Tackle, Tactics and Experience

Paying Attention

This is essentially the article that appeared in Lure Angler magazine Spring 2009 issue

Since I got my first boat back in 2001 my bank-fishing trips have virtually ceased, Iíve little interest in wasting time walking about and scrambling up and down banks that I could spend fishing, and catches are so much better from the boat, even on a narrow stretch of shallow river where I can from the bank get a lure into every cubic foot of water I know that I will catch between 5 and 10 times as many fish from the boat, Iím not bragging, just stating a fact, fewer than 10 fish in the boat seems like a pretty poor day. I only blank if I go out in silly conditions Ė like water coloured so badly that you canít see an inch into the water, or snow melt, and Iíve learned not to try that too often.

So whatís the secret? Surely not just having a boat, a lot of other lure anglers who use boats do not catch as many fish. Do I have secret lures? No, Iíve no secret lures, Iím happy for people to look into my lure boxes. Perhaps Iím an especially gifted angler who knows exactly how to work each lure just right to trigger takes? Sadly not! There isnít really a secret at all. But there is a combination of many factors that do add up, and it doesnít come easy, the ďlure fishing is funĒ brigade should turn the page right now, Iím talking about putting in a lot of work. If youíre happy to get a jack or two now and then, enjoy the scenery and often say things like: ďItís not about catching fish, itís just getting out in the fresh air and a bit of banter with my matesĒ, then stop reading now. For me it is all about catching fish! Iím a country boy, I enjoy the countryside, I notice the birds singing, the shapes of the clouds, the way the sunlight plays upon on the water, all those free and wonderful things, and I like the company of good mates, but I could get all that without two boats, umpteen rods, so many lures Iíd be embarrassed to count them and the absurd amount of effort I put into this crazy sport. Catching fish is what makes all the input of time and money worthwhile. The work starts here.

Cropthorne Mill
The very photogenic Cropthorne Mill on a frosty November morn, a beautiful rural picture...

... but it's the fish that really count, like this 13lb February zander

WInter zander 13lb

Some things should be obvious to everyone: your line is sound, knots good, hooks sharp, your reel works etc. I say these things should be obvious, and they are, but Iíll mention one small extra point here and that is ďpeer reviewĒ, you may believe that your choice of rod, reel, line, wire, hooks etc is wonderful, and perhaps feel slighted if the rest of the lure angling world do not support your opinion. If you are catching several hundred fish every season with your non-mainstream choice then perhaps you have a secret edge, but there is a reason why the most successful anglers tend to be using similar tackle - the same braid say Ė and thatís because it works, not just at some theoretical level but out there on the water, day after day, fish after fish. Iíll return to ďpeer reviewĒ later but for now letís assume that everyoneís kit works at least as well as mine does.

One thing that good lure anglers do is pay very close attention to whatís happening. Everyone can tell you what lure they were using and what colour it was when they caught their fish. Some might well write a couple of thousand words justifying that lure and colour choice, and since magazines tend to pay for their articles so much per word then all these words make for a bigger cheque.

Obviously here Iím writing for fun, so I wonít be writing any fluff to pad it out and Iíll cut straight to the chase. The most important thing about the last fish you caught is simply where it was when it hit the lure. If you do not know where your lure is then you know nothing, you cannot repeat a successful retrieve or deliberately change to a different one. So when the fish hit how deep was your lure? How close was it to any underwater structure Ė weed, a drop-off, a sunken branch or a shoal of prey fish? Which side of that feature was it, either up-sun or down-sun, upstream or downstream? On the bank it is usually difficult and often impossible to answer most of these questions very accurately, but from a boat there is no excuse. Always know where your lure is. I might try a lot of lures in a place, but the ones that only get one cast and maybe half a retrieve before being changed are those that are not telling me where they are. There might be all sorts of reasons for this lack of feedback but too heavy a flow or too strong a wind are the usual culprits. Others might get a couple of retrieves while I try to get the speed right to match the depth that I want, but I will change quickly if it is too difficult, I have lots of lures on the boat and the information I get from using one leads me to try another, until I get the performance (depth and speed) that I require for the least input from me. If I know what the lure is doing then I can repeat it or change it as required, but itís never about the lure, and always about the depth and the speed.

