Choke Canyon Reservoir in Texas is a gorgeous body of water that supports some outstanding bass fishing. Yet, it wasn’t the bass I remember most from my time there, but the bass anglers. And what I witnessed there forever changed how I now approach pressured lakes.
A bit of background. Part of my reason for being on Choke Canyon was a video project for a new crankbait reel being introduced. We found the right combination of light and quiet water in the back of a creek arm and double-anchored to hold the boat in place while taping.
We were still setting up camera gear when the first bass boat pulled into the arm. Within seconds the bow-mount hit the water and two anglers were casting to vegetation ringing the shoreline. I noticed one was fishing a jig, the other a worm.
It didn’t take long for them to work the 200 odd yards of shoreline before firing up their outboard and heading elsewhere. A few minutes later, a second boat arrived, stopping almost exactly where the first did, then followed the same route. Both of these anglers were throwing jigs.
Over the next three hours we watched no less than 17 boats work that same stretch of water. Most anglers were fishing a jig or a worm, though some were casting spinnerbaits and a couple worked soft-plastic swimbaits.
Meanwhile, we were quickly running out of light and the producers were getting antsy. They urged me to cast quickly to accommodate their shots, so I started burning the bait back to the boat as fast as I could between casts. On about the fifth cast to the same spot, with the jig bulging the surface in about two feet of water, the surface blew up. I set the hook out of reflex and soon landed an 8-pound bass!
Later that evening, as I looked back on the unique events of the day I wondered how many jigs that bass had seen before it finally took mine. I also wondered what triggered it to strike. Was it the retrieve—one no sane bass fishermen would ever try. Or was it something else?
It’s a topic that’s been eating up megabytes on chat room servers for some time now, one that gets brought up every time a spot goes cold after a few fish have been caught. Are the fish we catch and release getting conditioned to popular lures and techniques, making them harder to catch? Most of the anglers I’ve talked to think it happens.
“It depends on the lake,” says Gary Roach, one of the best walleye anglers to ever pick up a rod. “Some lakes get a lot of fishing pressure and fish in those waters tend to get ‘educated.’ Let’s not give fish more credit than they deserve, but conditioning does happen. Think about the cow that hits an electric fence; it only does it once. Stick a fish with a particular lure and they probably won’t hit it again.”
Edwin Evers is a highly successful bass angler on the tournament trail. He gives an example of how conditioning affects him on his competitive venues.
“Let’s say I’m fishing a Texas impoundment like Sam Rayburn or Toledo Bend,” he says. “I’ll spend a lot of time working the same small spot. Without a doubt those fish get conditioned to what I’m throwing. Let’s say it’s a rattlebait—I may have to switch to a different lure to get fish biting again when they stop. I might go from a lure with multiple rattles to a One Knocker. It’s gotten to the point where you have to be able to do a lot of things with different lures to compete.”
From an angler’s point of view, conditioning certainly occurs and must be considered when deciding how to fish a particular body of water. But what do biologists think?
“There is sufficient evidence that some populations do get conditioned to angling very quickly,” says Dr. Hal Schramm, longtime Research Update columnist for this publication. “There’s even a recent study that shows catchability is an inherited trait for largemouth bass.”
Schramm explains that every population of fish has a certain inherent level of catchability (whether low, high or somewhere in between) thanks to a genetic component for aggression, what he calls “pugnacity.”
“You have some fish populations that are naturally more catchable than others, but putting the conditioning factor into the mix changes things,” he says. “Fishing pressure can take fish with high ‘pugnacity’ and make them timid to typical presentations.”
David Willis, head of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at South Dakota State University, provides insight on some interesting study material he’s compiled regarding fish conditioning. The work, which had been geared toward landowners who wanted to manage small lakes on their property to produce large fish, shows that conditioning becomes readily apparent in bodies of water a half-acre in size. The thought is that the same phenomenon occurs on large bodies of water, although at a slower rate because of the sheer size of the fisheries.
“Several studies make it clear that catch rates go down as pressure goes up, even when fish density is the same. That big picture is well documented,” he says. “Whether those fish become accustomed to a single lure—and if so, how long they’ll avoid it—we don’t have any information on that. Does switching to the latest thing increase the success? It has yet to be studied.”
