Another refuge in consolation is to believe the fish simply outsmarted you. In order to find satisfaction in this explanation of failure, you have to disregard the fact that most fish have brains that may be anywhere from the size of a BB shot to a shriveled pea. Grasping at this excuse may be selling your own intelligence a bit short.
Fishing by the clock, a barometer, phase of the moon, thermometer readings or any one formula may have some value and produce some results. But any one of these factors is only a fragment of angling lore, each being like a piece of a picture puzzle to be fitted together to reveal the complete design. Furthermore, any one of these may be of less importance in fish behavior than a number of other factors.
The closer an angler can come to assembling in a proper relation all the unit factors that exist in a fishing problem, the more nearly he will secure a true guide to putting his lure where it will get action. You had best use your head when fishing, rather than any timetables.
There is no question but that tackle handling is of the highest importance. The angler who can whip his rod with precision has attained one of the two most important requirements for successful fishing. Being able to do merely that is no assurance of getting strikes. The other basic portion of an angler's education is the knowledge of how fish live and where they may be caught. Perhaps it is more important than skill in tackle handling. No degree of ability in handling tackle will catch fish if the cast is on Ashless waters.
It seems more logical to me to begin with the why of angling methods, than to apply oneself first to attaining high skill in tackle manipulation. An angler who has a clearer understanding of why he should use certain tackle in a particular way should progress more surely and positively toward how he should use it.
Let's set up as our objective the working out of lines of reasoning that may be followed to secure satisfactory fishing. As a first step let's winnow out a few fundamentals of game fish lore, some knowledge of the quarry we seek, and why we should use a particular type of tackle and lure by species, season and local conditions. A systematic sifting out of facts always is a good way to begin such a discussion as we have before us.
This association is like links in a chain, each unit being inseparable from the other and each progressing to the end point of that chain, which is the hook, and that hook solidly in a good fish.
Our first move is to set up a type grouping of game fish, rough out the pattern of each group's habitats and habits, and proceed from these toward tackle to be used and how to use it.
There is a simple classification of our game fishes which is easily grouped. There are game species that we refer to as cold-water fishes, cool-water fishes and warm-water fishes. As these names and the classifications imply, the groupings are based on types of waters each inhabits.
In a rough way, each of these groups of game fishes requires a well-defined type of tackle developed to catch members of that group. The habitat defines the living conditions suited to a particular species. It also defines the classes of fish foods. This determines the type of lure to be used, fly, plug, spoon or spinner.
And the type of lure on the end of the leader indicates the style of leader, the type and strength of line, the reel to handle that line, and the length and resilience of the rod. Just as there are "families" of fishes, there are associated "families" of lures, and tackle. That is the "chain" I referred to which begins with habitat and ends with a fish on the hook.
Let's develop this a little further and perhaps bring out a little more definitely this association of "families" of game fish, and the basic types of lures and tackle suited to angling for them.
The cold-water fishes are those which prefer summer water temperatures that do not exceed 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This group includes the trouts, fresh-water salmons, graylings and whitefishes. Some of these species will stand a higher temperature but by preference they will seek colder waters.
When we think of trout we immediately associate fishing for them with flies, gut leaders, tapered enameled lines, a lithe 8- or 9-foot rod and a single action or automatic reel. In the environment of the trout, insects are a principal food. The whole business of this type of trout fishing impinges on this food supply which is dictated by the location of the habitat, and defines a "family" of lure to be used.
If we turn to bass, their habitat produces the sort of foods that are simulated by plugs, spinners and spoons. These types of lures require a woven or piano wire leader or one of stout gut, a soft braided line, a multiplying reel and 4 1/2-to 5 1/2 foot rod to handle both lure and fish. Again the "family" of tackle is linked to the family of fish being sought.
That should sufficiently define the step-by-step progression we will follow. So let's elaborate the pattern and its interlocking elements with relation to one division of the first group, the cold-water fishes. The significance of the cold-water environment becomes clearer as we move ahead.
Trout, as an example of the cold-water fishes, practically stop digesting their food when the water temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature they are sluggish, and a good sized minnow may satisfy their hunger for some days or even a week or two.
A temperature rise of the water to 52 to 54 degrees will start a trout to using up the food inside of him at a rapid rate. He becomes hungry and starts to feed. When he feeds, he is in the mood to hit a lure. When the temperature rises above this preferred optimum, he becomes sluggish again, and will seek the deeper spring holes or haunt the spots where cool side streams come into the main currents.
There is a direct relation, too, between the water and air temperatures and the foods the trout will be taking. If we fit together such basic factors, it is possible to make a general chart of where trout will be feeding, and where they may be hooked. This can be done by diagramming the food available as the season advances, correlating it with the temperature factor affecting the food supply and that same factor as it affects actions of the trout.
At the beginning of the season, when the cold waters of the spring run-off are coming into the stream, the air temperature has not yet risen enough to warm upper layers of the water. A trout will find a temperature more to his liking in deeper waters. Also, the flooding stage of the stream will bring in bait types of food; worms from bits of bank that have caved into rushing waters, larvae and worms washed from the surface of the soil, and the force of flood waters will scour off larvae of the water insects that have wintered under the rocks in the bed of the stream.
