Fishes are the craziest critters!
Fishes are the craziest critters, except for those of us who fish for them, we are even crazier, but it is the fish that make us that way!
We’ve all had them, any one who fishes has had those days when the fish refuse to bite no matter what we put in front of them or how we present it to them. Even worse are those times when you hit the river in the middle of a hatch, with trout feeding all around you, and they all refuse every fly you try. Then there are the days when the fish seem to line up waiting to commit suicide by devouring whatever hooked monstrosity you throw at them.
I have read dozens of books on fishing, and there are hundreds more out there that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, and no one has it figured out from what I can tell, at least no one has shared that secret with me. We tell ourselves that is what makes fishing fun, the challenge, yeah, right. What makes fishing fun is catching fish! Being the curious type, I do enjoy trying to figure out why fish feed when they do, and why they don’t when they don’t, but catching them is why I fish, trying to figure them out is why I think and write about fishing.
For me, as with most fishermen I suspect, it started back when I was a kid fishing with worms for panfish. Most of the time you could catch fish, but there were days when even small panfish refuse to bite. Even worse is when you can see them refusing to bite. If you’ve fished, you know what I’m talking about. When you can see a bluegill or sunfish hanging out under a lily pad, and you drop a nice big, fat, juicy worm right in front of its nose, and it doesn’t even move. Maybe worse is when they slowly glide over and nudge the worm with their snout, but they never open their mouth, as if it were super glued shut or something. I have had that happen with nearly every species of game fish I have fished for. Like the 15 inch brook trout hanging under a log on the Sturgeon River, looking like it was in a feeding lane, only to have it refuse everything I drifted past it. Or bass back in the weeds in the bayous of the Grand River, that refuse everything I’ve tried. In fact, except for salmon and steelhead, I have never had much success fishing for fish I could see. Salmon and steelhead are a completely different story all together anyway, they aren’t actively feeding at any time they are in a river, you have to make them mad to get them to hit. Well, even that isn’t true all the time. I remember one female steelhead in particular, I made my first cast and missed the mark I was trying for in order to get a good drift right in front of her nose. Not wanting to spook her off, I was working my spinner as to have it go nowhere near her, but she spotted it, shot over to it and hit it like a freight train. Just one of those rare deals I suppose, as I am used to making dozens, maybe hundreds of drifts right in front of the nose of a steelhead or salmon to get it to strike.
She was a memorable fish for another reason as well, she’s the one that taught Tom to never try to net a green steelhead, that is, one that hasn’t been played out. She hit that spinner and took off downstream like a Ferrari, in one of those runs only steelhead and Atlantic salmon can make. Where the line cutting through the water leaves a wake, you can hear the vibrations from the line as it cuts through the water, and the drag of the reel screams as you hold on for dear life. Luckily, she stopped in the next pool downstream, and layed up there while I worked my way down below her. When you’re playing big fish on light line, you try to stay below the fish so they have to fight you and the current, if you let them stay below you, they usually win. I could feel her shaking her head, trying to dislodge my spinner from her jaw as I handed Tom my net. He hadn’t been steelheading before, so I told him I would tell him what to do when the time came. I pulled back on her as hard as I dared to trying to get her to run upstream to tire herself out, it worked, sort of. She took off upstream the same way she had come down, with the line and drag singing that song you love to hear if you’re a steelheader. She got as far upstream as the riffle above where I had hooked her, but she wanted no part of that shallow water, so she turned around and came back at us faster than ever! She was headed right for Tom, I yelled at him to get out of the way, but there was no time at the rate that fish was going, I tried to turn her, but I couldn’t reel fast enough to get any pressure on her. She decided that going between Tom’s legs was her best way of getting free, and at the last second, he stuck the net down in front of her. She hit it doing about 150 MPH, and she didn’t stop when she was in the net! Poor Tom was stumbling backward through the rocks, trying desperately to stay on his feet as she drove him downstream about 10 feet or so. I was afraid she was going to knock him over into that cold water, and I was deciding if I would save him, or the fish, but he finally managed to pull her up out of the water. He hoisted her as far out of the water as he could, as if the more distance there was between her and the water, the safer he was going to be, and as the look on his face changed from panic to total triumph, he said “I’m never going to do that again!”. I told him “Good Job”, I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was considering letting him drown in order to land the fish, but, steelheading is like that.
Back to fishes feeding, just as curious, but a lot less frustrating than fish refusing to feed, are fish that continue to feed even after their gullets are full. There have been countless times that after I have landed a trout, and that when I am taking the hook out of its lip, I can look down their throats and see a slimy, brown/black mass of insect corpses slowly being converted into trout meat. Quite a disgusting sight actually, especially if the phrase “you are what you eat” happens to pop into your head at the time. I have never landed a brook trout like that, I am not a biologist, and I don’t play one on TV, but their metabolism must be different that of brown’s or rainbow’s. That may explain why they are easier to catch, they feed more often, but don’t feed as much at any one time. Maybe I’ve just never caught a brookie that was over stuffed. There have also been numerous bass that I have landed, that when I am removing the hook, I can see the tails of bait fish filling their gullets. Brown trout have a reputation for being finicky eaters, I’m not sure I hold that view. From what I see, they eat like pigs until that can’t hold any more, and then they have to wait until they can digest what they have already eaten before they can eat again.