The Lure Maker’s Take
Although science hasn’t studied this aspect of the phenomenon, lure manufacturers have long understood that they have to stay ahead of the fish population’s learning curve if they are going to make lures that work. According to Mark Fisher, Director for Field Promotions at Rapala, this often means creating niche baits.
“We get our information from our pro-staff,” he says. “These are great walleye, bass, saltwater and inshore anglers who tell us what works at specific times and in special situations. They’ll explain a high-pressure scenario they’re encountering, and we’ll develop a bait to fit that niche. These lures work well on conditioned fish.”
Sometimes, looking back is looking forward. Per Northland Tackle Brand Manager John Crane, companies often look at what worked in the past and then use new technology to bring such lures out again in a better form.
“That’s what we’re doing in 2010,” says Crane. “We’ve introduced a marabou jig called a Bug-A-Boo and a bucktail jig called the Buck-A-Roo. Historically, there have been tens of thousands of walleyes, bass and crappies caught on hair- and marabou-dressed jigs, but awhile back the industry and anglers shifted toward jigs with plastic dressings.”
Crane says this lapse in use, coupled with improved manufacturing processes, gives these baits an even fresher look.
“We’re back to using the old-school lures because they’re working again, actually, even better than before,” he says.
Ron Kliegl is a product manager at Pure Fishing, a company that has provided anglers with plenty of hot lures over the years. It wasn’t that long ago it released its Gulp! series of softbaits, soon followed by Gulp! Alive. Kliegl gives a lot of credit to an expansive lab and the ability to test baits on live fish for the company’s ability to stay on the cutting edge. He also acknowledges that conditioning occurs.
“Bass are arguably the most heavily caught-and-released species,” he says. “This likely makes them the most conditioned. They simply see every artificial bait—every color, every size, every shape, every sound—and probably more than a few times during their lifetimes.”
For that reason, Pure Fishing is working harder to mimic live bait.
“Without letting the cat out of the bag too much, one of the things we’re working on is to continue to create artificial baits that are more lifelike; baits that do a better job replacing live bait.”
How To Cope
No one argues the fact that fish get conditioned, but what’s not as clear is what this means to the individual angler who hits the same waters armed with generally the same lures and tactics as everyone else. Should fishermen totally break the mold?
According to Schramm, probably not. He claims there is a long list of presentations that won’t work, ever, on any given body of water. What’s more, he says the chances of coming up with something that’s totally out-of-the-box and still triggers fish is slim.
Then how do we provoke strikes from conditioned fish in heavily pressured locations, the waters you and I fish?
In most cases, it’s a matter of tweaking presentations, not creating new ones. Look at things like your angle of attack, retrieve speed, color selection and bait size.
I’ve learned that speed often kills when finesse doesn’t—something my experience on Choke Canyon illustrates perfectly.
Evers, too, recounts a day on Toledo Bend when he located a big school of bass holding on a point—fish he couldn’t trigger until he started to burn a crankbait as fast as he could reel. He then landed 22 fish over the next 23 casts.
Another good rule for anglers on bodies of water where the fish are well conditioned: always incorporate the latest lures into your program. That puts you one big step ahead because you’re throwing something the fish simply haven’t seen.
And some of us keep lures long enough that they become effective all over again. I, for one, am about to bring my Slug-Gos out of retirement.
Tempting Conditioned Fish
Even the most pressured fish still need to eat, and that means you can catch them. Here are Steve Pennaz’s top seven ways to take highly conditioned fish:
1. Fish new lures—Incorporate new looks and new actions into your arsenal, something fish have yet to see.
2. Revive old classics—Many baits from 20-plus years ago can be surprisingly effective today.
3. Change colors—Has your go-to black-and-blue worm stopped working? Try variations like black/grape, black/shad or black/chartreuse, or something dramatic like electric blue.
4. Tweak speed—Often speed beyond what’s typically used by other anglers can be the ticket to success.
5. Alter angle of attack—Most anglers work parallel to structure and cast from deep water to shallow. At times, casting shallow to deep will improve success.
6. Fish multiple baits—Changing baits (rattlebait to crank, for example) can often trigger a few more fish from a school that’s stopped biting.
7. Adapt proven presentations—Small changes can often make a big difference. For example, change the distance between the bait and sinker in your live bait or Carolina rig until you find the most productive option.