Get Past Fishing Groupthink to Boost Catch Rates

Fishing is an activity based on patterns. Through experience, expectations are created that fish will exhibit behaviors under certain conditions or in specific situations. Looking for themes is helpful, but it’s important to keep an open mind. Otherwise, one can get stuck in a rut due to assumptions and slip into angling groupthink, which is believing in a handful of well-worn fishing sayings that don’t always hold true.

Instead, anglers should critically analyze each day as a unique event, a fishing riddle to be solved. Here are some common groupthink pitfalls to avoid.

Fish aren’t biting; they must be inactive
This is a phrase often used when fish are sluggish and unresponsive to lures. I’ve witnessed this behavior with an underwater camera, seeing walleyes that are belly-to-bottom-completely-ignore baits. While it’s true that fish will be inactive at times, it doesn’t mean they can’t be caught.

One way to catch inactive fish is with finesse tactics. Keeping quiet, presenting small, natural baits on light line, and using live bait—these are the ingredients of delicate techniques often required to coax a bite from a fussy fish.

Another approach is using a fast-moving presentation to trigger a reaction strike. This is the opposite of finesse. Instead of giving fish ample time to stare and sniff a lure, it’s moved quickly through their strike zone, flashing, rattling and crashing along the way. This method involves covering a lot of water and making hundreds of casts to intercept fish that are willing to bite when most others are lock-jawed.

Another benefit of fishing fast is that it can reveal when fish are more active than initially assumed, such as when they’re willing to eat but have a confined strike zone. River walleyes are a good example of this phenomenon. During off-peak times, like midday, walleyes hiding in the slack water of a current seam or behind boulders may not chase horizontally moving lures pulled through the area. Yet, dissect the same stretch by vertically jigging a spoon, blade bait, or bucktail jig, and you’ll hook more fish. Using aggressive, straight-down tactics such as this has saved me on many outings, and not just for walleyes, when I initially thought fish were inactive and unwilling to bite.

When applying the above approaches for inactive fish, it’s often necessary to experiment with different baits and tactics. Fish can be particular. Retie often until you crack the code.

The lake is ‘fished out’
I hear this phrase regularly when talking with other anglers; it’s one best taken with a grain of salt. There are many reasons a water system may be labeled as “fished out.” Overfishing is one, but what is frequently the case is that the habitat has changed.

While the long process of a lake or a river aging is an established phenomenon, there are also more immediate changes occurring. Some of these are natural, such as the high-low rhythm of forage populations over several years, while human hands influence others. Increased and prolonged fertilizer runoff can cause a water system’s vegetation to boom and alter fish habitat, giving certain species the upper hand within the altered ecosystem. Evasive species can also disrupt the balance of a lake, forcing native inhabitants to adjust or be squeezed out.

Factors such as the above can alter fish behavior and their preferred location. Spots that used to be good can become void of fish. Anglers must adjust and discover new areas.

Before buying into “fished out” groupthink, consider how habitat may have altered fish location and behavior on a lake or river. Approach it as a new system you’ve never fished before and apply original thinking to determine where fish might be lurking before believing a lake’s fished out, due to fishing pressure. However, if a system is indeed heavily pressured, be sure to fish at prime feeding times, like dusk, and scout areas to find less-pressured, secondary spots, as these will likely hold fish.

They were biting here yesterday; they must have left
Thinking fish have relocated is often the default reasoning why yesterday’s success can’t be replicated today. Yes, fish move. But when they do, it’s rare they’ll travel far within a 24-hour period, barring a seasonal migration. Rarely will they completely leave the area altogether in a short timeframe. The challenge becomes finding where they went.

It pays to think “big picture” when searching for fish. Within a larger area, there can exist many types of habitat, such as feeding zones and resting spots, and fish position will change throughout the day within a larger area. Whether you’re chasing a territorial species like channel catfish or a pelagic breed like lake trout, all fish can be tracked down using search techniques based on their last known location. Fish finders and underwater cameras provide valuable data and are recommended. Their intel will shorten the hunt and help find secondary zones that hold fish.

Here’s an example:

On the first day of a recent trip with friends we caught several northern pike from a weed bed on a rocky sandbar. The next day we returned and didn’t move a fish from the greenery, so we shifted our focus. Surveying the area with sonar and side imaging revealed fish holding in the nearby deep water. We changed our strategy and instead of casting into the weeds, we hurled spoons and jigs to deep water. Concentrating on the closest drop-off and a deep flat near the weeds produced several quality pike. For the rest of the trip we were regularly rewarded with chunky northerns when we thoroughly fished the entire region.

Doing the same thing
I’ll admit it. I’ve been guilty of assuming that fish of a certain species are behaving the same way in a lake some days. It happens unconsciously and I don’t realize I’m doing it. I just keep flogging the same water depth or using a similar tactic a tad longer than I really should before changing strategies. Eventually, I snap out of the trance, but learning to do this quicker is one of my improvement goals. The notion that all fish in a lake behave the same way is often the farthest thing from the truth.

