A while ago I wrote some words on fishing lures, mentioning general ideas around experimenting with different types versus really getting to grips with a smaller selection (read it here). To far too simply sum it up I added that finding active fish is the biggest factor in increasing hook-ups. I stand by that.
But what’s going on with active fish? Even active fish (smashing up bait in front of you) can be virtually un-hookable. What happens when you come across inactive fish? How do you con one into chewing your lure – and chewing it long enough for you to get a hook in its mouth? That’s got a lot to do with the predatory response.
What is the Predatory Response?
I’d like to explain it as follows. I’ve made the definition up but I think it’s about right.
The predatory response is the transition in a fish’s behaviour from an inquisitive or somewhat active state to an aggressive state. Some may like to see it as the instinctive reaction of a carnivorous animal to a fleeing/easy meal; others would look at it as the decision of an individual to attempt to eat a perceived food item.
How is it Triggered?
This is the money question. How do you spark aggressive, predatory behaviour into another creature? What will this look like, and will it always be the same? Let’s break it down.
- Give them something to eat
This is the first step in the process. Offering something that looks like the sort of thing your fish likes eating makes the following steps all the more simple.
- Make it look appealing
Even if you put the right thing out there, causing it to do the wrong thing should justifiably raise alarm bells in a switched-on (or perhaps more accurately, switched off) fish.
- Maintain engagement
I think it’s safe to assume that, most of the time, a fish thinks about whether or not to eat. Perhaps this isn’t carried out on the same timeframe that we immediately understand and might seem hard to grasp in concept, but it’s a part of nature. Get the lure into the fish’s ‘active zone’ and keep it there long enough for it to react.
Create the Trap
Giving them something to eat is the first step in the process. By this I mean: tie on something that the target species eats. Blatantly obvious; but on those days that things are slow it doesn’t make sense to work an outlandish experimental lure. Stick with what you know – if nothing else you will fish with confidence.
There are a few ways of choosing a good lure, and first and foremost you must let the fish tell you what they want. I’ve made the mistake of trying to get fish to eat what I’m throwing rather than the other way around; to my detriment. The best hopes and dreams of a surface fly fisher just don’t stack up on big Ontario pike in mesotrophic lakes most months other than May and June. That’s ok though, the fish are there; they’re just not in the surface zone.
Learning how the target species behaves is a huge boon. This is done by spending time on the water; talking to knowledgeable people; and research (scientific research rather than plain old fishing how-to’s will open your mind). Learn what it hunts and how; and at what time of year. Learn what lures it is commonly caught on, where and when and apply.
Lure them in
I was fishing the Macquarie River for Murray cod and golden perch. Spinnerbaits my lures of choice, I worked them systematically through snags as I canoed my way upriver. In-keeping with the systematic approach, I retrieved each cast with a lift and drop retrieve to cover a broader spectrum of the water column; alternate flash, noise and vibration on the upstroke with the more subtle action imparted by the sinking lure; and keep the lure in the water and swimming for a longer period.
There were two strike times. Fish either hit the lure as it sank, or immediately after a lift began. This suggests that the fish reacted to a change in behaviour of the lure. This is an important theory. Sometimes a straight retrieve is all that is required; sometimes this is best. But first and foremost as an approach, an erratic retrieve evokes a response.
For most lake, river, estuary and inshore species worldwide, giving a bit of erratic movement to your lures ups the odds of a hookup.
Forget about saltwater speedsters for a sec; everything else has much less energy to burn. So what’s noticed first is something that looks like an animal but isn’t capable of getting away. Indeed, all of those archetypal lures were designed to flick and kick like a fish with something wrong with it.
I read a very interesting book that described some early lure fishing practices in the US. Funny thing was that diving lures were used quite often to float about on the surface; with the bib employed to make the lure wobble and roll every now and again while hardly moving forward at all. The anglers were working on the wounded minnow theory and nailing it. I haven’t had the patience or confidence to try it extensively but it makes sense. Watch a fish in the last throes of life – it floats around wiggling now and again. How much more inviting can an easy feed be?