One jolly Avon Sunday in October 2007 I shared over 30 pike including 9 doubles with 3 over 15lb. The key was getting the lure to run just 3ft down and quite quickly over water as deep as 15ft. Slower or deeper retrieves resulted in follows or bumps. I'm not interested in trying to theorise as to why such things happen, just to notice it and make the most of it.

I am lucky enough to be able to spend a lot of time fishing, but itís not really luck, I decided a long time ago that fishing was very high on my list of priorities so my life has been organised around it, choice of job and choice of partner are very important if you want a couple of fishing trips most weeks. I work a shift pattern that gives me lots of time and my wife understands that I have to go fishing a lot. I probably get to spend more time fishing most months than the vast majority of anglers do most years.

One of my favourite fishing books is Dick Pearsonís Muskies on the Shield which details the authorís long apprenticeship learning how to catch muskellunge on the shield lakes of Canada; although there is little of direct help to an angler seeking fish in British rivers there are some great lessons about keeping everything as simple as possible and realising what is important. ďTime on the waterĒ is a phrase that crops up again and again, and at first glance it is obvious that the more time you spend fishing the more fish you will catch and the more experience you will gain, but it is much more than that. Time on the water means you can eliminate the trivial or the once-only events and build some strong principles on which to base your approach.

I bet every one of us has a tale to tell about how one day a certain lure or more often a certain colour was essential to our success. Naturally I have a few of these tales myself, but if you try to base your whole approach on finding the right lure or colour for the day you will be wasting an awful lot of time. If you have paid attention though you should know that regardless of whatever magic lure or colour you used it was the place that mattered, the swim you were fishing, the angle of the cast, the depth the lure was running, the speed of the retrieve, the water clarity, the wind direction and speed, the cloud cover or sunshine, the time of day. Those important details will be consistent factors time after time, trip after trip, whilst youíll grow old trying to find the magic lure colour again without understanding where the fish are. I suppose I regularly fish around 25 miles of Severn and Avon, I am blessed with a very good memory so wherever I am on those 20 miles of river I know how deep the river is, I know where the nearest drop-off is, I know (to my cost) where the nearest sunken branch or snag is, and I know what species of fish I can expect to catch there. If I went fishing less often I could never build up this much information so would concentrate on a shorter length of river because that level of detailed knowledge makes catching fish a relatively simple process.

The vast majority of this information can only be obtained by fishing from a boat, watching the sonar screen and keeping your lures where you want them to be. To exploit that information you need certain skills, like boat control. Iíve written before that it takes a few seconds to understand that pushing the tiller one way sends the boat the other, after that I reckon about 300 hours of trolling should be enough to build a reasonable level of steering competence, it certainly took a lot of trips before I could master watching the sonar and other boat traffic without crashing fairly regularly into the margins. Now provided you are trying hard enough to get the lures into the right places (not just dragging them around) and if youíve spent that time on the same 5 miles of river you should have a few clues about the shape of the river bed and where you are catching the fish from. Itís just as important to note where you donít catch fish from.

Another obvious but sometimes overlooked point is that a lot of time spent lure fishing means a lot of casts; I take it for granted that I will land the lure exactly where I want it, cast after cast, usually from a moving boat. I've taken anglers out with all levels of experience and it is soon apparent to me how good they are at casting, or not. I guess a bank angler learns to drop the casts a little short of far-bank trees because hitting them can often means a lost lure, but in a boat you can always go and rescue them, so you aim closer and with enough practice you get closer. It can look ridiculously easy when Iím just flicking a spinnerbait or crankbait so that it brushes the willow twigs on its descent and lands with a gentle plop right on the money, and Iím doing it whilst constantly adjusting the boat position with the outboard. You donít always have to be that tight to the trees but in the swims where it matters a failure to do so means that instead of a nice photo of yourself holding a mid-double you have a story about a late-following fish that missed the lure with a huge splash. I have tried practice casting in the garden, Iím rubbish, only when Iím afloat do I get my sights working properly.