Mr. Trout hugs the bottom. He is not very hungry because it is too cold to use up his food very rapidly, and he lazily picks off a meal as the current brings it by. Even if the waters were not turbid, and he could see a fly, he would be indifferent; not hungry, and not rising to strike because there is abundant seasonal food drifting by his hide-out beside a sunken boulder.
These conditions make this bait time. Any bait used has to be sunk deep, into the "feeding zone" of the trout, to get any action whatever.
A little later, as waters warm somewhat, the larvae of the water insects that have been living under the moist stones, begin to respond to the urge of instinct and start the perilous little trip from safe hiding under a rock to the water surface. These are the "nymph" forms of the insects, intermediate between the larva and pupa stage. As the insects rise toward the top, so also does the feeding trout. But the feeding zone still is down well under the surface, and that is the place to put a nymph type of artificial lure.
Summer warmth comes. The nymphs that have reached the surface of the water usually crawl out on dry land, develop the ability to breathe air instead of getting oxygen from the waters, and finding some nook under a log or forest duff, enter the pupa stage. This lasts only a short time, and they break out of their ugly husks, spread new wings, and take flight. Many do not master flight before they fall into the stream and sink down as a drowned fly.
Keyed right into this situation is the use of a wet fly for trout. The fish are roving the warmer waters from bottom to just under the surface. There is where a wet fly pattern, correlated back to the type of insect that is hatching, will stand the best chance of doing business.
That time passes, autumn begins to hover over the next turn of the calendar, the nights become cooler, a bit of frost hits, flies that are laying eggs become scarce, and trout begin the gradual sinking back to where the colder days will find them sluggishly waiting out the winter. The dying insects that have completed their short adult life are falling into the stream and wet flies are good.
From now on to full freezing the small fry of rough and game fishes and minnows that have grown to a fair size, make a palatable morsel. Streamer flies that resemble small, darting minnows are a lure to try. Small spinners, and even small spoons cast with a light-bait casting rod, and sunk into lower levels of the pools, stand a chance of taking trout in this period, provided, of course, seasons are still open.
There, roughly fitted together like the parts of a jigsaw puzzle, is the correlated pattern of interrelationship between a given game fish species, habitat conditions, food in relation to habitat, relation of all of these to the season and the temperature, and finally their significance in what lure you use, with what tackle assembly to put that lure into the locations where there is a fair chance of success.
All this is old patter to the experienced trout fisherman. It is something he has in the back of his mind, with all the stream-craft he has stored away. But too often many of us keep such basic knowledge there, in the back of the mind. When we do, we throw lures here, there, everywhere, change patterns, blaming weather, barometer or the sulky, stubborn fish for not biting. It is on such simple facts as I have suggested that a lot of fishing luck does rest, and it is the failure to keep these before us that so often brings a blank day of fishing and some involved excuses or mystic explanations to account for failure.
The thinkin'est fisherman is the better
fisherman, and he cannot abandon fundamentals while he does his thinking.
They can be caught on flies at this time. When the surface layers of the lake become too warm, they seek the deeper water and cooler locations. One must troll deep to catch lake trout in midsummer and the lure simulates a darting small fish.
The up-and-down direction of seasonal movement for lakers is the reverse of their close relatives of the streams; it is near the surface in the spring, near the bottom during periods of summer heat. But the governing factors of habitat are the same. The fall comes, waters toward the surface are cooler, and the lake trout swing upward again toward their spawning activities. The whitefishes follow this pattern, too. The grayling must have water to live in that is even several degrees below that acceptable to trout. Grayling habitat is definitely the place of coldest water.
In the second group, the cool-water fishes, we find the perch, sand pike and walleyes. They are related not only in habitat preferences but also biologically. Their preference range in temperature lies between the upper 50's and 75 degrees.
As an example of the interrelationship of species, environment, food and fish habits, the walleye or pike-perch will be found where inlet streams pour into lakes when late spring arrives. That is their spawning time. As summer sun warms waters, the wall-eye seeks the deeper holes of lakes. In mornings and again in the evenings, after the heat of the day is past, walleyes will feed up along the face of a side of a deep hole toward a bar.
If an angler can find such a location, put a minnow on a hook that has a small spinner above it, and pitch this out from a boat anchored at the edge of a bar, he stands a good chance of getting action from the cool-water walleye that is "on the feed."
The third group, the warm-water fishes, has two major subdivisions. The first is the pike family which includes the pickerels, northern pike and muskellunges. The other subdivision includes the sunfish family. The latter is further subdivided into the basses, the sunfishes, the crappies and their kin. There are some dozen genera of the sunfish family found in North America and thirty species.
The pike family is less critical of the temperature factor in its environment than the other game fishes. They are active at water temperatures lower and higher than those preferred by basses. But their movements and habits will follow the general pattern of those of the other warm-water group.
