Saturday, November 9, 2013

The mind of the fisherman

Do you believe fish bite in the rain? Lonnie Boyer photo (I think)
I've been thinking a lot about the knowledge and experience I have gained over the 53 years that my family has operated Bow Narrows Camp. There are insights into fishing and fishermen that can only be realized by people in our profession. I thought I'd ruminate on a couple of these in the next few blogs.
I am sometimes asked what special talents a fishing/hunting camp operator needs. This is usually followed by, "I guess you need to be a jack-of-all-trades."
That is true but if you could train for this business, I would suggest that the first thing you do is get a PhD in psychology. It might help you deal with the frustration and bewilderment you are going to encounter.
A question I am asked on virtually every boat trip from the dock out to camp is: "So, where are they catching fish?"  My answer is usually specific and thorough. It might go like this:
"We're going to drive right past the very best spot and I'll tell you when we get there." When we do, "See that fallen tree in the water? Troll from there up to that point in 12 feet of water with spinners and worms. The colours working the best are orange in the morning and blue in the afternoon. The walleyes have been stacked in there for days now. The guys who left camp this morning told me you cannot get your spinner to the bottom in this spot without hooking a walleye. They are averaging 22-26 inches in length. The fish are going to be there until the wind changes so go there as soon as you get your license at camp."
If you think the angler will then go fish in this spot then you have never been a fishing camp operator.
There is no doubt where this fishermen is going to head as soon as he gets his boat -- the last place he caught fish when he was at camp, even if he hasn't been here in 20 years. He is going to work that place over thoroughly, even though the wind or other conditions might be wrong. In fact, he might spend several days there before coming to me mid-week and asking, "Where was that place you told us about on the boat ride into camp?"
Another question: "What are the fish biting on?"
Here's a clip-and-save bit of information: the fish always bite on the same thing! In May, June, July and August the walleyes bite on worms and leeches. In September, they bite on minnows. It never changes but it also doesn't make any difference. After I explain the above-mentioned preferences, the angler frequently adds anyway, "You know, I always fish with minnows!" So he could have stated from the outset, "I don't care what the fish are biting on, I'm going to fish with minnows."
The same thing goes with lures. Anglers have their pet lures and they are going to stick with these come hell or high water. But that doesn't stop them from asking me what I consider the best lures are for each species. Fifteen minutes into my explanation they finally 'fess up. "I find I always do best by trolling big Rapalas."
There are red flags buried in anglers' questions. For instance, "Have you ever used the walleye gullet for bait?" This means this person is only going to use walleye gullets (a v-shaped strip of flesh between the jawbone and the throat.) Do they work? EVERYTHING works, at least a bit. They don't work as well as worms or leeches but if that is the only way you fish, you know what? That is how you are going to catch every fish, thereby cementing your belief that walleye gullets are the secret lure.
Nowhere in life is it more evident that "As you believe, so shall you see," as in the sport of fishing.
This tendency is absolutely blinding.
Here is just one example: "As the water warms up, pike and walleye move to deep water." This is utter nonsense. On Red Lake, as the water warms up, the fish are more and more active. The minnows are in the shallows; so, that's where the fish are as well. They move to deeper water only when it cools off and the minnows move deeper, hunting warmer water. Most people just won't accept this explanation.
"When is the best time of day to catch walleye?" I should answer this with, "When do YOU think is the best time?" Because nothing I say is going to change this questioner's already-cemented belief. Somewhere, sometime, the human race was taught that walleye only bite in the morning and the evening. There is no point now in me telling them that probably the best time of day to catch them is from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. If I do they just look at each other with "Boy, is this guy full of it" expressions.
Then there's the big-lure, big-fish myth. This is the granddaddy of entrenched beliefs. This blog and all of our promotional literature encourages anglers to use small-to-medium sized lures for northern pike. Why? Because that is what works best. If you are now thinking, "Yeah, but I want to catch really big fish" then your blindspot is showing. I haven't spent all this time promoting smaller lures just to help you catch little fish.
Oh well, I remind myself several times a summer, I don't care how many fish you catch, only that you are having a good time. It's the experience that is important, not numbers. That's a fact. Take myself: I always prefer fishing without bait, even if it means catching fewer fish. I just love the simplicity. I find bait-fishing to be stressful.


Doug Billings said...

Every summer, I bring way too much “stuff” to catch fish at Red Lake. I know better, but I keep bringing it all anyway. In reality, all I really need is one medium box full of assorted sizes and colors of Mepps, spoons, and plastic grubs. In fact, it could be almost anything. It seems that the fish are going to hit whatever is offered.