I learned this concept as a newbie coast dweller after flathead. I read an article that questioned the ‘normal’ 2-hop-and-drop flathead retrieve for soft plastics. The author instead bought into the idea that a flathead, an ambush hunter, is going to save itself and its camouflage by waiting for a sure thing. I slowed my retrieves down just a bit and I caught a lot of flathead.
It’s not that flathead are slow or lazy, far from it, but what was going on was the wounded minnow theory. Only fairly healthy prey is capable of those bursts of speed, and if the flathead isn’t in a full on feeding mode, a cripple looks more like a sure thing.
Jerkshad type soft plastics make us want to work them erratically. They don’t move a lot by themselves but with an angled jighead (as opposed to a round one) and a few flicks they really kick about.
But an all-important secret with these lures, in deep water especially, is the dead sink. I guess several predominantly benthic predators (like snapper in Australia and lake trout in Canada) are used to sitting under actively hunting schools as they tear up fish above them, waiting to clean up on the carnage as it descends sick, paralysed or dead. Sinking a big jerkshad, without any added movement, into the midst of one of these schools or onto likely habitat gets results.
Dad and I were fishing the mouth of the marina at Cardwell one bright morning. Just after daylight and the tide was almost full, spilling clear salt water over the end of the rock wall as we stood and cast for barramundi.
The fish arrived on time with the last surge of the tide. Silver barrels rolling, boofing and splashing at our feet – huge fish. We cast everything we could think of, and everything that was ‘known to work’. We caught nothing.
The barra were terrorising schools of 50 cent sized silver fish, whatever they were, but we had nothing small enough to match. It’s not a common problem for a barramundi fisher, but that day we were stumped.
Going small isn’t something I’d immediately recommend as an approach. Small lures attract small fish – and that’s not what you want if you’re after big ones. But…
Sometimes going small is a great way to avoid big fish; as I’ve recently been exploring with golden perch in rivers full of Murray cod. By going so small that cod aren’t interested in the first place I’ve managed to target the mid-range predator of the system.
Here’s another idea, courtesy of my mate Jan. You know when you’re at a party and you’ve just had a big feed? Someone comes up and offers another plate – “no thanks I’m full” is the most likely answer. But if you’re offered a little morsel, some sort of treat, there is much more chance that your instinctive response is just to eat it.
There is a theory that inactive fish are somewhat the same. A big meal comes past; they aren’t hungry and can’t be bothered chasing, killing and eating it. But a little shrimp or wounded baitfish? If it comes close enough – why not?
Keep them Interested
I’ve touched on a couple of aspects of this already. Things like erratic movements of the lure – changes in ‘behaviour’ of the puppet you’re controlling – keep fish curious. Slowing retrieves down allows more time for the fish to think about attacking the lure. Easy meal tickets are always interesting.
As I said at the outset – put the lure in the fish’s active zone and keep it there as long as possible. For fish like Murray cod that might mean casting to the same point and retrieving on the same path 20 odd times before the fish strikes. I don’t know whether this is a feeding response or just a way to get rid of the annoying thing that keeps swimming around – but it feels predatory when the hit finally happens! The most trying thing is that average cod water is too murky to see anything so you just have to believe they’re there and keep on casting.
What about pike and muskie? These players are known for following right to the rod tip. Short of lifting the lure from the water, the worst thing you can do is stop the retrieve. These fish like to bite moving things – and the ‘Figure Eight’ keeps the lure in the zone until one party or the other loses interest.
That Speed Conundrum
I said before that for most species, pauses work. But not so for everything. Pike and muskie are an example; but then there’s fish like jungle perch (flagtail) that get bored if the lure slows for an instant. Where they live, food is swept past in no time and they have to go hard or go hungry. Something that slows down is out of place for them.
I’ve seen flathead behave just like pike, tailing the lure to the end. Perhaps, against the urge to slow down when you see them, speeding up would cause a strike. It all comes back to knowing the fish, and making a few guesses.
Who’s the Predator?
Getting the most out of lure fishing is all about exploring how things work. Lures, fish, conditions; all these play different roles on any given day. But what makes you feel predatory? Something easy; big; different; safe; challenging? Who knows if or how fish think – but we’re both predators. What would make you bite?