The basses are quite finicky about water temperatures. The smallmouth bass prefers water just below 70 degrees. He will seek cooler locations in a lake or stream if the surface layer of water begins to rise above 75 degrees. Then the lure has to sink to get down six to a dozen feet where the smallmouth is located. The bigmouth bass finds his optimum water conditions when it is between 68 and 72. Bigmouths may be anywhere in the lake if the upper water layer is in this temperature range.
Applied to fishing strategy, this means that bigmouth bass may be found in the shallows earlier in the season, and again later in the year. When summer sun warms the top strata of the lake, they go to deeper holes, or shaded spots, and sinking lures may take them during the heat of the day. When the sun is low on the morning or evening horizon, they come from hiding to feed in shallows.
That is the time when insects of the dusk-time are on the wing, tiny creatures that may be swimming can be caught and the minnows that have been in hiding during the day are rustling food at the edge of the weed beds along lake shores. Those are the better places for summertime bass fishing keyed to hours of the day. Everyone probably knows this, but it is the underlying factors of habitat and habit that govern the caster who goes after these game fish.
Temperature in the air affects the temperature of the water. Waters gain no warmth on a raw, chilly day. A lowering of air temperature stops food hatching, and it either holds the surface water at a lower temperature or actually chills it. Just how sensitive a fish may be to the slight difference a sunny day or a raw cold one can make, may not yet be well proven.
But here are two bits of exploration that certainly suggest that fish will begin feeding if the water varies ever so slightly in reference to the optimum preferred. This may explode or explain some old pet theories. Upsetting dogmatic fishing beliefs is almost as much fun as landing a lunker!
We have suggested how the bass that feeds early in the morning or late in the evening may go into the lake shallows because of a very slight drop in temperature there, as well as to find his food. It may be that bass fishing has set a legendary pattern of getting up early to fish at first light, or going out in the evening after sunset. That rule-of-thumb, that you make best catches at dawn or evening dusk is prevalent, north and south, from the eastern coast to the western mountain areas.
There are trout caught in cold mountain streams early and late in the day. But my own experience, that there are more trout biting between ten on a sunny morning and four in the afternoon, than in any other period, is backed up by a number of data systematically collected as officials have taken a "creel census" of the mountain streams. There can be two related reasons for this.
One that most fly fishermen will advance is that as the sun warms the air and earth, there are more flies being hatched and trout feed as food becomes abundant. That seems self-evident. But at the same time the same sunlight warms the water just a bit, and as that stirs hunger in the trout, as he finds upper layers of the stream just a mite warmer, he goes "on feed" and is ready to take food and lures.
This may be a lot of consolation to the fly fisherman who would rather gather forty winks in the morning than go fishing, but feels such behavior is unorthodox. It almost certainly will bring more trout to the creel where streams are cold, if the angler does take his forty winks and waits for the combination of sunny-time foods awing and water temperature rising to set trout cruising and feeding.
There is an equally established idea that an east wind brings Ashless hours. Dr. Henshall, who has given the one logical explanation of the source of this theory that I have encountered, has stated that we have inherited this fishing dogma from England. When an east wind was blowing from the North Sea for several days, the water was cooled, particularly in the upper layers of a lake, the fish felt the lowering of the temperatures, they were not so hungry, and there was not good fishing.
A wind from that quarter could blow entirely across England, making this a general condition, developing the fixed rule. Such a wind off the Atlantic could affect waters near the eastern coast. But the east-wind-no-fishing theory, involving the temperature factor, certainly cannot hold across our broad country. A west wind from off a cold Pacific could have the same basic effect on a west-coast lake as the east wind off the North Sea has on English waters.
Brief as this discussion must be, it now should be clear that water temperature is one of the primary factors in determining where you fish for which species and with which assembly of tackle. The use of a thermometer involves no magic. It is a means of determining the facts concerning factors of habitat and habit.
Fishing by any rule-of-thumb or being guided by any weather instrument or moon phases, or by set hours of the day, or any other single indication of conditions, may bring success if other interlocking factors are all meshed in harmony with that one index. Old proverbs, that are so often based on some of the fundamentals, can be some guide.
But human intelligence, open-mindedness, a faculty of analysis, and basic knowledge of the habitat and habits of fish, all mixed with reasoning, will bring better catches than any other method. Skill in tackle handling alone will not reach the objective in full.
There is no chance we can spare space here to cover all of the elements that form the pattern to guide one to the best fishing. This discussion is rather a rough sketch of the trail to follow toward that end. I have discussed the temperature facts in some detail, because it is a fundamental factor, and because it is a good example of one environmental feature to be considered in any reasonably systematic approach to more productive angling.
More detailed directions in following this analytical approach may be found on other pages. In no one place will there be all the answers; no one lifetime of experience will gather together all the craft of sport fishing.
There are two primary thoughts I have tried to establish here. First, knowing the why of methods of fishing will guide toward knowing better how to fish. And I have tried to indicate how certain families of fishes, living under given habitat conditions, will prefer certain "families" of lures. With the "family" of lures established in coordination with the families of fish sought, one can follow the "links of the chain" that string out to give the whole pattern of which tackle to put together and where and how to use it.