Fooling Finicky Fish

By V. Paul Reynolds

Fish psychology- why fish behave the way they do- holds fascination for just about every serious angler, but especially fly fishermen. Just when you think that you have the fish finally figured out, presto, the fly or lure that was working like a charm gets ignored by the same fish that was slamming your offering minutes before.

But it is this very mystery and unpredictability that, for many anglers, is the essence of fishing. If every fish struck at every fly or lure you presented, the challenge and the thrill would be gone. Not unlike romance, seduction is only meaningful when a fish plays hard to get.

Salmon, and to a lesser extent trout, are at the top of my fish-that-play-hard-to-get hierarchy. Eventually, this discussion gets you to the root question: why do fish bite a fly or a lure that may look marginally eatable, but gives off no oil or smell of protein.

Nobody really knows for sure the empirically correct answer to this question. Perhaps that’s why anglers ( and outdoor writers) like to ponder this intriguing but mystical question. Nobody has conducted a survey with salmon or trout, but controlled studies have been conducted in order to put some “scientific” focus on this venerable question mark.

Fish, according to the conventional speculation, bite for three reasons: 1) Anger 2) Curiosity 3) Spirit of play.

Sounds plausible. Casting in vain over a pod of fresh-run Atlantic salmon on the Upsalquitch River in New Brunswick for an entire morning, I bore witness to reason number one, apparently. Suddenly, a fish slammed my Rusty Rat, the same fly it had shrugged off for hours. A change in the water temperature? Rising barometer? You can never be sure. It looked less nuanced than that. Moreover, it seemed as though the fish had simply grown agitated by my fly constantly being stripped by it’s fanning position in the current. Reason number one was in play: anger.

Here is an even bigger mystery, though, that escapes explanation in Fish Pyschology 101. Twice in my fishing career, once on trout and once on landlocked salmon on moving water when the fishing was incredibly fast and furious, the voracious fish continued unrelentingly to smash artificials that had been chewed beyond recognition. One was a hornberg and one was a smelt streamer imitation. There was nothing left of these flies, except maybe a hanging shred of hackle and some silver tinsel wrap skewed in an unnatural direction off the hook. I have witnesses! Anger? Curiosity? Spirit of Play?

Your guess is as good as mine.

The takeaway, however, may be that fly tiers are trying too hard, tying elaborate flies that please anglers more than fish. Not to take away anything from the fly-tying skills of a Bob Leeman , a Don Corey or a Ron McKusick, these gents create marvelous artificials at their respective vises.

Perhaps this explains why one of the most consistently successful fly fishermen I know, who buys all of his flies, gives each one a “haircut” with a pair of fingernail clippers before showing it to the fish.

Tight lines, yes. But sparse flies as well. It’s another counter-intuitive case of less is better.

The author is editor of the “Northwoods Sporting Journal.” He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program — “Maine Outdoors” — heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on “The Voice of Maine News – Talk Network.” He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at or at

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