Thereís more to this of course, if I get hooked on a twig I will 19 times out of 20 be able to just ease the lure off without having to go in and spoil the swim, Iíve had boat partners remark on this and tell me how lucky I was, but after a few times they slowly realise it isnít luck. Iím careful about what bushes I get that close to: itís easy to slip off willow, rather less so on alder or hawthorn and almost invariable impossible from a bramble, Iím aware of this as I make the cast and either push my luck or back off accordingly. The same thing applies with different species of weed - some are easier to get the lure from than others. Itís just paying attention again.

Iím making the point here that it is not a level playing field, just because of this small piece of skill I will catch fish that less-experienced and less-able anglers will not, itís a fact.

So now Iíll go back to peer review. As mentioned above I do fish with anglers of very varying abilities, some guiding clients have been very limited. I often have to adjust what Iíd like to be doing to enable less-skilled anglers to catch fish, which can be challenging for me sometimes but is very satisfying when I match what they can do to some fish that will bite their lures. The smartest thing any lure angler can do is to fish with anglers who catch more fish than they do themselves, and pay attention to them, watch what they do, try to understand how they think, itís often better to just watch and learn rather than to simply fish alongside them, you might consider that if you go along to say an L.A.S. event, leave your rod at home and just watch.

Tim Kelly was hammering the zander while I struggled, I watched him carefully then changed my lure, the small jig ran at just the right depth and speed over the shallow sandbank where the fish were holding. When Tim is aboard I know I'm not going to catch them all. Fishing with the best anglers is the fastest way to improve.

As my experience has grown it has become more difficult to find boat partners with equivalent or superior skills to mine. Iím lucky in that whenever I need to sharpen my act Tim Kelly will come up and put me to the test, heís the best lure angler I get to fish with on any regular basis, and fishing with Michel Huigevoort either in Holland or at home will also push me very hard to stay on terms. Both of them are exceptional multi-species anglers, capable of switching from a Magnum Bulldawg to a 3g Salmo Hornet and fishing for whatever species offers the best chance of sport, equally adept at all lure disciplines and always pushing themselves to learn new techniques or develop their existing skills further. The more time I can spend with anglers of such calibre the better I will become, I know itís two-way process because they get plenty from me as well, itís great to see how some subtle aspect of their approach will change after theyíve been out with me, once theyíve spent time with it on their home waters, and they must feel equally pleased when they see Iíve done the same with something they have shown me. But do we agree about everything? Not one bit of it, a trip invariably means long ďdiscussionsĒ about differences in our approaches, but such discussions lead to progress as our understanding of each otherís approach develops.

Having mentioned the Dick Pearson book above I should discuss reading material. Youíre reading an article from Lure Angler, you probably read Pike & Predator, perhaps you get some American or European magazines as well, almost everyone reads articles online; there is certainly a lot of lure fishing information out there. Iím pretty hard-nosed now about anything I read, because I know whatís important about catching fish with lures, Iím not interested in flights of fancy about colours or the latest lures, once youíve filtered out that sort of stuff there is not a lot of helpful stuff about getting your lures near fish. I donít read much about fishing these days unless Iím looking for something technical on trolling or suchlike. Even if you do read everything at least try to be selective in what you believe or what you think is relevant. The number of forgotten lures in my garage is testament to how eager I have been to follow up every hint about lures that Iíve read over the last 19 years, until I realised that itís really not about lures, itís about fish, and itís about you. You can become very good at catching fish with lures - you just have to pay attention.