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Original Issue

What Makes Them Hit the Lure

From the timeDame Juliana Berners wrote her medieval treatise on fishing with artificialbait, anglers have applied themselves to creating ever more deadly lures. Anexemplar of their skill is the wobbling spoon that has tempted these brooktrout. On the following pages Elgin Ciampi, a naturalist and photographer,reveals for the first time the actions of these and other fresh-water game fishat The Moment They Hit the Lure

When Elgin Ciampiphotographed the underwater drama of a game fish hitting a lure, he alsodiscovered a number of unexpected answers to the fisherman's most burningquestion: What makes a fish strike? To some anglers Ciampi's findings willconfirm what they have suspected all along, but to many his conclusions willdoubtless prove to be as unusual as his pictures.

Ciampi'slaboratory was Chicago's John G. Shedd Aquarium, where he studied a variety offish in environments closely simulating their natural habitat. He was able tocontrol both light and feeding conditions, and—best of all—none of the fishinvolved had ever been exposed to any form of angling.

"Thesefish," Ciampi says, "were exactly comparable from a fisherman's pointof view to ones which might be found in virgin, wilderness waters. They hadnever seen a plug or experienced the dangers of being hooked. In spite of this,some species like the largemouth bass were immediately suspicious of artificiallures. Others, like the eastern brook trout, which some anglers considersuperior to the bass as game-fish, were remarkably slow in discerningdifferences between real food and imitations."

To confirm thisfirst observation, Ciampi isolated groups of bass, muskellunge, pike, trout,gar, bluegill and crap-pie, and did not feed them for several days. Even thenthe reaction to manmade baits remained the same for each species, and the basscontinued to show the most pronounced reluctance to take artificial lures.

This caution,Ciampi believes, is directly related to the bass's superior brain power."There was no question after repeated tests," he concludes, "thatthe largemouth bass showed the highest level of intelligence. The smallmouthwas close behind, and both bass had many behavior characteristics in common.Along with the muskellunge, they not only demonstrated the greatest suspicionbut were the only species that would not take an artificial bait after anyother fish in the same tank had hit it. "My guess," says Ciampi,"is that they have a communications system, which actually enables them towarn each other of danger.

"In the lessintelligent species this ability to communicate either does not exist or is notsufficiently developed to be of use. For example, I found no indication of itspresence among the trout, bluegill or crappie. This may explain why it ispossible to catch several trout from the same pool on the same lure but rare totake more than one bass at a time from a given spot."

Ciampi also notedthat several species, again including the eastern brook trout, not only wouldstrike anything from a bottle cap to an artfully finished spoon butoccasionally would hit the same lure a second and even a third time. Bass,muskellunge and pike could be induced to strike a lure once but not the sameone again.

"In otherwords," Ciampi concludes, "these species learned that a lure was notfood after only one experience, while the less intelligent species required twoor more experiences to learn the same lesson. Even after several days hadelapsed between tests, bass and muskellunge seemed able to recognize a lurethey had previously encountered and refused to have any part of it."

On the basis ofthese experiments, Ciampi ranks the intelligence of the fresh-water gamefish hestudied in the following order:

1) largemouthbass
2) smallmouth bass
3) muskellunge
4) northern pike
5) trout
6) bluegill
7) crappie
8) gar

No matter howsmart or how stupid the fish, however, Ciampi noted that certain lures weredefinitely more appealing than others and that the effectiveness of the luredepended upon three factors: color, action and the sound it made in the water.All the fish showed a preference for lures that closely resembled their normalfood. But similarity of color to natural food was more important thansimilarity of shape. For example, the muskellunge at Shedd Aquarium, which areregularly fed goldfish (see page 32), responded best to bright, gold-coloredlures even when the shape and size of these lures were totally dissimilar toactual goldfish. Less discriminatory feeders, such as trout and crappie, whilethey often struck anything presented to them, showed greatest interest inlight-colored, shiny lures, such as small spinners and beaded feathers. Theleast effective colors for al' fish were black and dark red, both of whichfailed, particularly in murky water, to reflect or pick up light.

As to the actionof the lure, rarely did any of the fish go after a lure that was simply draggedthrough the water. But as soon as the movement was altered by sharp sporadicjerks on the line, interest increased, reaching a peak when combined withregular side-to-side action.

"Muskellunge," says Ciampi, "could actually be induced to strike alure in which they showed no previous interest—specifically, I believe, becauseof its movement. This fish is predominantly a sight feeder. Even with a fullbelly, a bright, shining object flashed across its sight path will arouse it tosuch a degree that it will strike almost by reflex. It will not strike a secondtime, but that first strike often seemed the product of a reaction sooverpowering that the fish was unable to control it."

