As a fish-writer, occasional lecturer, and long-time deckhand in the party/charterboat fishery, I’ve spent untold thousands of career hours trying to help relative angling novices identify realistic ways to improve personal catch rates.
To seriously understate the matter, amateur fishermen tend to attack the sport according to ideas drawn from flatland living–project human behavioral patterns, logic, motivations, etc. on their quarry–and wind up overthinking things to death.
Accordingly, I’ve learned to present fishing lessons within a human framework so guys can fit what they learn into a context that will help them retain and build on newfound knowledge as they delve deeper into the hunt for more and bigger fish.
I’ve logged as many hours trying to find parallel techniques, aptitudes, specific formative experiences, or personality traits among highliners (the oft-discussed 10% of fishermen who catch 90% of the fish). The dynamic, variable-rich nature of rod-and-reeling, and a more/less endless thicket of needlessly technical information and opinion, both add to the challenge of extracting the small percentage of useful info that can directly impact your results.
The following four ideas represent the pieces of the puzzle that have proven most useful in my efforts to help newbies move toward that all-important point when they “learn how to learn” on their own. These core concepts cross target species, fishing grounds, technique, or seasons, and if you’re eager to improve your own score, they should help.
Conservation of Energy
I constantly find myself harping on one point in discussions about (1) catching big fish, and (2) training oneself to view the activity through the fish’s eyes. If you want to understand your quarry, you must embrace one overarching rule of fish survival: balance the ledger of calories spent against calories gained.
Therein lies much of what you need to know to successfully target big fish. It also helps account for some otherwise tricky issues of timing in terms of fish movements, both the big-picture migratory movements and the smaller localized movements according to tides and other pieces of the conditions puzzle.
The key is to understand the way various behaviors–where and when they feed, where they go when they leave a place you can dependably intercept the fish.
Fish don’t reach trophy size chasing ever possible meal. They learn to time their feeding forays to points in a tide when they can hunt without burning up reserve energy fighting current, fleeing from predators, or chasing small, low-nutrition feed that won’t begin to offset calories they spent catching it.
When an inlet is loaded with, say, bay anchovies, the reason to abandon “hatch-matching” in favor of big, slow, attention-getting plugs is rooted in energy conservation: give them a meal that looks like a sound caloric investment.
Consider that migrant stripers travel on or around the big spring moons to capitalize on a fair-tide (i.e. with tide) boost that puts more open-water miles behind them for way less energy out.
Consider that stripers tend to concentrate down-tide of high spots, rockpiles, or ledges to use them as current breaks which let them hold position finning slowly ahead, stemming the flow.
It’s surprising how many common scenarios in fishing eventually boil down to preserving energy.
More often than not, best windows of fish-catching opportunity will relate to certain parts of moving tides, or periods when wind and sea conditions combine with specific tidal conditions.
Other times, the challenge will be waiting for one piece of the overall conditions to change, putting fish on the feed, or, as when you encounter wind against the tide in drift fishing, finally letting you properly present a lure or bait to fish that had been there right along.
Whatever conditions variables work best for a piece of real estate you fish, the key concept here is that when everything finally aligns, you will have some limited window during which to put some fish in the boat or on the beach before the fish scatter or lock up, or you can no longer present baits properly.
Simple, stupid, or obvious as it may seem, one key practice nearly every 10-percenter lives by is the need to “get while the getting’s good.” It’s a lesson that’s hard to grasp on the single-trip scale, since the difference between two boats respective catches might be a fish or two.
Sharp striper and tuna specialists tend to get downright cranky about every incremental moment of down-time when fish are on a feed–and rightly so. I’ve seen more times than I can count scenarios where we were hooking up on the troll as fast as I could set a line out (less than a minute from the second I put a reel in freespool to the moment the jig reached the right position, I engaged the reel and a 30-pound striper (or 50-pound yellowfin, etc.) climbed all over it.
Meanwhile, a neighboring boat was catching good fish. But whereas we hustled lines back out, that crew would pause for photos, high-fives, snacks, whatever. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the latter; but we’re talking about the 10%. Over the course of an hour, we’d put a dozen in the boat, while our neighbor got 8. Four fish one day? No big deal… but four fish a day for 40 days? It can (and does) amount to the performance gap between a good fisherman and the top fisherman.
High Frequency, Short Duration
It’s a good habit to start thinking about each trip not in terms of six hours, dock to dock, but as one hour of catching, exact timing TBD. High-five when the bite craps out.
Same applies when fish finally move within casting range of the beach: after hours driving around, or glued to the binoculars, or taking100 blind, fishless casts, make the most of the blitz for the 30 seconds or 30 minutes it lasts. It may be the only real fishing you do all day.
And because not every day of the month or every week of a year offers equal opportunity in the catching department, this practice of making the most of the prime windows works on multiple scales. The sharpies know that certain stretches of calendar surrender a disproportional percentage of their big fish or big hauls.
These guys won’t lose sleep for a slow pick of little fish. But when they land on a body of good ones and figure out the feeding patterns, they’ll hit it hard, chasing the tide around the clock over 10 days, pull double sessions 7 of them.
As vast as its potential feels when a new shot of fish moves in, the fish always push on, or spread out, or stop chewing all too soon. Make no mistake: the sharpies have slow trips, slow weeks just like everyone else. But when it’s good, they know how to wring the last bit of goodness out of the opportunity.
I was sitting at my desk the moment I realized, years back, that four of the guys I would have put in a top ten list of the best overall anglers in my part of the world, each of them over 40, lived with their mothers–not that there’s a thing wrong with living with Mom.
But it struck me as a particularly clear testament to the kind of singular drive, the hunger that separates good fishermen from “best.” No way around it: The top of the angler foodchain is no cinch. The fishery is the queen mother of all jealous-mistress undertakings.
When you’re catching well, you’re afraid to miss a tide. And when you’re between shots of fish, especially during migration periods, you’re afraid to miss a tide. Hell, let’s be honest: from early April to the last gasp of December casting, you’re afraid to miss a night. Then, for one week, you’re vaguely relieved it’s over. By the following Monday, the withdrawals are setting in, and from there to April, you’re more or less stuck on stupid. Depressed.
Point here is that precious few of us are cut out for the 10 percent. For one thing, fishing hard is seriously taxing on body and soul. For another, given the need to keep ourselves and our families fed, clothed, and housed warrants a job. There are life responsibilities.
There’s a saying: If you want to catch a lot of fish, fish a lot. I’d add a point of clarification to this line. If you want to learn fishing at a high level, it matters how you implement “fish a lot.” Fishing a 24-hour marathon every weekend is grueling, but the real trick to accelerate learning is to fish daily. It’s not just total time that counts. It’s watching the same waters under all the different combinations of conditions, but It’s equally critical to practice constantly so you can eliminate as many variables of technical execution, so that when you take a skunking, you can be fairly sure it wasn’t operator error. You master technique by steady practice over long enough that working a plug or dragging a strip bait perfectly becomes a matter of muscle memory.
Regardless of the level at which you fish, your continued growth as a fish nut will require you to embrace the highest form of perseverance. That means shaking off the bad nights, the cold, dark, miserable, fishless, thankless nights when you break off a good one on the first cast then stink up the place for the next four lonely, impossibly tedious hours. And go again the following night and two nights thereafter, racking up two more skunking and just ducking a third with one sickly schoolie at the last second.
Fish early, fish often, and fish carefully. Just keep it somewhere in mind that the goal of the whole manic pursuit is to have fun. Whatever your angling goals, make sure they leave room for the fun part of it. If it starts to feel like misery, change your gameplan.