Fishing on the Edge (Or How Not to Lose that Fish)

Once you get focused - keep it.

Thud! I can feel the sound more than I can hear it. It's that moment a fish with some size to him -- what we call a fish "with shoulders" -- grabs our bait or lure and stops it cold in its finny tracks. That moment, and that sound that somehow rings in your fingers is ultimately what keeps us out there. Sure, the pull is part of a complex dance of prey, predator, and angler -- but to me it will always be that thud that gets me. Call it a hit, a bite, a strike, or a tap, it's that "thud" that keeps me on the water.

RS669 oldsaltstimA fish with "shoulders" - the mighty Amberjack.

Losing Attention and Losing Fish

We pay a lot of attention to the questions people ask us. A question we saw not too long ago had to do with the fact that the fish had been biting like crazy one week and not at all this week.
I mentioned that an angler often learns more on the days they don't catch fish than on the days the bite's hotter than ever. The lessons one can learn on those off-days have everything to do with your level of awareness. That brings us back to the thud sound I love so much. Have you ever thought of the fish that you lost?

You lose fish one of three ways.

  1. You lose fish when they first hit the bait or lure. At the exact moment, in fact, that the thud happens. It thuds, and you stare into space because you were not paying attention. You lost the edge.
  2. The fish shakes the bait. If you think about when that happens the most, it often happens immediately after the thud. The fish hit the lure so hard or in such a way that they got partially, almost stuck. But you were not paying attention closely enough to set the hook and the fish slipped away.
  3. When you have lured the fish into striking the lure or bait, successfully fought him and got him to the boat, your idiotic motions in one way or another caused the bastard to get away.

The third loss is considered a professional catch-and-release, and short of having a photograph of the poor thing being hung by its neck until dead while your girlfriend figures out how to use your iPhone camera without messing up her fingernails, it counts in your book of incredible fishing feats. To be a 'Jeffe of fish' (Chief) it's the first two losses you have to worry about and they happen because you lost the edge.

Being Focused on the Fish; The Edge

We often mention edges, as in "fish love structure," so what appears to be a 12-inch change in the depth of a grass flat is, in fact, a bait-attracting edge. We talk about the edges of grass lines in deep water. We talk about the edge of a channel to find snapper. But the edge I am talking about here is the edge of you consciousness. If you stay on the edge, you will catch more fish.

Think about this scenario: It can happen far offshore or in the mangroves, but it's the same. You know a place where the fishing is hot, or likely to be. The tides are right, the wind is almost dead calm, and you have caught fish here before. You've double checked every knot, and you're about to toss your favorite bait into the perfect spot. When that lure hits the water, or that bait drops to that 80' rock ledge, you're ready. You're on the edge.

power pole micro anchor

When you first get to that spot, drop that bait or cast that first fly, the first few minutes you get there, you just know in your heart-of-hearts that you're gonna have a big fish grab that thing. If it does you don't miss it. You don't feel the thud and miss the fish. You just don't.

Photo 0This soft and almost magical image from our friend and local professional photographer Ken Salos felt perfect for this article. When you first get to a spot you are ready for that first strike like an eagle watching a rabbit. You have the edge. If you stay for an hour and go through two dozen shrimp fed to three-ounce fish or you've casted a fly or collection of lures eighty-three times, you lose your edge. Put yourself in the kind of stunning scenes like Ken's mind envisioned and professional education, experience, and high-value glass caught, and it gets easy to lose your focus.

That's the edge I'm talking about. That edge you have when you first get there or when you first start a hunt. Your optimism that keeps your senses primed. You are feeling that line with the tips of your fingers and the center of your awareness. You are just waiting for that hit. You know it is coming any minute. It's when you're at your best. And it's also when you are paying the most attention to the natural events happening around you. You feel the breeze, you smell the water, and you sense the fish is eager and hungry. You cannot see him, but you sure feel him.

Losing It

Now think about the days you get out there and things just don't happen. You put out a bait but nothing happens. The bait dies a slow death and you change it out. Or, if you are a lure-junkie, you do like my friend Mel Berman used to do and you change lures every two casts. You cast in one direction twice with a lure, and you change it and cast two feet to the right. It works if you love to change knots, but watching it is about as exciting as watching chrome rust. Chrome rusts very slow. For heaven's sake, I don't even have chrome bumpers on my car anymore. I would have to watch the plastic decay, and I have heard that our descendants will be finding those plastic water bottles in about 12,000 years and they will still have their green-compliant labels on them.

focusedThese guys are focused.

So what happens to us when the bait is dead and the lures have been knotted twice each? We get bored. We start thinking about the fact that we might have left the door to the kitchen cabinet open, or God-forbid left some sugar on the counter. You start thinking about the fact that the bottom of your boat looks like you have dragged it down the turnpike without a trailer underneath it from Miami to Tampa. You think about Interlux bottom paint and buying a face mask.

The Ten-Minute Rule

Let's first make a couple of assumptions. If I am right, there is some amount of time measured in minutes (whether 10 or 110) when your edge dulls. Your mind wanders. What's the answer?

A good place to look for a solution to the "lost-edge dilemma" is to watch professional guides and serious amateurs. If you fish with guys like Scott Moore or David Rieumont, you will notice something interesting. They use something that can best be described as a "Ten Minute Rule". The rule basically says that if something interesting doesn't happen in ten minutes, it's time to move to another spot. These professionals are determined to make the trip interesting and fun to the angler. Catching fish is an integral component of the deliverable. They've pre-planned the entire trip; there isn't going to be much of a chance for their anglers to think about the sugar on the counter. So the first thing you need to learn about keeping that edge on is to keep on the move.

Learn to deploy the 10 (or 30) minute plan on your own trips. If something doesn't happen, move to another spot. If you see something rolling, or notice a snook or three hanging around the pilings, you might give it some more time, but be ready to move. If there is a ton of bait but no action, move. If the pelicans are sitting in the trees as if they're having a bird conference, move. If they're high diving, they are eating, and you should hang around. There is an argument that it is good to move even if the fish are biting; it leaves some untouched and not taught to avoid Gulp! Baits or white baits dragging fluorocarbon leader from their noses. Sustainability is worth considering if you care about conserving our fisheries.

Catching More Fish with Your Eyes than Your Lures

Most importantly, keep your eyes open. Look for the flashes, watch for the shadows over the sandy holes. Watch the birds. Keep your ears open and listen to the water. Even try keeping your nose alert; some of us - me included - swear you can smell some species. Bluefish chasing and chomping baitfish smells like watermelon to me. They always did. Feel your skin; the moments before and after the tides shift, the air changes. The very feel of the world changes for a brief moment. Those feelings, smells and visuals happen in coordination with that hit. With that feed. It is connected, all of it, with us firmly in the mix. Learn to make those connections.

Remember to keep yourself on the edge. Watch the skies, smell the water, and just be. Your time on the water is like all the moments of your life. They're like a video tape. The frames that have played are gone and can't be changed. The ones that haven't played are completely out of your control. The script has been written by Someone else. The less time you spend thinking about the sugar and the more time you spend covering the water (or ground) you're on, the more fish you will catch and the more you will get out of this beloved sport. And that sugar is on the counter. There is not a damned thing you can do about it anyway.

Stay in the frame, and listen for the THUD.

The Online Fisherman Inc.

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