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Fish Look, then See

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Fish Look, then See

By Lawrence Gunther

You’re probably wondering what you can learn about how fish use sight from someone who has none. Let’s just say that as North America’s only totally blind professional fisher, understanding how well fish see is a subject of particular interest. So read on, you may just find the following “opens your eyes” to an entirely new way of thinking about sight.

The saying that lure manufacturers are first and foremost interested in triggering “strikes” from fishers is only partially true. Legitimate bait manufacturers understand crafting baits capable of mimicking the profile, action and sound of live bait comes first. Once achieved, attention is then paid to developing the various colour schemes to replicate forage (match the hatch) found in marine ecosystems throughout the world. Sure, there are lures out there that are crude replicates of proven fish catching baits, but don’t blame the legitimate manufacturers if you end up buying all 16 colour options of the same lure, or select from the bargain bin a handful of lures with colours that have little resemblance to your local forage. And then there are the life-like artistic masterpieces for use in gin clear water with prices that weren’t meant for the faint of heart.
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It’s my experience that more often than not water clarity, dense underwater structure and light levels work against fish being able to fully appreciate the life-like paint schemes and detailing found on the more expensive artificial baits. However, when water is crystal clear, structure is limited and the light levels are conducive to sight, well presented expensive life-like baits can more than pay for themselves, as made evident by the popularity of hand-crafted swimbaits now being used on western reservoirs to catch monster bass. So when does fishing naturalistic replicas make sense?

Understanding the difference between a fish looking and seeing is crucial to selecting the right lure and presentation. Looking relates to the act of searching or questioning, whereas seeing speaks to comprehending or understanding. Under most conditions when working artificial baits you want fish to be looking, not seeing.

Properly selected and presented artificial baits should offer fish an illusion of what they typically eat. Glimpses of familiar movement, an appropriate size for the time of year, a profile that matches local forage, and colour that relates to local prey, in that order, are the key variables that prompt strikes. Seasoned fishers understand this, and select and present baits in ways that trigger reflex strikes from fish by provoking feelings such as surprise, greed, protection and aggression, all while attempting to deny fish the opportunity to carefully examine their bait up close and determine that, no, it’s not something they normally eat.

Like us, it’s the cone cells on retinas at the back of the eye that see fine details and subtle distinctions in colour under ideal light conditions. Rod cells, more commonly found around the periphery of the retina, function optimally under low light conditions. Rods also provide sight in shades of grey, and are ideal for detecting movement, which is why our peripheral vision seems almost hard-wired to our reflex responses. Thus, since reaction baits are designed to trigger reflexive strikes, it’s seldom necessary for artificial baits to 100% accurately replicate the movement, shape and colours of natural pray. However, as water clarity and light levels improve the need to more closely match the hatch gains importance.

The retina in certain fish species such as Walleye consist more of rods than cones, giving them the ability to detect movement under extreme low light conditions, but at the same time, reducing their ability to see colour. Hence, all the shocking chartreuse colours that Walleye often prefer at dawn and dusk, and the need to impart constant movement through jigging. These same rod receptors perform poorly in bright light though, similar to one losing their night vision temporarily after being blinded by a flashlight.

Walleye are one of several fish species that possess a mirror-like structure or tapetum at the back of the eye capable of generating a duplicate image on the retina. This mirroring process, while not offering perfect reproductions, does provide enhanced nocturnal vision. It’s also a feature that can be turned off under brighter light conditions, which explains why walleye are still capable of foraging during periods of ultra-bright light. The 2012 walleye season caught more than one fisher by surprise when steady walleye bites developed under the intense mid-day sun in super clear shallow water -- conditions which typified many of Ontario’s lakes that summer.

Conversely, the retinas of bass have a higher percentage of cones for seeing fine details and distinguishing colours, but which require bright light to function properly. This explains why bass prefer the upper water column and actively sight hunt throughout the day. It also explains why bass seem impossible to catch at night using the same artificial baits. Bass are rendered almost blind under extreme low-light conditions, causing them to closely associate to structure for both protection and to maintain proximity to familiar territory. It’s still possible to catch Bass at night; one just needs to exploit their other non-visual senses.

I’m not suggesting that colour is irrelevant. For example, if a school of previously fired-up fish stop slamming your bait, a change in colour might be all that’s needed to fool those smarter fish who figured out your previous bait was responsible for stressing out their chums. By regularly changing colour you can keep the hammer down on the feeding spree since fish don’t possess the cognitive capacity to associate a negative experience with a specific artificial bait to another of the same size and shape but which possesses subtle colour differences.