Take pike for example. Trophy northerns are a very different breed from their smaller counterparts. In summer, average-sized fish mill around weeds and shallow to moderate depths and feed frequently. Big pike, in contrast, yearn for cool water, which draws them to basins and mid-lake structures, and they feed more selectively. Same species: two very distinct areas and feeding habits. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to pike either. Many trophy-sized fish have unique behavior and habitat preferences compared to the rest of the population.

It’s also important to realize that even fish of a similar size or year-class will behave differently depending on habitat and forage. A rainbow trout outing I was on illustrates this reality. One boat caught several trout fly fishing with nymphs near a shallow wood and weed shoreline between 5 to 8 feet of water. The other boat in our party went deeper. Their fish were suspending over a 27-foot flat and taken on a flasher spoon and streamer fly rigs. All trout were a few pounds in size, but related to very different areas on the small lake.

It’s rare for a species in a lake to all do the same thing simultaneously. If one group isn’t biting, or when one area isn’t producing, explore another zone and locate a different pod of fish. Many times I’ve salvaged a trip by shifting locations and strategies, such as going from shallow to deep water or moving from weeds to rocky or wood habitat.

The cold front has shut down fish
There is truth to the fact that a strong cold front can reduce fish activity. I remember one weather system that almost ruined a fly-in trip. Fish didn’t stop eating entirely, but they got lethargic. Being on prime areas during peak feeding windows, such as dusk, salvaged the adventure, but bites were few and far between.

Many of us likely have similar memories of a fishing vacation jeopardized by cold, wet and windy weather. It’s unfortunate when it happens, but avoid doomsday thinking. Somewhere at some point during the day, fish will be biting on the lake.

One approach to dealing with cold fronts is using finesse tactics, which I reserve for areas I’m confident hold fish. Live-bait rigs, vertical presentations with jigs, downsizing tackle, using light line and moving slow are the essential ingredients of these methods. It demands patience and can be painstaking, but sometimes it’s the only way to tease out a bite.

Another approach is the polar opposite and uses speed, noise and commotion to evoke a reaction strike. It’s similar to what I described above when fishing fast for inactive fish. The aim is to quickly present a lure so that a fish must instantly either attack or not—the hope being the fish will strike out of instinct. Presentations vary based on species. Vertically jigging a blade bait or rattling spoon can work for walleyes, whitefish and lake trout, while quickly reeling and ripping a rattling, lipless crankbait or jerkbait can be deadly on bass and pike.

Also, be careful to not confuse thunderstorm cells with cold fronts. While severe storms produce windy and wet weather, and can be grueling to fish in, they’re not the same as a major high front system that leaves behind clear, blue skies and a significant drop in temperature. In fact, storm cells can stimulate fish activity. Keep safety a priority and have a sound exit strategy for getting to shelter should lightening arrive or the winds and waves become too intense.

Too big a bait
An event that always impresses me is when a small fish attacks a big lure, like a foot-long walleye or a pike striking a 6- or 8-inch muskie bait. While fish have physical limitations of the size of prey they can stuff in their maw, many are willing to push the envelope on forage size.

Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of comments shunning the use of big baits for certain species. A common groupthink pitfall is fishing with undersized baits. Panfish in particular are pigeonholed as only eating micro-sized baits. Last fall, I had a phenomenal day fishing crappies, using a 2 1/2-inch minnow bait that one angling partner initially shunned as being “too big.”

A benefit of using a longer or a bulkier bait is that it stands out. For instance, if walleyes regularly see 3-inch jigs, you can bet a 5-inch paddletail swimbait will get their attention. This approach isn’t just for trophies; it also piques the interest of average-sized fish. Try slightly larger lures than normal for your favorite target species this season. The technique has a knack for stimulating hits when more traditional offerings don’t produce.

They don’t do that
The last groupthink category is a broad one. It’s the blanket statement that a particular species “doesn’t do certain things.” Scan your memory bank of angling conversations and you’ll identify a few of these naysaying phrases: “Walleye don’t bite in bright sunlight,” and “Rainbows in this lake don’t hit lures, only flies,” and “A lake trout won’t eat a drop-shot rig” are three that immediately come to mind from conversations over the years.

Remember to be cautious about jumping to conclusions and buying into groupthink this season. Do your own on-the-water research about how fish behave, the areas they inhabit and what presentations they’ll eat. Adopting an inquisitive approach will reward you with a life full of rich angling experiences, plenty of learning and heaps of bragging-sized catches. Finally, a tip: Keeping a diary of your fishing adventures is a sure-fire way to improve as an angler and make sound decisions when fishing, instead of leaping into groupthink pitfalls.