may not outproduce a more "natural" color 10:1, but often it's 2:1. It's also a great bait for taking a couple more fish from a school after they've quit biting "normal" stuff.
Sometimes, when predators are lethargic, live bait rigs have to be modified to make the bait hotter and more active. At other times, you want to set it up so you can cover water quickly. When fish are reluctant to leave cover or chase, sometimes you need to suspend live fish with a float and "anchor" it with a sinker above the hook so the bait can only swim in a circle the radius of the distance of the sinker to the hook.
At other times skipping live bait, head in the water tail barely out and swimming like crazy, from a kite will solve all problems. I like to bridle my bait with floss whenever possible because it stays alive and strong much longer than one impaled on a hook. Still, at other times, the most effective presentation is a hunk of dead bait on the bottom.
Admittedly, this is no way to cover water, but it is a technique that can never be ignored.
Above all other things, the accuracy and scope of our observations on the water determines our angling success. As revelations about how these observations fit together filters through our consciousness, we are drawn into a great and mysterious labyrinth of possibilities which connect us more closely to the natural world. Each time a fish rises to our fly or takes our offered lure, it somehow proves more than both us and the fish simply exist. Being able to predict these encounters with a degree of certainty somehow brings existential relief, even joy.
Fish a new lake. Fish a new place. Fish a new species. Try a new tactic. Peer through another keyhole. Allow yourself to explore. My last word of advice: guard carefully the secrets you discover if you want them to remain secret.