For as long as the sport of fishing has existed, anglers have sought to better understand fish behavior. Numerous publications, studies and videos have been produced to help anglers identify the presentation most likely to make fish bite in a given situation.
Pro anglers or television hosts often speak with confidence about how a subtle change in lure color or speed made a big difference in their success. But considering the number of variables that contribute to a fish’s’ willingness to bite, can anyone say with certainty that a single change in presentation dramatically improved the fishing? Without direct observation of a fish’s response to different scenarios, it’s hard to say for sure.
Outside of a laboratory or aquarium environment, opportunities to directly watch how fish respond to various presentations are very rare.
But anglers can conduct their own behavioral studies once safe ice forms on Michigan's waterways.
Given their inclination to roam large shallow flats in search of food, Great Lakes perch just might be the best subjects for such a study.
A recent Saginaw Bay outing by local ice anglers Mike Curtiss, Scott Curtiss and Evan Nedwick provided an excellent example. Noisy quads, snowmobiles, power augers and anglers traveling on foot made perch very skittish and fishing poor. Schools of large perch could be seen but would only approach, take a halfhearted nip at the anglers’ offerings and then slowly swim off. Only occasionally could one be coaxed into biting.
But then something very interesting occurred.
A portion of a minnow used to tip the lure of one of the anglers tore free from the hook and settled to the bottom. A large perch swam directly to the piece of minnow and quickly engulfed it, completely ignoring the other lures suspended overhead nearby. In one of those rare “ah ha” moments, another angler quickly dropped his lure to the bottom where it kicked up a small cloud of sediment. Perch that had already started to swim away turned sharply toward the lure, noses down. One perch aggressively charged in and sucked the bait right off the lake bottom before any of the others could grab it.
Why these perch preferred a lure lying on the bottom is open to debate. The anglers also observed unusually large numbers of shad and it’s possible that the perch were taking advantage of the relatively easy meal provided by the dying or dead shad.
Regardless of why, one thing is certain; without the ability to directly observe their behavior, figuring out this pattern would have been very difficult. By adapting their presentations to directly observed behaviors, the anglers were able to catch a dozen nice perch on a day that started out poorly.
Lessons learned through direct observation can be used in situations where fish can’t be seen directly. In these instances fish behavior must be interpreted through the use of electronics. By paying close attention to fish that appear on the graph but don’t bite, anglers may recognize behaviors similar to those previously observed directly and alter their presentations accordingly.
Underwater viewing of perch behavior is made much easier through the use of a portable shanty which dramatically reduces ambient light, illuminating the underwater environment below. For those anglers who want to maximize mobility by not using a shanty, the same window into the aquatic world below can be achieved – albeit less comfortably - by lying face down on the ice and peering into the hole in the hopes of catching a glimpse of fish below.
If you can clearly see to the bottom but aren’t seeing fish, it’s probably time to move. Sometimes what you don’t see can be just as useful as what you do.