Knowing when to change the fish

Knowing when to change the fish

Paul Arden | Monday, 25 January 2021

Andy’s page last week, about knowing when art was complete, or indeed when to change the fish, made me think about fishing here for Giant Snakehead in Malaysia. As you will no doubt know we have a few “rules” in fly fishing. The important one in this case being “never leave fish to find fish”. But of course there are times when you need to do exactly this to be successful and I think it’s one of the most difficult fly fishing decisions I have to make when fishing (and it always leaves me wondering if I made the right one).

With Giant Snakehead it’s particularly interesting because fly fishing after the Snakehead is aware of your presence will not work; he will not eat (he might strike at a large plug out of aggression, but eating a small frog or fish imitation, particularly at the surface, where 99% of fly fishing for them takes place, is simply not going to happen).

There are some obvious things to look for, the first being how the fish breathes. A non-spooked fish will rise slowly, breathe, turn down and descend slowly. A spooked fish will turn down fast and often with a splash. However there are more subtle rises that are impossible fish as well, such as when they turn back into their babies on descent (no possible shot!) and occasionally even a spooked fish will descend slowly and you’ll know this because it will still ignore the perfect “money shot”.

It’s not uncommon that they “come looking for you” – you know this is happening when the babies change direction and come right up to the boat... game over!

Basically any change in behaviour normally indicates that the shot is gone. Whether that’s a longer time period between rises (often for example they might skip a rise), a distinct change of direction in which the babies are swimming eg direction reversal – game over, sometimes a pause in what they were doing, or going deeper in the case when they were staying near the surface – all of which usually means that they won, we lost, and time to change the fish!

I have NEVER caught a Snakehead that has swum under the boat, even when I’ve been hiding stealthily under the seat. It’s very rare that a fish will follow a popper, refuse and then take an another cast - but it certainly can happen, but never if they see the boat. It frequently happens that if the shot was wild and then “blooped” that the next rise, and every one after, is a spooked fish. It’s possible that one adult is spooked and the other not - but this is rare. And once a fish is spooked, it can remain so for hours. (I’ve returned to spooked fish more than two hours later to find that they are... still spooked).

With “free-risers” it’s possible to spook fish with some sort of chain reaction. Put a couple of wild shots over fish, for example casting behind them after they’ve risen, or in front of them while they are rising, and these fish will spook, but not only that they can spook others as well. How do they do this? I’m not sure. It might be by the splash a spooked surfacing fish makes, it might be by releasing a scent, it might be by bumping them. But I do know the game can be up pretty damned fast and it’s time o move on.

[I have a few interesting stories about two of the above situations with trout, but that’s for another FP!]

I find it interesting how the sudden change in behaviour indicates a spooked fish, often you then see it readily with the fast as opposed to a slow rises, and often you get only ONE shot!!! Fantastic fishing – what an incredible challenge! :)))


We are currently in lockdown here in Malaysia. This means that I’ve parked my boat near a friend’s resort. Lockdown isn’t quite as strict as the very first one but that might change very soon. The Wet Season is all but over and the lake level has started dropping. There are Snakehead babies around. I’m hoping that COVID gets under control again here soon because we are coming up on the best months for babies/adults.

I’m planning on visiting Sungai Tiang next week if this is possible. We can at least get final preparations in for the Orang Asli guiding project. Whether this is permissible or not I shall find out today.

We have been VERY busy with rod sales these past two weeks. In fact we sold as many rods last week as we have ever sold in one week! So that’s really excellent and keeps Lee busy in Hastings. My goal this year is to keep the rod drying racks turning full time! You can expect some HT movie “adverts” soon :)))

Let’s hope that later this year life can be more normal. :)))

Cheers, Paul