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How They Hit
by Frank Daignault

ny time fishermen acquire a great deal of experience in their particular angling choice, they almost universally go into a stage of development where they become bored with fighting fish. The drama of having a line slide from a reel's drag seems to get old. And while there are some things that can be done to reintroduce excitement into their fishing, say, using a lighter, more dangerous line, the inevitable outcome is that these regulars - almost to the man - get their biggest kick at the strike.First time I noticed this was years ago when an aging old-timer of the beach would get into every blitz. But what he would do was hook a fish and then hand the rod to one of our kids. These little girls, maybe ten at the time, learned to resent the chore because they preferred to hook the fish themselves. They had gotten to the point where the real thrill in fishing was fooling the fish.

It's a pity for us to get that way because the high moment of fishing is reduced to a couple of seconds. But depending upon conditions and species, that moment when your line changes from simply fishing to being uptight with a game fish can be really quite different. We've always been astounded with the diversity of types of strikes that we can experience when fishing a bait on the bottom from the beach. For instance, you can be waiting for stripers with a sea worm and find that only the guys who hold their rod catch any fish. That's because hits are mouthed gently and noticed by a subtle tap, tap, tap that can barely be felt in the rod. Yet, unaccountably strikes will come - same bait and species - that are so violent that you have to bury the sand spike deep to keep from losing the rod. You would be surprised how many great fish have caught themselves while the eggs were frying on the tailgate. A rod arcing hard over from a fish moving off is really sort of a stroke of luck. Often, and this can happen with any game fish taking a bait on the bottom, they will drag the sinker in and the only detection of this comes from a whole lot of slack line in the wash. What has frequently left me scratching my head is why do all the fish act the same way one night and another way the next? You'll have hard over strikes one night from all the fish, then all taps the next. Even fishing live bait without a sinker, the way stripers move off with it can be different. When we worked, live eels in Rhode Island, we always let them have all the line they wanted and we rarely lost a fish. Feed a live eel to a bass on the Cape and he'll usually blow it out his maw after three seconds. Same fish, same bait. Swimmer plug fishing, most of the hits come as a solid seizure where they try to take the rod out of your hand; even if you're scratching you'll draw blood. Yet every once in a while bass will nudge and bunt the plug, something we've always called rejection , and the only fish you land are those which were fouled on top of the head. You also drop a lot of fish because they were not hooked properly.

Bluefish are another story because there is rarely any thing subtle about their approach. Along with being crazy, blues operate in a crowd and learn to be competitive with one another or starve. Cool and slow bluefish were bred out of the species a half million years ago. Another explanation for their being so hard hitting is that most of the methods in use utilize high speed offers. Trolling lures are going by at 100 mph and any chopper that is going to catch it is going to move in an aggressive way. And at least half of the force of a rod down flat in the holder, or lifting you from the seat, is that of the boat. If poppers were outlawed most of us wouldn't know what a bluefish looked like and Montauk would probably be reduced to a nudist colony. The harder and splashier they go across the top, the more attention the popper gets. Again, a fast moving lure can only be taken by a fast moving game fish and half the force of the strikes come from a rod that is moving through its next pop. Bluefish seem to enjoy the kill, but I risk an anthropomorphism saying it that way. My suspicion is based upon their penchant for shaking a live bait, which is something you can feel if you let them move off with a pogy or eel. Stupid as bluefish are, or as we all say that they are, why is it that they will cut the pieces of an eel that are between the hooks?

Weakfish behavior seems to cop a few pages from the books of both stripers and blues, but that may be a perception based upon a natural tendency for man to make comparisons with that which he is familiar. To generalize, then run off to something that I know more about, weaks respond to most of the methods we use for stripers and blues in the slower moving categories. Pollack seem to act like bluefish, competing in large schools; and cod show a distinct affinity to baits on the bottom. Strikes are low gear; slow and strong.

