By Jerry White
Spring is in the air. Ah, but it doesn't stay there. You probably noticed this by the daily dusting of pollen on your car. But spring isn't all bad. This is a great time to be an angler, provided you can get in tune with Mother Nature's life cycle. Predatory fish are fattening up in preparation for their breeding cycle, and they're fattening up on the hatchlings of the fish a few links down on the food chain. So, now is the time to think small, to catch big.
Length and Profile You fly anglers out there have been in tune with this idea for a long time. But, this method holds true for the rest of us as well. As we attempt to match the hatch with artificial offerings, it only stands to reason that these gifts should be small. I'm not used to tossing a 2" bait (such as a DOA Tiny Terror-Eyz), but when I look in to the water and that size bait is all I see, then it (or something like it) becomes the obvious choice.
The silhouette/profile should also be similar to the resident baitfish. Often, game fish ambush from below, and will target the shape and shadow. In many cases, lead head jigs mimic the profile of a small baitfish, and that allows you to cast something relatively small a long way.
Color also comes in to play, but not as much as length and profile. Normally, I'll go with lighter lures in clear water, and darker lures in stained water.
When I'm trying to match the hatch, my personal choice is to try to match my lure very closely to what's plentiful at the time. Right now in my region, the popular bait is scaled sardines (aka "pilchards" "green backs" "white bait"). They don't keep well in even the best live well system, so a lure is the best way to go, especially for the paddle angler. That lure for me, is the "MirroDine" by MirrOlure. This picture doesn't do the lure justice - in the water, it's a carbon copy.
Check out the local bait stores. If they have a good supply of a particular type of bait, chances are that the fish are actively feeding on that bait. If there's enough for the bait guys to round up, there's plenty in the water. The opposite can also be true. For example, if the bait shop is having a hard time getting shrimp, then there's probably not a lot of fish out there feeding primarily on shrimp - they're tuned in on some other sort of food source. I'm not saying they won't eat it, but they may think twice about it. Imagine getting geared up for a big July 4th celebration. BBQ, cole slaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, ribs, chicken, and burgers. But when you sit down to the table, you're served turkey, dressing, gravy, green bean casserole, and cranberry sauce. Sure, you'll eventually eat, but not with the same gusto as if those ribs were in play.
You can also read up on your local estuaries and learn what baits are available at certain times of the year. My required reading is "Fisherman's Coast" by Aaron J. Adams, Ph. D. I've mentioned this book before, but it's worth mentioning again. It breaks down the science of gulf coast inshore saltwater angling in a way that makes sense. Look around, and I'm sure you can find something similar for your home waters. Yes, in order to do well at catching, you need to think like a fish.
I stumbled across a great website for your research (This is where I found the picture of the scaled sardine above): www.fishbase.org. Lots of links and pictures … give it a click and see what you've been missing.
Smaller baits will make you alter your presentation as well. When sight fishing, the smaller lighter baits will land softer on the water, which will allow you to cast much closer to fish - that's good. But, with a smaller bait, you'll need to place it closer to the fish - that's a challenge. And, even though you have matched the hatch, you still need to make the lure act like a juvenile bait fish. If you don't get strikes, alter the retrieve. Fish aren't concerned that you can "walk the dog" like the pros on TV. Make it look like something they'll eat, and they'll eat it. Don't over think this.
Smaller baits have smaller hooks, which aren't as strong as what you're probably used to. Therefore, you won't be able to apply as much pressure. Small bait will be holding very close to cover, so expect to lose some lures. If you don't get hung up every now and then, you're not close enough to the structure.
OK, now that you've found out what lure to use, where do you go? Again, think like a fish. If you're a hatchling, where do you hide? If you're a game fish, where do you look for stray hatchlings? Same place ... structure, with current. Predatory fish will be close to structure or cover, waiting for tides or currents to sweep unsuspecting bait out in to the open. Your job is to mimic unfortunate bait. You (thinking like a bait fish) need to be seemingly oblivious to the dangers that lurk just outside the safety zone. So, place that lure barely out of the safety zone, and hang on. It's times like this when it's true that 90% of the fish are caught in 10% of the water. Fish congregate where there's plenty of food. Find the likely hiding places and related ambush points, you'll find fish.
Up until now, any of these tactics could be applied from a boat or from the bank. But in many cases, the bait fish will be close to structure in shallow water, doing all they can to escape ending up on the menu. Even though game fish will be attacking schools with what seems like reckless abandon, stealth will still be our advantage. Even large game fish have predators, so they too must be wary.
You're using a smaller bait, which means you'll also be hooking smaller "schoolie" sized fish. Since these smaller fish should be released in good shape, it's a good idea to crimp down the barbs on those hooks. Once the schooling predators have been located, it's not a bad idea to start tossing a slightly larger bait. This will discourage the smaller fish and hopefully entice a trophy (or keeper) fish to come out of hiding.
Enough of this talk … I'm going fishing.
See you out on the water...
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