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Learning From Fish in a Barrel

By Rob BelloniJuly 23, 2004

Fish are inexplicable creatures. We can't ask them what they are thinking, or understand how they learn. So we make up theories to try to explain their behavior. We hypothesize and generalize, and if the shoe fits, we wear it. It's not important if our theories are scientifically accurate, or universally applicable. It's important that the theories make sense to us. It's important that when the fish bite, we have some explanation that makes sense to us. It doesn't matter if it's right or wrong, and it doesn't matter if future experiences change our theory completely. It's just important to believe it at the time when it happens, because in believing comes confidence, and in confidence comes success.

A lot of my recent main page updates have started with a story from the past and elaborated on it, expanding it out into current experiences and extrapolating some theory or idea out into the future. This article is the same way, but reflects a little on the overall way in which we learn as fisherman. So let's throw this bait out and see if it swims (don't you love fishing clichés?)

The story starts on a small pool in a small creek in the Western Sierras. The creek and the pool aren't relevant, what's important is that this pool was stacked full of planter trout and you could see every single one of them because the water was all of 4 feet deep and crystal clear. It was fish in a barrel, a captive audience, a pool full of subjects for a fishing science experiment. Ok, honestly it was me with 2lb test and a tiny box of spinners, and a bunch of spooky fish holed up in a tiny pool.

The fish should have been dumb. They were fresh out of the truck, never fished for. Clean slates swimming in a confined space, just waiting for a lip piercing. I threw out and caught a few on my favorite panther martin, yellow body with silver blade. After a few more casts, it was apparent that the rest of the gang didn't want yellow body with silver blade. I looked in my little box and pulled out another favorite, black body and blade with yellow spots. First cast, a fish, second cast a fish. Third cast some follows. Pretty soon it's back to nothing again.

Ok so I can put two and two together here. New bait = fish. I don't remember what baits I went to from there but I would bet it was gold with orange blade, and then perhaps a gold on gold blue fox spinner, and definitely a gold and black rooster tail. Each time I switched lures, I would catch a fish. But each bait was only good for 1 to 3 fish. At the time it interested me, but I didn't give it any deep consideration. It just seemed like changing baits equated into bites.

Let's think about it more now. A group of fish sees a yellow and silver lure and one of them strikes it. That fish gets caught and struggles in front of the other fish. The same thing happens again. The third time, the fish stop striking that lure. This scenario repeats itself over and over each time the lure is changed.

What are the possibilities?

1) Those two fish that bit were the two fish in the school with a preference for that color combination. The other fish did not prefer that color combination and therefore did not strike.

2) The other fish in the school observed the lure and the subsequent struggling of the caught fish. They made a mental association between that color lure, and a fear response from the other fish, and that caused them to stop striking that lure.

3) This was a random occurrence and will not happen again. It was purely coincidence.

Based on what I saw, I believe that these fish exhibited some sort of survival mechanism. The fish in the school learned from what happened to the caught fish and stopped striking the lure. They were not smart enough to avoid other lures though because their brains aren't advanced enough to infer things, only to correlate things on a one to one basis. It might not seem like much, but the idea that a fish could learn something from another fish is pretty interesting. Other species of fish may be 'dumber' or 'smarter' and sometimes all species will just flat out eat anything in front of them, but there's something to be learned here.

If you've read Bassmaster or any tournament publication, you have inevitably read the quotes from winning fisherman talking about how they switched lures when the fish stopped biting, and were then able to catch some more fish. It's not a cut and dry thing, but it would seem that largemouth bass are also sometimes able to make a one to one connection between a lure and a fear response by a nearby fish. Most bass fisherman could tell you a story like this.

I doubt I will ever prove this theory. There's a lot of theories in fishing that can never be proven because we lack any ability to communicate with fish. But proving a fishing theory is not what matters. Believing in it and taking it into consideration in your fishing is the important thing. I encourage everyone out there to give real consideration the things that happen to you on the water. Build a theory and try it out. If it doesn't seem to be true, shuck it and move on to the next one. As you experience new things, play back your theory across past experiences. Ask yourself honestly if it holds true and look for variations.

My ideas and theories on fishing are fluid, changing all the time. It's easy to cling to old ideas, but it's hard to admit you were completely wrong about something. When you stop being personally attached to your fishing theories and start letting them roll with your every day experiences, you'll catch the fish better than you ever could without a theory because you'll be catching them for a reason. When there's a reason why the fish bite, your confidence goes up and it's a self fulfilling prophecy from there on out.

Copyright © Robert Belloni 1997-2012. All Rights Reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without express written consent.
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