The otherenticing characteristic, the sound a lure makes, is the result of its designand its action on the surface and in the water. Some lures, such as theso-called poppers, have concave "mouths" to trap air bubbles, and whenthe lure is jerked through the water the bubbles escape and burst to produce apopping noise. Others revolve, dip or dive, and in so doing create an audibledisturbance.

"One of thereasons a bright, noisy lure with sharp action attracts attention," Ciampisays, "is because it is foreign to the fish's environment. By creating adisturbance unusual to the area it may be interpreted by a fish not only as apossible meal but also as an annoyance, a threat or an injured inferior. Anyone of the latter may provoke a fish into striking even when it is notinterested in food."

This appliesespecially to large-and smallmouth bass, which are pugnacious and highlyprotective of their own specific territories. While bass were hardest to foolinto mistaking a lure for food, Ciampi noted that they were easiest to irritateinto striking when a lure trespassed into their particular domain.

Assuming that thefisherman does everything else properly, he still must pick the right time ofday and the right weather. Using his lights to simulate sunrise, cloudy weatherand other conditions, Ciampi learned that from dawn to midmorning, frommidafternoon to dusk and generally in light conditions approximating those of acloudy, overcast day all fish were most active and showed greatest response tobaits.

"They wereleast responsive," says Ciampi, "to both natural food and artificiallures under direct, bright sunlight and after dark, when there was a markedreduction in feeding activity. This is a fact fishermen have known for years,but what they may not have known is that even during the times of maximumactivity all of the fish underwent dormant periods in which they neither movednor fed.

"Theseperiods were especially interesting because they followed no definable pattern.One moment a bass or a pike might be feeding, and in the next its activitywould stop. Its fins would barely move, and it would hang as though asleep nearthe bottom. Sometimes these 'rest' periods lasted two minutes, and sometimesthey lasted as long as two hours."

Unlike thegeneral inactivity that occurs among all fish in late evening, Ciampi notedthat these daytime dormant periods were purely individual. Regardless of whatits companions were doing, a single bass or trout or crappie might choose totake a rest at any time. Other fish in the vicinity merely ignored the restingfish. Ciampi also observed that while all fish yawn regularly, yawning morethan doubled in dormancy.

"I wasfascinated," he recalls, "to watch dormant muskellunge, because thisspecies is normally so fast-moving and voracious. Ordinarily a goldfish throwninto a tank with a musky barely had time to move a fin before it was struck.When dormant, however, the same musky appeared almost oblivious of thegoldfish. It was not uncommon to see the bait swim around its enemy severaltimes before finally being taken. Presented with a lure during one of theseperiods, musky, as well as other species, failed to react at all.

"Ingeneral," Ciampi adds, "the transition back to full activity occurredas spontaneously as it began. There was no period of waking up. Almost asthough a bell were rung, activity was abruptly resumed and a lure which secondsbefore had no appeal might very well be pursued and hit."

While Ciampi canoffer no ideas on how to attract a dormant fish, his experiments at SheddAquarium have produced five suggestions that he believes will be of benefit toall fishermen, particularly in these times of increased fishing pressure:

1) There is nosuch thing as a body of water that has been "fished out." Ciampibelieves that the fish in such waters have learned to be wary of baits and musttherefore be tempted by unconventional techniques.

2) Never rely onbuilt-in action of lures alone. The more movement the angler gives to the lureby jerking, rotating and bobbing it, the more appealing it will be to fish.

3) Always uselures that are different from those popularly being fished in the area. Thelegendary farm boy who out-fished the rich anglers by using a piece of redflannel did so, Ciampi believes, not because he was a more skillful fishermanbut because his bait was different. Therefore, if you find yourself with only afew standard lures, do anything you can think of to change their shape, actionor even the color, regardless of how offbeat the end result may appear.

4) Avoid direct,bright sunshine and periods after dark when fish are known to be relativelyinactive. And, particularly on overcast days, make sure the lure is brightenough to be visible in murky water and makes noise enough to be heard.

5) If a fishdoesn't strike in the first three casts, try a different lure. After threelures, try a different fishing spot. Nine times out of 10, an unproductive castmeans the fish are wise to the fisherman. When they are, only a wiser fishermanwill catch them.



Enticed by the lifelike action of a rubber minnow, a primitive garfish opens its beak to swallow the lure.


A muskellunge makes a successful attack on a live goldfish. All fish showed a preference for natural bait.


Wobbling plug fails to tempt one muskie, but the second fish strikes and gets hooked in the upper jaw.


Its white feathers reflecting light in the dark water, a spinner fly attracts a school of crappie and persuades one fish to strike.


FISH PHOTOGRAPHER Elgin Ciampi holds a master's degree in psychology—both animal and human—and is currently working for his Ph.D. in the same subject. Ciampi is co-author of The Underwater Guide to Marine Life (A. S. Barnes) and author of The Skin Diver (Ronald Press).