One May, Doug and I went trolling on Lake Michigan near Leland. I hooked what turned out to be a nice Brown Trout. I was in the front of the boat, Doug was in the rear, so as I was bringing it up to the boat, it went past him as I was getting it into position for him to net. He said, “Look at that! Its mouth is full of alewifes”. Sure enough, I looked over the side and could see tails of alewifes sticking out of the brown’s mouth. About that time, the brown coughed, or puked, or what ever fish do when they have eaten too much, and about a half a dozed alewifes received a pardon from their death sentence and swam off to feed another trout another day. When we had the fish safely in the boat, we both looked, and the gullet of that fish was packed, and I mean packed, with alewifes, and remember, it had coughed up even more as we were landing it. That fish probably had close to a pound of food in it when I caught it, and it was a 5 to 6 pound trout. That’s a lot of food at one time! Oh, and I should warn you, fish digestion doesn’t smell any better than our digestion, so you may not want to hold a fish right under your nose as you look down its throat. Finicky is not the word that comes to mind when you see a brown trout literally stuffed to the gills, and beyond.
I said I have never caught a brook trout in that condition, however, back when I still used bait on occasion, I found a rather unique way of landing brookies. I would use an entire crawler, and run the hook through it just one time near the front, leaving lots of good trout food to dangle in the current. You could feel the brookies grab the crawler and start munching their way towards the front. When I would feel them pause, I knew they had as much of it in them as they could get, then I would pull them in. They seldom got to the hook, but, they didn’t want to let go of the gourmet boneless crawler that must have tasted so good to them, to the point where I could land them, pull the crawler back out of them, and reuse it many times, all without having to remove the hook from the fish. Spud didn’t believe me when I told him how I fished for brookies, until I showed him, then he started fishing them the same way. Timing is the key to it, you let the crawler drift back into the root tangles where brookies hide, and wait. You feel a tap, then munch, munch, munch, and a pause. If you feel another munch after the pause, you’ll have a gut hooked trout, and a gut hooked trout is a dead trout. When you feel the pause, you yank them out of the water before they have a chance to spit the crawler back out. If you try to play them, you’ll lose them, you feel the pause and rip them out of the water, works like a charm. Of course the larger brookies, the ones you want to keep, will make it to the hook. I guess brookies will feed to the point where they are more than full, since I was landing them with as much crawler still to be eaten as they were able to get into their stomachs.
Over the years I have tried to figure out what the keys were that turned fish on, and turned them off. I have learned a lot of the off keys, having to do with the time of day and the weather, but I still have no idea what turns fish on as far as when they are going to start feeding. Some of the off keys are so obvious it is hard to miss them. For example, one morning Spud and I were fishing the Sturgeon, and doing pretty well, catching a lot of both brown and brook trout. It was raining lightly that morning, and as long as it rained we caught fish after fish. When the rain let up, the fishing slowed down, and when the sun came out, we never had another hit. I have always had good luck fishing in the rain, as long as it isn’t a downpour. That holds for trout, bass, and panfish. Other keys are more subtle. Often I’ll be fishing in the spring or fall, fishing in the afternoon, going on evening. Evenings are great in the summer, but during the spring and fall, you’ll often notice a chilly breeze comes up just before evening. I have never done well after I feel that chilly breeze. Chilly is the best way to describe it, it isn’t cold, and even if there has been a breeze all day, it will feel differently than it has, and if you are really observant, you’ll notice a change to the scent in the air as well. Often I am not ready to quit fishing even when I feel that chilly breeze and continue on, also hoping to prove that I am wrong, and that it doesn’t end the fishing, but it always has. The same holds true for chilly mornings, if there is a mist coming off the water, I never do well, in the spring and fall that is. In the summer, that can be a good time to be on the water.
But what the switches are that turn fish on is beyond me. I don’t know how many times I have been fishing all morning when fishing was supposed to be good and not caught a thing, when, about the time you would normally quit, the fish start feeding as if some one threw a switch. One day Spud and I were up in the Pigeon River Country, we had fished hard all day with nothing to show for it. We had fished different rivers, and different places on those rivers, with no luck at all. Finally, I suggested that we move to one of the “secret honey holes” that I knew of. It seems every fisherman knows a few places that seem to always produce fish, the secret honey hole. Anyway, Spud and I were wading up towards the one I had in mind, and we could hear a fish jump every once in a while. We figured it was a sucker, which are known for that. When we got to the secret honey hole, I told Spud where to cast, and he was instantly on to a good fish, which turned out to be a 2 1/2 to 3 pound brown. Once he had landed it and gutted it, we found 3 dragon flies in that brown’s stomach. That was the fish we had heard jumping, that brown was jumping out of the water catching dragon flies out of the air! I had never heard of that before or since, browns feeding on dragon flies, and jumping out of the water for food is unheard of when it comes to large browns like that. And, there was nothing in that fish’s stomach except for the 3 dragon flies, so it must have been some time since it had been feeding.
