The fickle nature of our quarry is one of the greatest mysteries of angling. How is it that some fish remain uncaught for years, while others hit the net more often than Mo Salah?
Are some individuals smarter than others? And can they really learn from fishing pressure? Our experts offer some answers.
Nature or nurture?
Although anglers might imagine that fish vary in intelligence, just like us, the truth is quite different.
“It’s more about the habitats and feeding habits of individual fish,” says Dr Paul Garner.
“The environments they live in and the way they feed has a much bigger impact,” he asserts.
“The amount of natural food is key, along with what the fish are feeding on. Take chub or barbel feeding on tiny nymphs in a river, for example. They can be very hard to catch on large baits.”
Carp have provided the most evidence on recaptures, partly because large fish tend to be known and easily identified.
However, their propensity to be recaptured can hinge on many factors beyond mere cunning.
“Fish definitely have memory maps, although this is very little studied beyond angling records,” says Paul. “Fishing pressure can certainly make life harder, and fish will recognise danger from past experience. For example, one American study on pike revealed that they would rarely be caught twice on the same lure, although they would still accept livebaits.”
Brain or physique?
Another little-discussed factor in how often fish are caught is their physical character. While fish like roach and dace can blow out a suspicious bait in a split-second, for example, the barbel’s combination of poor eyesight and large, overslung mouth seem to make it a sucker for a bolt rig time and again! Indeed, every variety of fish is unique – and variations are common even in the same species.
“Tench and crucians sometimes hardly move at all when they’re sucking in and blowing out baits,” says Paul. “Unless your set-up is spot on, you’d never know they were there.”
Top all-rounder and fishery owner Rich Wilby had similar thoughts. “It’s not all about fish being “muggy”, but more that they graze very differently,” he says. “Carp are all shapes and sizes. Deep-bodied fish can feed almost upright and slowly, whereas longer, leaner fish will graze faster, like a lawnmower!”
Individual fish definitely have different habits, even within the same water, agrees Rich.
“I have carp in a very rich lake that won’t often look at bait, whereas others in the same lake love bait!” he recounts.
“I think a proportion of fish spend most of the season just eating snails, fry and caddis, and it’s only when conditions are perfect and they’re feeding hard that they’ll slip up to a boilie.”
Catching pressured fish?
Whichever conclusions you draw, perhaps the golden question is how we tackle those tricky fish that have been caught before. Paul Garner’s response is simple – while fish might be creatures of habit, we don’t have to be!
“Angling can become quite stereotyped, but fish learn from us as well as nature,” he says. “If someone does something that works, it’s very tempting to copy it.
“Quite often, though, it’s the angler who does something totally different who’s likely to be rewarded.”
REPEAT OFFENDERS: WHICH SPECIES ARE HARDEST TO RECAPTURE?
Barbel seem among the easiest candidates to fool again and again. Is it their physique, or are they simply easily conditioned by supplies of free bait? We know at least one big double-figure fish from the Trent sent to us via so many captors it could probably have won its own Drennan Cup!
Carp show great variation in behaviour, with individual fish identified as ‘mugs’ or almost uncatchable. The sport’s history is littered with big fish that have made multiple anglers happy, however. ‘Black Eye’, a 50-pounder at Chad Lakes, was seen almost weekly at one time. Wold Farm’s big resident ghost carp, ‘Casper’, was another famous fish to get caught eerily often.
Chub are often regarded as wily. Their longevity and wide natural diet can explain some of this. Larger specimens doget recaptured, however, with the River Lea’s British record fish getting fooled several times in its life.
Pike are often thought of as daft and brittle. However, if anglers are careful, fish will often be caught again. Nor are they always easy where angling pressure is high or prey abundant. The near British record Wykeham Lakes pike was caught around six times, which sounds a lot until you factor in dozens of anglers over several years! With so many free trout to eat, it was no pushover.
Eels are notoriously hard to recapture, in spite of the great age they can live to. Some species experts claim most of the really big ones are only ever caught once.