Dumbing down

Dumbing down

Tracy&James | Sunday, 15 January 2023

There is no doubt that fish of all species ‘wise up’ when subjected to significant angling pressure, I have a number of observations of this from my own experience. A good example is a lake that Tracy and I would fish when we lived in Hampshire, this was stocked only once per year and was strictly catch and release only. After stocking it’s fair to say that the fishing was relatively easy (given that no individual day was guaranteed to be good or bad). However, as the days and months rolled on the fish became more and more picky, requiring longer leaders, imitative patterns and a change of fishing time to early and late in order to be successful.

Actually for this day ticket water the angling pressure used to effectively regulate itself, as things got tougher the amount of anglers fishing there drastically reduced – no doubt put off by blanking (almost inevitable if someone wasn’t prepared to adjust to an imitative approach).  In fact, by mid-summer Tracy and I would more often than not have the whole lake to ourselves.  Another example, again when we were living down south, was the carp lake we used to fish.  As far as I’m aware, Tracy and I were the only people who used to fly fish at this venue.  This was not fly fishing in the purest sense of the sport as we would loose feed dog biscuits and then target the rising carp with deer hair flies – it was a lot of fun though.  Apart from the geese starting to recognise us and follow us around the lake, the carp also would learn to be more cautious over the course of the season.  By the end of the summer they would often nudge the real dog biscuits several times before slurping them down and the number of refusals to our flies would increase dramatically.  Actually this would make for really exciting fishing as we desperately resisted the urge to strike whilst a double figure carp ‘played’ with its food.  This ‘wising up’ process isn’t limited to ‘captive fish’ (i.e. thoseheld within the bounds of a lake) either, as we’ve also noted it many times in saltwater.

One particular example of this is a very well known and easily accessed flat in the Bahamas.  This flat has one of the cleanest white sand bottoms of any flat I’ve ever fished.  As such, fish are easy to spot to the extent that I’d expect even the most inexperienced angler would see the bonefish there, and no doubt cast at them.  The fish are therefore highly pressured and the last few times I visited the area I rarely could get within 40 yards of a bone, even whilst standing perfectly still and waiting for the fish to come to me.  When I did get within casting distance the fish would spook if the fly landed within 20ft of them (I should point out that these were amongst the spookiest bonefish I’ve ever encountered).  That said, if you chose the right tide in the late evening, when the fish had their heads down and their tails up, they were still catchable.

A lot has been written about fish ‘wising up’ but I don’t recall reading much about the opposite process, i.e. dumbing back down.  This, in my observations, is also a very real effect that I’d like to know more about.  In fact, what was absolutely evident on our recent saltwater trip was that the size (and therefore the age) of the fish in no way correlated with ‘spookiness’.  Now, I don’t believe this is because the bigger fish have never encountered a significant fishing pressure – I think they almost certainly have, they’ve just forgotten about it.  But how long does it take for a fish to throw off its acquired cautious behaviour?

Generally Tracy and I will never fish the same flat twice within a week.  Actually the tides normally dictate a much longer gap between visits as there’s no point going back at the wrong water level.  However, certain areas are not affected by the tide as other more ‘open to the ocean’ flats are.  We found one particular area on our last trip – probably a couple of thousand acres of slightly soft bottomed backwater that was fed by an inlet that could be leapt across by a half decent long jumper.  As such, instead of the usual 3ft low to high range of the seas around the Bahamas, this particular area probably didn’t move more than 6 inches over the course of a tidal cycle.  As this area was very accessible and could be fished pretty much at any time (it was also relatively sheltered from the worst of the winds), it became our fall-back option and we probably fished it more times than we would normally.  We caught a lot of bonefish here, but it was obvious that towards the latter end of our trip the fish were getting skittish.  For example, hooking a fish would result in the area immediately in front of us being completely cleared, thus the wade time between shots increased dramatically.  Now, we can’t be certain that we were totally the cause of this change in behaviour as we did see footprints in the area that were not our own.  But it’s fair to say that I believe ‘wising-up’ can be a fairly rapid process, but again I’m left thinking about the opposite process.

One more fish that comes to mind from our recent trip was a big, naive one.  I hooked it on a large flat after an extensive wade, the sort of wade that most holidaying anglers wouldn’t make.  This flat is interesting because the fish have different levels of ‘spookiness’ depending where you encounter them.  The ones nearest the access point being the most nervous and the ones that are 2 hours of wading away from the car being the least (actually in this same area there were some fish that required a swim to get to them – these were very eager to take a fly, almost fighting over it).  Anyway, I spotted the big fish tailing no more than one foot out from the bank I was fishing on.  It was rooting through the densest brown turtle grass possible though, and my first couple of casts picked up weed immediately despite using a heavily weed-guarded fly.  I soon realised that I need to get the fish to take the fly without moving it, however at the normal lead distance it simply wasn’t registering its presence no doubt due to the thick weed.  I therefore set about landing the fly closer and closer to the fish.  In desperation, I eventually plopped the fly a few inches in front of where I judged the bone’s head to be.  The inevitable happened and the fish spooked, however the odd thing was that it bolted round in a perfect circle and then instantly resumed tailing.  All subsequent ‘normal’ casts, i.e. a couple of feet of lead were ignored, until frustrated again I plopped it two inches from the fish again with exactly the same result – a spook around in a circle followed by a return to tailing as if nothing had happened.  I spooked this fish six times.  On the seventh time it did exactly the same but this time it looped round and tailed on my fly!  Unfortunately the build up of weed on my leader during the fight meant that the hook hold eventually pulled out, however this was one of the most bizarre takes I’ve ever had.

I think fish go up and down in awareness depending on their recent experiences, however I know for certain that as I age, I’m personally going in one direction only - dumbing down! However, going forward so long as I possess sufficient intellect to outwit a fish I’ll be happy.  Hopefully you’ll find a fish that you can fool if you’re fishing this week.