When I am in the mood to fish, and I’m at the lake, I pay special attention to the water.

I notice things moving or splashing. I notice the behavior of the terns, the herons, the bald eagles, the loons, and the mergansers. Those fish eating birds are watching the fish and have a better view than I do, and more incentive as well. But mostly I watch the surface of the water.

And here is what I’ve learned: Most of the time you can’t see below the surface, out any distance from the shore. You can’t tell what is going on at the surface because waves, or ripples caused by a light breeze, obscure any fish-spoor that may be present. When the surface is flat you can see things, but it is hard to tell the difference between a few quick moving insects and some minnows or blue gills feeding on the surface. And when something breaks the surface, it is very difficult to tell if you are seeing a small fish clear the water in a splash or the tail or head of a large fish sticking for a fleeting moment from above the surface.

Every now and then a whopping big fish … and it is the whopping big fish that I’m after, of course … clears the surface and leaves no ambiguity about its presence.

When it comes to thinking what might be there, I consider the possibility that there are big fish cruising around beneath the surface, or laying in ambush at one point or another, and I use these surface indicators to guide my thinking, but I know this is highly unreliable. If I’m going to go fishing, I might well cast the lure somewhere. When it comes to saying to someone else what I think is there, I usually keep my mouth shut. Every now and then I’ll say “Oh, I saw a big fish jump three times just over there, I think I’ll see what I can do” and head over there with my gear and a top lure. Sometimes I catch a fish when I do that, sometimes not. Or, very rarely, I’ll say “I believe the Northerns are feeding on the perch by the dock. Get the camera if you want a picture of a Northern” and I’ll go over there, and cast once, and BAM I’ll have the fish on the line and if I land it we get the picture. That happened, like, once, in four years. The rest of the time I keep my mouth shut about what I think is going on beneath the surface because I can’t really tell and if I blurt out statements about the fish based on the vaguest of half-investigated suspicions or poorly formed thoughts, I’ll be thought a fool.


  1. #1 Elaine
    September 24, 2009

    But how good are you, really, at not looking like a fool?

  2. #2 Paul D.
    September 24, 2009

    Fishing. A metaphor for life. Or, at least, that is what we shall name it while we are not catching actual fish.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    September 24, 2009

    Elaine: Not as good as I’d like to be. That’s why it is “a fish story.” … But at least I understand that there is such a thing. (as avoiding looking like a fool.)

  4. #4 Stephanie Z
    September 24, 2009

    A couple of years ago, I was standing with “the usual suspects” in PEI on the bank of a small tidal river off a large tidal river. The river was populated mostly by mussels and brook trout. The trout were tiny, 3 inches long at most, but they were everywhere. If you stood still long enough, they’d come within a couple feet of the shore.

    So Kelly and I were doing that while the others looked at shells, poked at dead jellyfish, watched the antics of sand fleas, etc. The fish were all peacefully ignoring us. Then Kelly raised his arms, and they scattered. I did the same thing. Same reaction. Every time we tried it. Very different from the reaction to any other movement.

    The poor things thought (or instinctively reacted as though) we were birds and posed a danger when we moved. They had no idea we were at our most dangerous as we stood there quietly and watched their behavior and thought about them.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    September 24, 2009

    The poignant thing is that most brook trout populations have been wiped out by the silent, brooding, thinking humans and their mills.

  6. #6 Comrade PhysioProf
    September 24, 2009

    I thought it’s poor form for fishermen to give away their secrets.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    September 24, 2009

    There are fishermen. Then there are fishermen who tell tales. Then there are guides.

  8. #8 Jared
    September 24, 2009

    Usually, the guides and the fishermen who tell tales are very difficult to tell apart, and occasionally, but rarely, the fishermen who tell tales get it right. On a similar note, some of the biggest fish are caught while trying for another species entirely, and the guides spend months trying to figure out how and why that happened.

  9. #9 Jim Thomerson
    September 24, 2009

    My father told me I couldn’t expect to catch fish unless I put the hook in the water. Once you understand that, you are on your way to success as a fisherperson.