It’s been said that fish have a three-second memory. Wrong! Many years ago I had a pet largemouth bass in an aquarium. He was my pal, as well as my teacher. I learned a lot about fish behavior from watching him and he gave me a special respect for a fish’s intelligence.
His diet consisted of minnows from the bait shop. If I came home without minnows, the bass would see me walk in the room and not care the slightest bit. But if I came home carrying a plastic minnow bag, he’d get very excited and press his face right up against the glass. That’s intelligence my friends. That’s memory. Now, some might say “well it’s just conditioning.” Precisely! And conditioning depends upon memory; which depends upon possessing some form of sophisticated intelligence.
Fishermen have long known that fish have this intelligence. We’ve all heard about how a particular lake’s fish population became “educated” to certain baits. Musky anglers are especially keen to give Esox credit for being clever and remembering every bucktail, jerkbait or topwater that ever duped him - and being capable of “not falling for that again.”
It’s a fact that tackle manufacturers always use “fresh” fish when testing lures, scents, colors and retrieves. Their experience proves that after a fish realizes a lure isn’t edible, they won’t strike it again for a while. The fish associate the bait with something negative and “learn” to avoid that negative experience in the future.
Generous research has been conducted on fish intelligence as it relates to negative experiences and positive conditioning. In one experiment I read about online, fish “learned” to swim over to a red disc in the water as opposed to a brown disc. By swimming to red, the fish were rewarded with food; while swimming to brown provided no reward. They quickly learned by positive/negative reinforcements and proved that colors can be stored in the memory banks.
Dr. Kevin Warburton, adjunct researcher with Charles Sturt University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society, has called the notion of a fish’s three-second memory “rubbish.”
Warburton, who has studied fish behavior for years says, “Fish can remember prey types for months; they can learn to avoid predators after being attacked once; they retain memories for several months; and carp that have been caught by fishers avoid hooks for at least a year.” I’ve heard that carp are pretty smart creatures.
Dr. Warburton added, “Fish can recognize other individuals and modify their own behavior after observing interactions between other individuals. For example Siamese fighting fish will attack other members of the same species more aggressively if they’ve seen them lose contests with other fighters.” That’s amazing.
So what does this mean for fishing? Well, other than providing some interesting topics for discussions with your friends, I think this information can be used to help us all catch more fish. If we accept that fish have a memory and can act in an intelligent manner, then our approach to fishing will change. We will fish smarter if we give fish credit for being smart.
For example, let’s say you’re fishing along a weed edge for largemouth bass with a weedless rubber frog. A bass blows up on the bait and you set the hook. He’s on! For a second anyway, but then gets off.
As a smart human, you can deduce that the fish is at least somewhat hungry to have struck the fake frog (either that, or he just likes to beat up frogs). As a fisherman who gives the bass credit for having a memory, you can also deduce that being hooked (if only for a second) was a negative experience for the bass and not something that he wishes to repeat.
So, the smart fisherman will not throw the frog back into the fish’s environment to try and catch that same fish. No, he will choose a fresh bait that the bass has not seen and has no negative association with - and then present that bait to the fish in a realistic manner. Maybe he’ll bite again and maybe he won’t, but there’s nothing wrong with tipping the odds in your favor by acknowledging that even a dumb fish can be capable of outsmarting a fisherman.
Babe Winkelman hosts “Good Fishing” and “Outdoor Secrets,” the most-watched fishing and hunting programs on television. Tune in on NBC Sports Network, Destination America, Velocity, Time Warner Sports Texas & New York and many local broadcast channels. Visit Winkelman.com for air times and more information.