One theme I continually return to, and one that some may get tired of hearing me repeat, is that of predator/prey relationships. Often, when asked for the best place on a body of water to be fishing or the best bait to be using, I reply with a question: What are the fish eating? A basic understanding of predator/prey relationships is doubly important to anglers because we not only have to find the fish, we have to make them bite. Most of the year, with the exception of spawning seasons, the drive to find enough prey to eat and grow is what determines fish behavior; understand that and you will be on your way to catching more and bigger fish.
Predator/prey relationships are always on my mind, especially when I am on the water, but a lot of the time off the water too. The whole predator/prey drama fascinates me. Over the past few weeks I have noticed several interesting events. These were events where certain food items, some you would not expect, were suddenly present in abundance, and fish, sometimes species you would not expect, were taking advantage of that feast.
For example, this past month I blogged about the hatch of 17-year cicadas in eastern Nebraska deciduous forests, Arrrrgggghhhhh! The Buzzing in My Head. I hinted there that a variety of species of fish in waters under the billions of buzzing cicadas would be feeding on those noisy “bugs”. As I wandered around Bass Pro Shops in Council Bluffs last weekend I was pleasantly surprised to see Cicada fly patterns for sale!
If you want to see how to tie that pattern, the “sickada”, go here, Fly Fish Food–The Sickada: A Foam Cicada Fly Pattern.
Sometimes the feasts for fish are things you might not think about. My co-worker buddy Greg Wagner mentioned one in his blog earlier this year too, mulberries, Visit Mulberry Lane! Find a mulberry tree on the water’s edge and you likely will find some fish feeding underneath it. Channel catfish and common carp in particular love mulberries, but do not be surprised if some bluegills or other species are there taking advantage of the bounty as well.
Again, if you want to “match the hatch”, there are a variety of mulberry patterns that you can whip up at your fly-tying bench. For example:
Here is another interesting observation from another co-worker and buddy of mine, Tony Korth, at our Ak-Sar-Ben Aquarium.
A couple of evenings ago a neighbor asked us to come over and see something cool. From a tributary draining a neighbor’s field into a small creek that attaches to the Platte (which was much higher than normal) there were hundreds of shortnose gar, silver carp, bighead carp, and common carp feeding on the billions of mosquito larvae coming downstream from [the] field. You could actually see the many dark-colored larvae in the water and the fish just grazed with their mouths open taking advantage of this temporary bountiful food source. Something that probably happens all the time in nature but I had never seen before.
Here is the video of that.
If you keep your eyes, and ears, open, these kind of prey “explosions” happen all the time. Some others that can be important are damselflies and dragonflies, grasshoppers, and frogs. Any and all of those, and more, will key good fishing in the coming weeks even through the heat of the summer. Good fly anglers are keenly aware of “hatches” of a variety of aquatic insects and other “bugs” and know how those can be some of the best times to be on the water; that is true for a lot more than “flies”. For example, last summer I fished a pit and noted the abundance of frogs on one section of the lake. Guess where I caught all of my fish that evening?
If you fish any of our large, Nebraska reservoirs, you know that they host an incredible amount of baitfish during the summer, literally millions if not billions and trillions. I was on one of those reservoirs last week and the young-of-the-year (YOY) gizzard shad were just starting to appear. You better believe that from now through the end of the year, right through the winter, every predator fish in that reservoir, and many other Nebraska reservoirs, will be eating YOY shad. Years ago, up on the Missouri River in SoDakota, I had an experience where rafts of YOY gizzard shad were being pinned up against the shore by the river current. Every fish you can imagine in that river was up on the surface gulping mouthfuls of shad–gar, common carp, buffalo, drum, white bass, walleye, channel catfish, smallmouth bass, and more.
The downside is that the abundance of prey can make fishing tougher during the summer. Many Nebraska reservoirs will be so full of YOY shad, or in some cases, alewives, that fish spend very little time feeding–almost literally all they have to do is open their mouths and they will be full of baitfish. That is why fishing gets tougher during the heat of the summer. At those times fish can become selective and become so focused on preying upon that one abundant prey item that they do not even recognize other potential prey. You may have to “match the hatch” at those times to get bit. It usually is not critical that you exactly match the prey item, but you need to be close in size, shape, and behavior and usually it does not hurt to be close in color too.
With the super-abundance of prey, feeding periods often are short, they can be very intense, but may not last long. The best strategies at those times are to be on good spots at prime times when feeding is likely to occur. Those prime times are often low-light periods, early and late in the day, perhaps after dark, but be aware that environmental conditions can create feeding frenzies at other times too. The wind blows in Nebraska and that wind can set up currents in lakes and reservoirs that create ideal feeding conditions that predator fish will take advantage of. Be cautious, when lightning is in the air get off the water, but approaching thunderstorms also often result in feeding activity.
One challenge all anglers face is knowing what is happening below the surface. Tools like polarized sun-glasses and sonar units certainly do help interpret what the fish are doing, but do not overlook the most basic, most important skill–observation. Watch and listen for clues. Sometimes you may hear the bluegills sipping aquatic insects in beds of aquatic vegetation or you may see herons flying to a certain stretch of shoreline at a certain time each day (that little incident resulted in a hot wiper bite for my son and I one time).
There are times on the water when you cannot seem to buy a fish, we all have them, but the fish are still feeding, still eating–they have to or else they die. I will never tell you that there are any “magic” baits or lures, none of them catch fish all the time. But, it can be almost like magic when you figure out what the predator/prey relationship is at the moment. At the very least that can put you in the right location at the right time. Once you are on actively-feeding fish, you may have to “match the hatch”, but then again all you may have to do is get in the neighborhood of active fish and put something in front of their face–“FISH ON”!
Nebraska waters are very productive and “feasts” are occurring all the time. Be aware of what is happening and you can take advantage of it.