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Do Fish Learn to Avoid You?

By Russ Bassdozer

I would like to answer this question in a round-about manner. First, I would like to present you with a few situations that I have been in where fishing results deteriorated quickly. Then, I will draw a conclusion that satisfactorily answers the question: "Do fish learn to avoid you?"

I have been in several situations like this:

  • Milk Run Dries Up. My partner Eto and I fished a 25 acre pond several days a week for several years. This lake had some super rock, wood and tall reed islands that held some super bass. The water was dark and thick with suspended particles. The bass lived in home spots nestled under overhanging, cavern-like trees, cuts and points in the grass islands, in downed trees, etc. We had a milk run where we would go from "house to house". We pitched and skipped several different colors of spider grubs at them, and did good for about a month, after which the fishing slowed down. Realizing this, we switched to wireguard jigs and tube baits, and the fishing was immediately good again, catching many of the same fish in these home spots over again. Sometimes, new, usually bigger fish would move in, sometimes we would catch a fish we knew in a different part of the lake, but mostly the fish stayed put. One fish, my pet, lived against a rock bluff, under an overhanging bush for four years, after which we never saw her again. This particular fish was an exception and did not learn, hitting our lures with regularity. Getting back to the point though, almost all the fish definitely learned to recognize and not hit the spider grubs after a month, but they readily took the tube jigs like hotcakes when we introduced them. After that slowed, we switched to lightly weighted black/red twister tail worms with renewed success. So, I believe these fish became conditioned.
  • Weekend vs. Weekday. Also with Eto, we hit this one lake that only allowed boats on weekends after Labor Day. In mid-September, the offshore weed mats would die out and shrink back into thick clumps that attracted big bass like magnets. We would go out on Saturdays and buzz or spinnerbait up about 25 nice bass apiece, releasing all. Return on Sunday and do poorly. Come back the next Saturday and pinbait another 25 apiece, again doing poorly on Sunday. This became predictable for the remaining weekends this action lasted until the lake closed in mid-October. Somehow I can't shake a suspicion that these fish cavorted freely Monday through Friday, got worked over on Saturdays, and were sore-mouthed and in no mood to bite on Sundays.
  • Increasingly Cautious Individuals. In yet another lake, we hacked trails to get back through 15-25 feet of phragmites to reach otherwise inaccessible pools and open waterways up against the shady sides of several islands. Some huge, solitary big bass staked out these areas. They'd eagerly hit whatever you tossed in there at first. But the more you went back there, the more cautious they became.
  • First Cast or Nothing. Also, every time you flip or pitch a dropbait into cover, your chance of catching an ACTIVE fish is by far the highest on the first cast. By the time you make the second cast, your chances of catching that fish are pretty slim, and virtually zero by the third cast. Note, this is only a general rule, and the exact opposite applies to sightfishing for INACTIVE fish, where you have to drop on their nose 4-5 times to rouse them out of a stupor. Point is, the ACTIVE fish accepts or rejects what it sees right away - a reflex or reaction bite. If you blow it, you can come back later and try again, but you better make that first cast count!

I guess I have rambled on a bit, but the morale of the story is "Fish are dumb, they don't have thoughts, ideas or notions, and they donít learn like you and I do, but they do have instincts." The prime directive is to survive despite all adversity. So, when a fish is not hitting your bait on the second cast, or after a month of seeing it time and again, it is probably the primal survival reflex in play, rather than the fish theorizing about how to outfox anglers. The survival of the individual is temporarily overpowered during mating season by the instinct to reproduce, thereby ensuring survival of the entire species rather than a specific individual. Another primal instinct, which can even disrupt the nesting instinct, is to survive through adverse weather and other environmental calamities, such as floods, droughts, and oxygen depletion. Beyond these primal survival instincts, there is a strong instinct in largemouths to control a territory, and many times bass attack your lures due to this territorial instinct, rather than hunger. This territorial instinct is always strong, but particularly in pre-spawn, when bass will patrol and kill anything intruding onto the nursery grounds. Beyond these, the instinct to nourish itself and replenish it's energy comes into play, particularly so in autumn when the speculation is that fish build up fat reserves to help themselves make it through the winter. So, yeah, fish are stone plumb dumb stupid, but they sure do have impressive instincts, some of which work to thwart anglers' desires to catch them!

 
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