Freshwater: Anyone who ever fished a live eel in saltwater for stripers will have little trouble relating to fishing rubber worms on the bottom for largemouth bass. The method is a slow bottom crawl and hits seem to depend upon the speed. While one fish will mouth the worm so softly that you can barely detect it, another will seem to pounce upon it. Good, solid, hard pulls are less common. Popping plugs are less common. Popping plugs in the deep night are fished slowly Gurgles, causing most hits to come in the long interlude between. Strikes come like a cinder block hitting the water. Live shiners are a classic lesson in predation. Weed height depending, most use a brightly colored float which tells the whole story. Shiners tend to panic when a bass is moving close by, pulling on the float in jerks because it is too heavy for the baitfish to tow. The angler is warned of impending action because the shiner is screaming for help in this way. When the float goes under that's a sure sign (almost sure) that the bass has taken the bait. After an initial run, the line will stop moving and this is the time when the bass is turning the bait around to swallow it in such a way that gill covers and fins will fold. Most fishermen set the hook on the second move-off.

Trout fishing with lures is uncomplicated. When willing to take lures, they just bang them. Fly fishing is another story which depends upon the type of fly fishing employed. Drifting nymphs is touchy because in order to get a natural drift there has to be slack line which makes feeling the hit about impossible. Anglers have to be able to watch the line for hesitation in its drift. Fast water streamers jerking through the current are taken with a bang that is similar to that of lure fishing. The angler feels the strike through his jolt meter which is wired to the weight of the fish. When fishing small wets in a slow, deep pool or in a lake the fly just stops. But an added compensation with little wets or nymphs fished this way is that a missed trout will often come right back and hit it again, the tiny hook having done little lip damage in the first effort.

Dry fly fishing is so dear in the hearts of many anglers because of its showy nature. Providing that one is looking, he gets to see every take in all but the wildest frothy rivers. Most trout take a dry in the same sip they are using for naturals; but the faster the current the more the trout is forced to take with haste; wild water hits are more violent. Landlocked salmon will most often sip like their trout cousins, but a percentage will leave the water full length, twisting in the air exactly like you see them in those expensive water color renderings. They will do this before even tasting the steel of a hook.

Atlantic salmon and New York steelhead are a different story because the reason for any strike is provocation. I've learned to hate fishing for Atlantics that you can see because I have not yet learned how to make them mad. Books say that a salmon will lose its temper, but I made obscene gestures at three of them for a week in Maine last year and all I got were two raspberries and a giggle. But unknown, unseen, salmon in the murky waters of the Penobscot will blow the fly up and you had better be holding the rod well enough for your palms to sweat.

While the reasons for striking are the same for steelhead, they function with a much shorter fuse. They will get miffed at just about anything; pieces of sponge, shirttail, marshmallows-providing that it violates their sense of territory. But the strike is nothing like anything that we've yet talked about here. It's not like a strike, but more a stop or hesitation in the normal motion of a drifting line. Because the steely is not moving any great distance to seize the bait, he isn't pulling your line back to his lie. And he's not eating it, so it isn't going to stay in his mouth long. One's ability to detect strikes and respond quickly is the all-important second half of having gotten them to take in the first place.

We've wallowed in generalities here. It might be dangerous to expect certain behavior from game fish. A steelheader's line can unaccountably bee-line upstream after the cast, making him think that the guy upriver has fouled it, when in fact he is fast to his quarry. One's rubber worm can go completely out of touch all slack leading to a bucketmouth hiding under the boat; and a fine striper can lay upon a baited hook until exposed by a falling tide, all undetected, all in violation of how they are supposed to hit.End

Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Frank Daignault, All Rights Reserved

Frank Daignault is the author of Striper Surf, Twenty Years on the Cape, Striper Hot Spots, The Trophy Striper, Eastern Tides and Fly Fishing the Striper Surf. Autographed books can be purchased directly from Frank; Order Form »

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