Friday 1 April 2011

Predatory instincts of the shoal?

Some time ago I read the following account of a sea bass fishing trip in Tokyo Bay:
Often, when one or two bass switch on and start striking, the entire schools’ predatory instincts will activate, causing them to go into a frenzy. This is what Japanese call iregui (入れ食い) – a situation where an angler can get a bite on almost every cast. As I’m getting ready to release my sea bass, everyone else on the boat nearly simultaneously hooks up. From then on, we scramble to get our lures back in the water after boating each fish, because we know they’ll calm down and skate out of town if we don’t keep casting.
It struck me how often this has happened to me when kayak fishing for sea bass.  For several years now, I've been telling folk that the hardest thing to do when fishing for sea bass is to find the fish.  Once you've found a shoal of them about 90% of your work is already done!

And I've tested this, by drifting over a productive shoal several times, and for each drift switching to a new lure.  Despite some costing a fortune, others being old or cheap or weird colours, the choice of lure didn't seem to make a difference as practically every lure caught.  The only ones that failed to catch fish were the soft plastics, such as Megabass Xlayers.  Every hard plastic lure I tried caught fish.  Which left me thinking that bass were in fact, very easy to catch once you had found them and that soft plastics just weren't great fish catchers.

Both assumptions, as you might guess, that have turned out to be wrong!  The funny thing is that, time after time just as the quote above states, the shoal of fish that was so easy to catch seems to just "disappear" after a while. 

I had always put this down to the shoal moving on from whatever structure or feature was holding them in that place at that point in the tide.  I have tried many, many times to find out where they go.  It is particularly vexing to have fish biting every cast one minute, and to go to nothing the next.  I tried various strategies, such as carefully going further out, coming closer in, going up tide or down tide of where the shoal had been, fanning out in a circle and so on.  But once they stop biting the shoal just seems to vanish, and generally you've got a wait on your hands until you can find them again.

But maybe not.  Maybe my whole diagnosis of what is happening is flawed.  If the quote above is correct, it suggests that I provoked the shoal into feeding!  And that once the predatory instinct of the shoal kicks in, every fish is expecting and looking for food.  Which is why in such cases, it's not uncommon to have several fish trying to attack your lure, and even get hooked: 
Two sea bass in the process of wrecking a Megabass Zonk 120 Gataride!
So, which of you guys was first?
Mmm, that diving vane isn't supposed to point upwards!
Now it would be tempting to think that two fish attacking one lure is down to the incredible fish-catching abilities of that particular lure.  Zonks are good plugs, but they're not that good.  However, what I do think is that a strongly vibrating plug such as a Zonk might be just the kind of lure that sends out loud and clear signals that are picked up by the whole shoal, so that if one fish attacks it, giving off feeding signals, then the other bass are also spurred into attacking it.  I have had the same thing with lures like the Maria Chase BW and even the humble X-Rap, so the phenomena is not linked to a particular lure.  But this might explain why I blanked on those drifts I tried with the soft plastics.  They just weren't sending the right vibrations out that the shoal had tuned into and was expecting to find.

Well OK, even if this is one part of the puzzle solved, it doesn't solve the hardest part.  Why do the fish suddenly stop?  What causes that collective predatory instinct of the shoal to switch off?  Do the fish get spooked by not finding the bait ball that all those vibrations and feeding activity suggested?  Maybe they just get increasingly uneasy at their brethren getting pulled from the shoal?

It seems that rather than moving off onto new ground, the fish are more likely to be still there but have simply stopped their feeding frenzy.  When predatory fish ball bait fish up they generally keep attacking them until there is literally nothing left but thousands of tiny, glittering scales in the water.  So the feeding comes to a natural close.  But if an angler has provoked the shoal into feeding mode, then it's not hard to imagine that the fish soon realise that it's a false alarm and start to ignore the signals that caused the initial "start feeding!" trigger to fire.

The question is what can we do as anglers to get the feeding mode going again?  Or should we graciously accept defeat and move into another area where we might find a new shoal that we can repeat the same trick on?  I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

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