Brown trout are supposed to be lazy feeders, “quietly sipping mayflies from the surface” according to all the books and magazines I have read. This fish hadn’t read all the books and magazines I guess, he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to be eating dragon flies either. Many things to learn from that story, one is that trout must have a pretty good sense of vision as far as what is above the surface of the water they live in, in order for that fish to catch dragon flies out of the air. And, no one that I know of has ever been able to explain why fish will suddenly begin feeding on anything they can find when the mood strikes them. I don’t know the answer, if I did, I would have had a book published, made millions of dollars from it, and blown it all on more fishing gear by now.
I have to say a few words about the solar/lunar guides that are supposed to tell you the best time to hunt or fish, and those few words are, the guides are wrong. It would seem to make sense, given that so much of animal behavior is driven by the sun, moon, tides, etc, but as soon as the guides started coming into vogue, I noticed a major flaw, they’re all different. The ones in magazine “A” are completely different from the ones published in magazine “B”, and they are both different from the ones published in the newspaper. I know, I need a solar/lunar guide guide to tell me which one to go by that day. My GPS unit has that feature, and I don’t think it has ever been right yet. If you do a web search on solar lunar tables, you’ll come up with a lot of page listings from the publishers telling you their guide is right and all the others are wrong, which tells me that none of them are reliable.
I have saved the most frustrating situation in fishing for last, and that is when the fish are feeding, but not on what you’re offering. This happens mostly to those of us who fish for trout. You’ll be out there on a river, minding your own business, catching a fish every now and then, when suddenly the river seems to be alive with feeding fish. It is like the DNR truck just dumped a couple thousand fish in the river, and they’re all starved. The fly you have been using doesn’t draw any hits, so you look down on the water and see a reddish-brown may fly drift past you. You dig around in your flyboxes and come up with a reddish-brown may fly pattern, thinking that you’re going to clean up on the fish, but you get no hits what so ever. You’re getting slightly annoyed, when you swear you see the fish you’re fishing to take a small white caddis off the surface. Aha, they’re feeding on caddis, so you dig through your flyboxes and come up with a small white caddis pattern. “Now I’ve got you”, you think as you prepare to cast, only to find out a hundred casts later, that the fish still have you. You’re starting to get really annoyed by now, but about that time, you see a small stonefly flutter past you. Aha, once more you think, they’re feeding on stonefly nymphs on the way to the surface. So you dig through your flyboxes and dig out a small stonefly nymph pattern, thinking to yourself, “Now I have them for sure!”. Wrong, they still have you, and by now you’re almost frothing at the mouth. There’s a 5 pound brown feeding over by the stump, and another almost as big by the rock over there.
You tell yourself to stay cool, stay calm, and ask yourself, “What would (insert name of favorite fishing expert here) do?”. That’s it! He’d get out his nymph seine and check to see what insects are in the water. So that’s what you do, and sure enough, there’s a nymph that you’re not familiar with, so you get your hatch guide out of one of the pockets of your fishing vest to identify what it is. There it is, it is a piscatoria foolia, what ever that is. The next thing is, do you have a piscatoria foolia buried in one of your flyboxes somewhere? “Today’s your lucky day” you think to yourself as you find that you have one, in the section of a flybox reserved for flies you got as part of an assortment, but thought you would never use. You tie it on quickly, too quickly, the line snaps as you pull the knot up tight. You tell yourself to stay calm yet again, and the second knot holds. You pull some line through the rod guides so you’ll be able to cast, and toss the fly into the water in front of you, to give it time to soak up some water so that you will get a good drift when you do make the cast. It is getting dark, and you don’t have a lot of time left, so you’ll have to make every cast count. As you survey the situation, you feel a tug on the line, a little brown has taken your fly! Woo Hoo! That means you finally have the right fly on. You pull in the little brown……..
Now dear readers, one of two scenarios play out from here, neither good for the mental well-being of the poor fisherman in this story…..
You carefully remove the hook from the little brown’s mouth, look up to pick a spot to cast to, you see it is now almost dark, and there’s not a feeding fish to be seen anywhere. You make a few casts just to be sure, but all the fish have finished gorging themselves on the real piscatoria foolias, and want nothing to do with your fake one. As you stumble back to your car in the dark, you have to fight back a strong urge to cry like a baby.
You carefully remove the hook from the little brown’s mouth, look up to pick a spot to cast to, and make a couple false casts to get the range down. On the last false cast, you throw the one piscatoria foolia fly that you own into a tree branch 20 feet off the ground behind you. No amount of tugging and shaking will get it loose, and the branch is just high enough that you can’t reach it with your rod tip to try to knock the fly loose that way. So you pull on the line hoping for the best, but the line breaks at the knot you tied a little too quickly. You swear you can hear trout laughing at you behind your back. As you stumble back to your car in the dark, you vow to buy a gross of every fly in your hatch guide, even though your fishing vest already weighs as much as a 1964 Volkswagon Beetle.
And I call the fish crazy.