Things the Fish Taught Me

Everett Johnson
Things the Fish Taught Me

My best guess would be that good fisherman are not born–they have been educated. True enough, some are born with a penchant or maybe an affinity that translates somewhat to natural ability, but this can take us only so far. To achieve levels of skill that lend to becoming all-seasons pluggers, capable of finding fish and interpreting fish behavior, we must learn from the fish.

When conditions are favorable and they are feeding aggressively–signs everywhere–everybody comes home a hero. But what about the not-so-lucky days; do you pay attention in class? Here are a few lessons fish have taught me...

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Sure as God made little green apples, we should resist the urge to brag or offer assurance of "lots of bites" to fishing companions, lest the fish make us look a fool or worse, a liar.

I had been on a mid-bay reef in San Antonio Bay for several days and the bite was almost automatic, right on cue with the solunar. Fat trout that ran three pounds average, in about four foot depth where the shell tapered to sand and mud out deeper. Quite a few topwater bites, soft plastics popped sharply to just below the surface had been deadly on the drop, any light-colored plastic had been getting hammered.

So we parked a good ways off and fished carefully into "the spot" taking care not to crunch too much shell. Doing everything right, or at least we thought. No bites for 20 minutes, still I encouraged everybody to stay put and not crowd the fish that I was sure were there. Several more minutes and the guys lost interest and began drifting away.

Finally one of the guys hooked up on the other side of the reef and the others joined him, catching a few small trout. Quite puzzled and stubbornly alone, I worked further along the side of the reef that had been so good to me, eventually armpit deep. Throwing to even deeper water I switched to a 1/4 ounce jig with an Assassin Die Dapper; I love the way you can wag that bait deep and slow. Finally, a light tap and I set the hook on a nice speck.

That fish was followed by several and I called the guys back, explaining they had evidently moved deeper and the bite was very soft. No way did I expect them to be behaving this way during what is typically a solid feeding period. They all lined up with me and landed at least ten apiece. Most of the bites were never felt–the line simply became strangely heavy as we crawled baits across bottom.

Lesson learned Do not let the expectation of a sure bite dampen your spirits if it doesn't happen immediately. If the water conditions and bait presence says they should still be there, experiment with lure type and presentation to learn their mood. Even though we were fishing the solunar minor, the wind-driven current of the days prior was nearly nil that morning. I believe the fish responded by dropping deeper and going into a near-neutral feeding behavior. They'd still bite but you had to drag it right under their nose. Those unexpectedly finicky fish nearly made me a liar!

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I was guiding a group of fishermen and took them to a cove at the back of a Matagorda Island lake that fronts San Antonio Bay. It was late-February but not a cold morning; air and water were both near 60F. Here again we were under a new moon and I was hoping the moonrise minor at daybreak would favor us, especially with the mild conditions. I explained the lay of the land and gave instructions to hold the line and fish slowly toward the shore. Light wind pushing toward the bank was icing on the cake–in my mind, anyway.

I had been visiting this spot for several days with decent results, not a bite-a-minute place but nice trout to four pounds, with an occasional five. The mouth of a marsh slough formed a small grassy delta on the day's downwind side... what more could you ask for? On this day, though, I was scratching my head after 30 minutes of soggy mud-wading with nary a strike. Nothing to do but get back in the boat and implement Plan B.

The morning continued slowly, a fish here and another there, nothing special. We found a school of reds at Panther Point and made good sport of them. Winter schools have saved my bacon many a day.

Getting on toward 11:00 AM I suggested an early sandwich break, secretly considering another assault on our first spot despite the dismal showing at daybreak. As we rolled through the mouth of that lake and approached the same cove, the guy beside me at the console remarked that surely we weren't about to waste more time there. I did my best to assure him. "We'll give it a quick try; if they're not here we'll pull out quick–OK?"

We were taking advantage of slightly increased southeast and the approaching moon-over major. I couldn't help but hope the plentiful finger mullet I'd noticed earlier were about to become protein for the trout that had not fed on the minor. I set two guys up with Spook Jrs and sent them toward the mouth of the slough. I'd also given them Fatboys and some tails in case the floaters did not produce. I took the third guy and headed two hundred yards down the way, planning to fish back toward his buddies. We set up a long cast from the bank to avoid crowding the slightly-murky wind-stirred shoreline I always regard as the hot zone under such conditions. Everybody was under instruction to work the dark spots where traces of shoal grass remained.

Long story short, we walked into a fine mess of fish. The guy that thought I'd lost my mind caught a career-best seven pounder. They ate on top, they ate Fatboys, and they ate tails.

The lesson that day was that, despite conditions and what the charts and tables say, they eat when they're ready!

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This past Labor Day Pam and I hit the Dewberry Island shoreline that separates the Lagoon from Espiritu Santo. I'd heard that numbers of reds were hanging in the passes between the two bodies of water. All of these passes have soft mud on the Lagoon side and hard sand on the bayside that lies in bars and guts. We hit it early and as I killed the motor it was just light enough to see wakes of redfish meandering across the flat. Easy pickings!

The heavens opened with a brief downpour of raindrops the size of quarters as we exited the boat and the breeze fell to zero. The water slicked off as an intense light show began flashing menacingly and thunder rumbled out toward the gulf. Hmm... keep an eye on that.

We could see the fish but the weather had evidently overcome their appetite. We saw occasional flurries of bait exploding but guessed it might have been when a big red spooked a pod of mullet more than a sign of feeding. Several more brief downpours and the system in the gulf appeared to be making its way over Matagorda Island. Too much lightning!

We pulled the boat out and decided cleaning the garage was better than getting fried by a couple million volts. By 4:00 PM the garage was cleaned and the sky was clear. A nice SE breeze had kicked up. A check of the solunar said we might have a shot between 5:30 and 7:00. When we arrived at the ramp I noticed the tide had fallen at least 10 inches lower than it had been at daylight.

Pam wanted to try a different spot but I had a hunch the falling tide might still be pulling bait from the Lagoon to the bay, right where we'd struck out earlier. Against her protests I headed that way and decided to set up on the east side of the opening (the direction of the current) where the still-falling tide would be creating the greatest effect across its grassy point.

The wind had the bay front chopped up pretty good and the water was murkier than I'd hoped; I tried it anyway. Pam would have no part of it and headed across the shallow bar toward the Lagoon and better clarity. The She Dog I was certain would be irresistible drew zero attention. Finally, I gave up on the bay front and headed her way. Same deal as earlier, she'd found fish but–too clear or too whatever–still a no-go.

Prior lessons though had taught me that those redfish were too doggone concentrated to get skunked twice in the same day. We just needed to put the pieces together, so back out front we went.

We set up standing thigh deep in the third gut, angling our casts to run mostly in the shallower first and second guts. By now the SE wind had increased to make the water disappointingly sandier while waves smacked us in the small of our backs. She was throwing a dark-colored Assassin and I decided on the flash of a gold spoon.

Long about six o'clock all hell broke loose as the reds began hitting our lures almost every cast. We stood there catching and releasing for a good hour. Kept two for the grill.

Those redfish taught me for the umpteenth time, find the fish and don't let poor clarity rattle your confidence, they don't mind nearly as much as we do!

I still have a lot to learn, and easy-catching days aside, my best days on the water are when I pay attention to what the fish are trying to teach me.