Like you, Dan, I don’t use live bait. I find it expensive and way too much work. I will admit though, that I and my partners do not catch the quantity of fish our fellow anglers are bringing in on a daily basis; not even close. When I sit and listen to the exploits of the others during a meal in your dining hall, I would surmise that some tables have caught more fish by lunch on any given day than my table catches all week.

I have never claimed to be an expert with rod and reel. I enjoy fishing; it’s as simple as that. I have tried to research and study strategies and techniques, but I find it too overwhelming keeping up with it all. I enjoy hearing the tales of others, and I must admit that sometimes I go out and try to emulate them. What I have learned from it all is no matter where I go, no matter what I choose, no matter what time of the day I go, I do catch fish. That is one of the wonderful things about fishing the lakes of Canada, even a novice can haul in something to be proud of.

I will never forget my first fishing trip to Canada. It was ten years ago at a camp southeast of Dryden. I had a blast. There were three of us and each of us was using different baits or lures. I started off using minnows like our leader, only to find it too much work. Eventually, I gave up on the bait fishing and began tying on assorted artificial lures. By mid-week, I made the comment, “I’ll bet I could stick an old chewed up wad of gum on a shiny hook and still catch these fish!” It didn’t seem to matter what we threw at them; we caught fish. To this day, I am not sure if it really does matter what is offered. I haven’t figured out if they are striking because they are hungry or are striking because they are pissed off that something different is swimming through their territory.

I started to make my own lures a few years ago, and I have really had a lot of fun trying my luck with my creations. It is true that I will go long stretches with no action, but so far, I have never been skunked and gone with no fish available for lunch.

What I have discovered is the beauty of the shoreline. Instead of constantly being devoted to another “fish on,” I am barraged with a nonstop glorious display of nature. I find the experience of fishing at Red Lake to be quite therapeutic for body, mind, and soul. The act of fishing, to me anyway, is nothing more than an excuse to be placed into that position.

So Dan, I will still find myself asking for your advice on where to catch fish. I may or may not do or go to where you suggest. Please don’t be offended. It just seems the natural thing to do at fish camp, ask where to go and what to use. I guess it helps me figure out if I am getting better with the process of fishing; comparing the expert with my train of thought.

What I have discovered is that no matter where I go, I am in Heaven for a week—catching fish or not!

Dan Baughman said...

No, I won't be offended. I didn't mean I expect everyone to follow my advice, just that it's intriguing why people do the things they do.
The only time the issue comes up at all is when someone complains they are not catching fish as expected.
I try to find out what the problem could be.
Where have you been fishing? "Everywhere!"
What have you been fishing with?
What have you been catching?
It sounds at first like there wouldn't be much I could tell such people. After all, according to them, they have fished every location, used every lure and got absolutely nothing.
First of all, those statements just cannot be true. As you pointed out, Doug, no matter where you fish and what you are using you are going to catch SOMETHING.
After talking a bit I learn from such anglers that they have in fact been catching fish, just not as many or big as they would like. So I offer some subtle suggestions such as fishing a little deeper or shallower, depending on whatever the current weather conditions happen to be. A lot of times they are just fishing areas too quickly, looking for the magic spot. Many times I find out they are using steel leaders for walleyes, a no-no, or -- guess what? -- four-inch Dardevles because that is what worked on some other lake. Usually they then modify their fishing techniques, at least a little, and start catching fish just like everyone else.
It's funny though how some of them will "stick to their guns" and not change. It's cool as long as they are having fun anyway. It's irritating, however, when they complain.
We once had a couple who insisted on fishing for walleye with June-bug spinners, with 60-pound steel leaders, and baited with pike belly because that is what once worked for them on some isolated river in Canada's Arctic.
I cannot imagine a worse outfit to catch walleye on Red Lake and in fact, they never got a single one.
I offered to give them Little Joe spinners, live bait, sinkers -- the whole nine yards. They refused with the comment that "If there are really walleyes here, we know this outfit will catch them."
It is hard for me to understand.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that I have asked the very same questions at least once in the years that I have been coming to Bow Narrows. After all, it seems like the natural thing to do. Have I taken your advice? Sure I have. Did I catch fish? Sure I did. If you don't catch fish in Red Lake, you probably never put a lure or bait into the water.
I've fished in other places and have asked the same questions. If for some reason I didn't catch fish or very few the reply I got was..."you should have been here last week"....or..."You should have gone out earlier".
Fishing in Red Lake out of Bow Narrows camp is always a pleasure. As an angler, you are going to catch fish. Even if you don't, the scenery, wildlife, and the peacefulness makes the trip worth it.
I enjoy being at camp and going out and seeing the wildlife. If I catch fish, that's a bonus. Or, I should say when I catch fish!!!
Dave M.