The Learning Curve

The intellectual ability to learn is well documented for humans as well as animals, progressing over time into what scientists refer to as learning curves. Recent studies have also revealed that fish are more intelligent than they appear. Seasoned guides who spend a majority of their lives on the water acknowledge that many game fish become smarter with age and adapt their behavior to what they’ve learned from the surrounding environments.


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Photo: Hobie Cat

If the learning curve for fish follows that of humans, the recognition and use of new information is sharpest when first encountered. As a fish is repeatedly presented an artificial lure it is not unlikely that the fish will eventually snub its nose at or flat out refuse the fake bait. This fact is validated when sight casting to wary shallow water predators where the first cast is the most important. Experienced anglers know secondary attempts are much more difficult to convert. This is especially true if the very first time the fish encountered a lure it was pierced with a hook, removed from the water, photographed and released. If this example is valid, then fish become conditioned to change their behavior based on fear as they learn to predict the adverse event in an attempt to avoid it.

While we will likely never know the complexities and sophistication of game fish and their intellectual ability to learn, it is clear the prizes we seek have become increasingly challenging to catch.

Anecdotal evidence from anglers and scientists suggests that recognizing the learned behavior and adapting to the situation can result in increased catches. Captain Rob Modys operates Soul Mate Charters in the Sanibel area and suspects that fish might be smarter than you think. “My experience indicates that fish may have the ability to recognize lures, and they certainly know when something doesn’t look right, smell right or move right. I’ve thrown a lot of stuff over the years and it seems that new, unfamiliar lures get tagged more often than well used lures.”

Captain Rob says it appears the fish look at the used lure and refuse it because of being stuck before and not wanting to get stuck again. On the other hand he says, “I’ve also found that when you go back and pull something out of the box that you haven’t fished in a very long while, fish tend to wolf it down. So, maybe they also forget.”

Fish have very small brains, but scientists remind us that fish have evolved with the brain size and functionality they need. It would seem, however, that the size of the brain has a direct correlation with how long they retain what they learn. So maybe they do forget, as Captain Rob suspects.

Captain Chris Myers is a professional guide on the Mosquito Lagoon where he operates Central Florida Sightfishing Charters. He agrees with Captain Rob and the apparent ability of fish to learn. “Fish that could easily be caught on a variety of lures many years ago now only want to eat live or cut baits,” says Captain Chris. “Some of these big red and black drum are over 10 years old and have been caught repeatedly. Smaller, juvenile fish eat almost any lure or fly, but the more experienced fish have learned to avoid them. There can be no other logical explanation. They have learned what is artificial and what is not. Clearly, they have gotten wiser with age.”

He also adds an observation related to boats and motors. “The fish definitely learn to react to the sound of motors. I have personally witnessed many occasions when seemingly relaxed fish suddenly blow out and head for deeper cover at the sound of a boat motor over a mile away. Prior to the large number of flat skiffs found on the water today there were more schools, more tails, and the fish were much less wary. They’ve evolved over the years and are conditioned to avoid boats and noises made by anglers.”

Captain Phil Chapman spent almost 37 years with the FWC as a fisheries biologist. Some of that time was spent studying largemouth bass at Tenoroc Fish Management Area near Lakeland, FL. Chapman reports that when a previously closed lake was opened to the public, the catch rate on the totally naive fish would be extremely high at first before eventually falling and then stabilizing at a considerably lower rate. If the lake was once again closed for a while, then opened to anglers, the catch rate would spike up to the previous high levels of success. “But it didn’t take long for the fish to learn again and the catch rate would fall accordingly,” says Captain Phil.

It seemed the fish forgot what they had learned and the bite was hot again after closing the lake for a while. He associates the behavior with fishing pressure.

Captain Phil also comments on pellet-fed fish in public and private lakes. Automated feeders are programmed to dispense pelletized fish food at designated intervals throughout the day and fish figure out the routine fairly quickly. When the feeders activate, fish are already there waiting for the easy meal. It is just like deer that show up at the sound of a wild game feeder going off.

Captain Phil is now focused on his passion for chasing tarpon on fly with Tarpon Feathers Charters. Describing the current tarpon fishery he says, “Every year the tarpon are harder to catch. We see plenty of fish, but they just don’t bite as frequently as in the past. Even the most skilled anglers can’t feed these fish like they once could.”

In his experience, the previously common daisy chains of tarpon are not seen like they used to and tarpon are much less prone to breaking the surface as in the past. “Nowadays, we are fishing singles, doubles, and small groups. For the most part they are staying down. Some of these fish live to be 50 or more years old, and I’ve got to believe they are catching on.”

Call it what you want, but there is a learning curve in there somewhere. It is a well-known fact among die-hard anglers that tarpon all but quit visiting the Homosassa area in the numbers they once used to. Some attribute the decrease in fish to the increased fishing pressure from the Florida Keys to Texas. “They can never relax. Anglers are constantly throwing a fly or jig in their face,” Captain Phil says. “Tarpon are probably realizing something is wrong here. They may have a brain the size of a pea, but they have to be putting it together. A tarpon doesn’t have to have a PhD to relate fishing pressure to danger and as pressure mounts, these fish are learning to avoid it.”

Add up the various observations of anglers and scientist and the conclusion seems clear. Fish are capable of learning new behavior based on their environment and surroundings. Anglers that recognize this ability and alter their presentation and approach accordingly are likely to catch more fish. Bass fishermen call it the second chance approach and often follow up a missed strike with a lure featuring a completely different allure and action.

Most anglers become frustrated when they miss a fish, but you need to take the completely different approach. The fish just attacked your offering but for some reason the hook didn’t stick. It is clear the fish is hungry, aggressive and willing to attack, so follow up your failed attempt with another cast, but don’t delay. If your sub-surface swimbait is crushed, try tossing a topwater and mimic an injured bait on the surface. You won’t always get a second chance, but if you are given the opportunity you need to be prepared to make it count.

While we will likely never know the complexities and sophistication of game fish and their intellectual ability to learn, it is clear the prizes we seek have become increasingly challenging to catch. While we are not exactly sure if they can identify your lures by make and model, there are a few things you can do to keep the strikes coming. By searching areas with less pressure, the game fish you encounter will have less connection of fear. It might be a little more troubling to reach areas with difficult access, but the rewards will be well worth the effort. Additionally, stealthy approaches like wading, kayaking and poling eliminate noises that fish have learned to recognize and avoid. Rather than fishing harder, it’s time you learn to fish smarter!