A few weeks I offered some comments about fishing after dark and observations of other anglers and their apparent fear of the dark, http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2012/07/watcha-sceered-of/ . I offered up my opinion that in many fishing situations after dark, I believe a person is more likely to catch fish and more big fish by turning off the lights.
In this post I want to offer up some more opinions based again on observations I have made of other anglers. In this case I am going to suggest that many of you are afraid of fishing big baits.
I am a believer in big baits = big fish. If you want to read another old blog post about optimal foraging theory, it will explain in greater detail why I believe in big baits for big fish, http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/blogs/2011/09/optimal-foraging-theory/ . I am NOT saying that big fish cannot be caught on small baits. We all know too many stories about the kid sitting on the dock fishing a little crappie jig or small minnow and catching a huge muskie or bass or ____________________ (fill in the blank). It happens, and under certain conditions small prey items may be the primary prey that even the largest predator fish are eating. But even then, I believe a person might be able to select for some of the largest fish in a population by fishing baits that are a bit larger. Big fish simply have higher energetic needs than smaller fish, and for that reason they tend to select larger prey items if those prey items are available. Sometimes you just have to make ‘em available.
All things being equal, if different sizes of prey are equally available, predator fish will tend to select for larger prey. Predator fish will try to eat prey items as large as they can swallow; the width of their “throat” is what limits the size of prey items they will try to consume. Research has shown that predator fish like walleyes, largemouth bass, pike, muskies and other species even prefer to eat prey items up to 40, and even 50% of their own body length, that works out to be about the size of prey item that they can fit down their throat.
Stop and think about that for a moment. . . .That means that Master-Angler, 28-inch walleye we would all like to catch might actually PREFER to eat prey items that are 11-12 inches long! How many of you fish baits that are that big? If you talk to a hard-core muskie angler, one who has been slinging big baits for muskies for some time, ask them about the big bass and walleyes they catch “incidentally” while throwing big muskie baits. It is true, those big predator fish eat big prey if they can find it, and they do it because they have to–they need the big payoff a large prey item provides, they need those extra calories. Now different species of fish have different food habits; for example species like bluegills and trout typically live on smaller prey items. However, even with those species the large fish in a population can have a slightly different diet where they select for larger prey items. They may be feeding on “bugs”, some type of aquatic insect, but the largest individuals may be most likely to eat larger bugs.
Last summer I got to fish several different reservoirs around Nebraska. All of those reservoirs had gizzard shad as the primary and most abundant prey fish, especially by late summer, and when those young-of-the-year (YOY) shad are available in our reservoirs, ALL of the predators are eating YOY shad. It is not at all unusual to find a variety of sizes of shad in our reservoirs by late summer; they can range in size from less than an inch to 6 or 8 inches. One thing I noticed on a couple of those reservoirs last summer was that the white bass were schooled up hammering small YOY shad; they were everywhere and not hard to catch, and a person could have a lot of fast action by targeting those white bass. At the same time, and you had to watch close to see it, if you wanted to catch a big wiper they were also feeding on YOY shad, but they were not preying on the small YOY shad. The bigger wipers were targeting the larger, 6-8-inch shad. By noticing that and tailoring baits and lures to imitate those larger shad, and fishing in areas where those larger shad were present, a person could still have a blast catching numbers of white bass, some of them a little bit bigger than the average, and in the process hook up with some big, 24-inch and larger wipers as a bonus! In some cases the wipers were there all the time, but they could not care less about the little shad nor the little baits that imitated those small shad.
As we enter the fall season, this is one of the best times of year to “go big or go home”. Fish feed heavily in the fall to prepare for the hard times of winter to come, and many of our spring-spawning species are already developing eggs and milt for next spring’s spawn. In addition, by now all of the small prey fish that were produced this year have had some time to grow and are larger than they were during the middle of summer. Therefore, fall is one of the best times of year to fish larger baits and lures to catch some of the biggest, fattest fish of the year. I am likely to “tackle-up” and fish larger baits any time of year, especially when I want to catch some big fish (which is all the time!), but I am especially conscious of fishing big baits for big fish during the fall.
As is true with most “rules” that are applied to fishing situations, there can be exceptions. I will tend to fish smaller, more natural baits in clear waters, but even then when there are low-light conditions (e.g. dusk, dawn, after dark, gloomy days) I will tend to fish large baits. Most waters in Nebraska have enough stain or color to the water that big baits should be an option, and in some situations, especially waters that are stained or even muddy, big baits will help the fish find your presentation.
I have gone out of my way NOT to mention the exact sizes of baits or lures because that all depends. A big bait for crappies might be relatively small for bass or walleyes. Let me put it this way, I am talking about sizes of baits and lures that most of you would look at and think “no way”. If you want a reference, think about my statement and illustration earlier about predator fish eating prey items up to 40 and even 50% of their body length; that should give you an idea of what is too large.
As I finish this post, I will tell you why many anglers are “scared” of fishing big baits. My buddy Doug Stange nailed it in his editorial column in one of this spring’s issues of In-Fisherman magazine: He put it this way, many anglers will tell you that they want to catch more big fish, we all do, but most are afraid they will sacrifice a lot of action, catching numbers of fish, by tackling up to bigger baits and lures–they are afraid of catching less fish. Admittedly, that might be the case in some situations, but I will also tell you that you will be surprised at the numbers of average-size and even small fish you will catch on big baits and lures; all sizes of fish want a big meal if they believe they can get it in their mouth. So, I dare you, super-size some of your favorite baits and lures and see what happens, exercise some patience and give them a chance. What you catch may be big enough to scare you.