Top Lessons Learned…Or Re-Learned

There is Much Left to Discover

I have been fishing one particular area of the Columbia River for over 20 years.  Thought I knew it like the back of my hand.  Thought I knew it better than anyone.  I had caught dozens of smallmouth over 5 pounds off of it.  Probably another 8-10 over 6lbs and even one over 8lbs.  I won’t bother with the 4lbers.

The thing about this lesson is that I’ve already learned it…many times.  I’ve preached it to many, or whoever will listen.  But every year, I find myself back at the drawing board so to speak.  Scratching my balding head over what I should have already known.

You see, unless you really take the time to intentionally map out the whole area, there are things you just won’t be aware of.  That’s fine, as long as it won’t eat at you later when you (or someone else) discovers what was right underneath your nose all along.

A new (to me) flat-point on an old area.

Now while I say I knew this area well, had I ever gone over all of it?  Actually looked at what the contours are like?  Nope.  I had made assumptions based on the other 95% of it I had covered.  I relied on my mapping chip to let me know if there was anything interesting over there.  So that kind of laziness had led me to a false sense of clarity and had put a cap on my learning and understanding.

You Can’t Step Into the Same River Twice

It’s a little unsettling that you can’t just go back to the same ‘ol spots and do just as well on them every year.  It’s not like all bodies of water don’t change somewhat every year, but rivers are by definition flowing, moving…changing.  I struggle to wrap my head around that at times.  I want to just go out and fish it like I did in ‘98.

I think the biggest factor is water clarity.  This can be affected by water levels, runoffs, man-made and natural events.  The point is that water clarity affects two critical areas:

  1. Sunlight penetration and therefore, weed growth.
  2. Feeding success and therefore areas of the water column that can and cannot be productive to feed in.

One day, maybe, I’ll embrace that rivers are all about change and not wander out feeling like the book has already been written on how to catch bass on them.

Bass Can and Do Get Conditioned

This past year solidified my belief that bass do learn.  Certain baits give off pretty strong visual, or auditory cues.  That makes them effective in certain situations.  It also makes them identifiable as something to avoid.  The bass fishing world is full of stories of “magic” baits that don’t work so good anymore.  The A-Rig is one example.  It worked so well, it was basically outlawed from some tournament circuits.  Now, nobody much cares if you use it or not.  Not that it doesn’t still work, it’s just not seen as cheating.

The thing about conditioning is that it works both ways.  I think that’s what has happened in some places with the spinnerbait.  The spinnerbait went from being many anglers favorite lure to one that was forgotten about by some of those same anglers.  With stories of how it just “didn’t work as well anymore”, anglers moved to the bladed jig (“Chatterbait”) and Swim Jigs.  My experiences this past year tell me that the pendulum is swinging back to the spinnerbait again.

I mean, what are we talking about here.  It’s a jig with something added to give it some sort of different movement on the retrieve.  The flavor (motion, frequency, color) of that movement is the cue that can either result in a strike or causes the bass to ignore it or swim away.

Billed Jig (a.k.a. – chatterbait)
Swim Jig

Of course, some baits are much more subtle, offering very subtle cues or movements that can be manipulated on each cast or even within the cast.  Baits that can do their own thing or do several subtle things…I’m thinking Senkos, Flukes, Tubes, and a whole variety of other soft plastics, especially drop-shot baits.  In the “hard bait” category, the jerk bait, glide baits, and especially the spy bait all fit the bill.

Soft plastics – like tubes – that don’t require much to make them “work” are less likely to condition bass
Spy Baits are more subtle than most hardbaits, offering fewer cues to condition bass.

The catch?  Well, the more subtle the cues, the more things like water clarity and targeting bass that are profiling certain prey and not just reacting come into play.

Zig When They Zag

It pays to do things differently.  Different from others and different from what you did last year.  Whether that means fishing an area that others have written off or forgotten about, or dusting off your favorite bait from the 90’s.  Or maybe it’s just a matter of learning a spot on a spot that you didn’t even know existed before.

So pay attention to where others are fishing and what they are using.  Not only to understand what works but also to understand what the bass are becoming conditioned to and what they might not have seen before.  That’s another spin on how to handle “dock talk”.

Which brings me to one of my other favorite quotes…

Education is not the fiLling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire

-William Butler yeats

You see, ol’ dogs are always being taught new tricks…it’s just a matter if they are still willing to learn them or not.

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