Water clarity, lighting levels and background contrast are all factors that, for me, dictate my colour choices more than anything else. Sure, including elements of colour of the local prey is probably a wise move, but because of restrictions water places on light penetration, and because fish see light in ways different than us, subtle variations in colour are not a high priority.

Colour also disappears under water. Water completely absorbs red light by the depth of 15 feet, orange by 25 feet, yellow by 35 feet, green by 60 feet and then purple, and violet and finally blue by 75 feet. In the absence of colour baits appear black. At the same time, ultraviolet light penetrates clear ocean water down to depths of 700 feet, which is why fish have adapted systems of using UV colour to signal to others of their species information such as readiness to breed.

Ultraviolet (UV) is a wavelength totally invisible to humans, and is responsible for sun burns. UV light does provide a full colour spectrum though, and more importantly, the ability to see UV light is widespread among both fresh and saltwater fish. Some lure manufacturers have now begun to introduce UV colour on their products.

To simplify the selection of artificial-type reaction baits, I sort them into three categories: high visibility, moderate visibility, and low visibility. High visibility is for those bright sunny days when the water is clear. This is when I want to use more natural colours, smaller profiles and generally faster presentations. The goal is to look realistic, but not to give fish sufficient time to actually see that the bait is artificial.

Under moderate visibility conditions, such as in semi-stained water, during overcast conditions or at sunrise or sunset, I’ll select baits for their ability to contrast. For example, when fishing top-water baits for bass during low light levels I’ll go with black. Most people think this makes no sense, but they are standing in a boat looking down into the dark water, and not looking from the fish’s perspective, up. Fish are far better at spotting a dark object moving against a gray background. Conversely, bass have a better chance at spotting a white bait if contrasted against a blue mid-day sky.

I often wonder why simple black or white frogs are so effective if used under the right contrasting conditions. Some may think it has to do with the thick cover hiding much of the actual frog from the Bass below, but this doesn’t explain why I catch my largest bass five to ten feet beyond where the cover stops. I think there’s a lesson here… but I too am not prepared to fish exclusively with either black or white baits. Where’s the fun in that? Just look into the fly boxes of any fly fisher to gain a real appreciation of just how far fishers go in collecting of baits with all manner of glorious colours.

In low visibility conditions colours that pop come into play. However, contrast is still a key variable, so I’m generally throwing body baits in contrasting shades with the colour of the area pray splashed on the sides. It’s under these conditions, heavily stained water and low light, when I slow things down, switch to a more predictable less erratic presentation style, and select larger baits that transmit lower frequency sounds to assist fish to use their non-visual senses to locate my bait. Cranks with single internal knockers or spinner baits with single large Colorado blades allow fish to track a bait’s progress, and then zero in for the kill using their peripheral sight. (More on this in my article, “Calling all Fish”.)

Unlike us, fish were never told by their parents to look, don’t touch. Like babies, fish explore their world by drawing on all their senses. So, pay just as much attention to factors such as taste, feel and scent. More information can be found about these fish senses in my article, “Count on Touch, Smell and Taste…”

I must admit, I miss being able to open up the old-style multi-tiered tackle box I had as a youth and be dazzled by the wide range of colours and shapes of artificial baits. I enjoyed being around lures so much, that in my early teens I worked myself into a job at my local sports store organizing the fishing tackle displays. By my early 20’s, I could no longer see baits in their packaging, and now in my 40’s, I no longer see light. I can still imagine colours though, and organize all my baits with miniature home-made braille labels attached to each lure with small safety pins. Plano waterproof storage trays allow me to organize around themes and species of fish, and their lightweight portability makes it possible to easily carry several trays in a shoulder bag, or an entire collection aboard one’s boat. All this to say, while being blind may have taken some of the fun out of choosing baits, it’s certainly made me much more objective.

I hope my reflections detailed herein assist others to apply similar rational thought to make sense of what can easily seem overwhelming and result in our desire to over-simplify things. You know. We are all guilty of it, reaching for the “confidence bait”. Lucky lures or luck at fishing have little to do with the sport, so move past what feels good and apply the logic that will help make every day on the water productive.
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Very informative. Thanks for sharing
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