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By MARTIN POLLIZOTTO
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Martin Pollizotto
All rights reserved.
LUCK, THE LAW, THE MOON, AND DOING WHAT'S RIGHT
Saltwater fishing is not especially complicated, and fish are not terribly smart. Fish do, however, possess highly refined survival instincts—namely, they are ever vigilant in their search for food. You can take advantage of this vigilance as you pursue dozens of species on the East, West, and Gulf coasts of the United States.
Each species of fish has its own feeding habits and its own favorite habitats. Some can be caught almost anytime of year in certain waters; others are seasonal, visiting different places as they follow their food sources. Some fish are found only offshore—on open, or "big," water; others frequent inshore waters—harbors, bays, and estuaries. Some can be readily hooked by dropping a line off a pier or by casting from a rocky or sandy shoreline. Others remain in deep water and require boats for their pursuit. Some remain in the same general area year-round; others migrate hundreds or thousands of miles each year. The only thing complicated about fishing is keeping track of the preferences of many different species—knowing where and when to find them, what they like to eat, how they like it "served," and how to snag them while they're consuming it.
For example, fish that are considered excellent bait stealers don't analyze a baited hook. Instead, some instinct drives them to approach the hook from the side, and that just happens to mean that they grab the bait without swallowing the hook. It's your job to properly place the bait on the hook so it's not easily taken by a fish from any angle.
Because fish are constantly searching for food, their behavior is fairly predictable. The angler who has knowledge of the following is the most likely to catch fish.
1. The species' habitats. (For example, you won't catch bluefish along the northern Atlantic coast during February and March because bluefish simply aren't there at this time of year. On the other hand, offshore codfish are common in that area during that season.)
2. The species' behavior at a specific time of day and a given time of year, and any outside influences (such as weather conditions, noise, or unusual activity) that may affect that behavior.
3. What triggers a fish's feeding instinct.
4. Types of natural bait or artificial lures that attract a specific species.
5. How to "present" the bait or lure to the fish. For example, some fish that are known mainly as surface feeders also pursue food along the bottom. When a known surface-feeding species is not biting on the surface, try presenting the bait at or near the bottom.
Different species of fish have different diets, and they feed at different times of day or at different tidal stages. Most fish travel to different but specific areas within a bay or an ocean at different times of year in search of food or to spawn. It's this rotational cycle that keeps salt-water fishing interesting throughout the year.
Having said all this, I admit that luck can be involved in catching fish. The fish might actually be just where you thought they would be based on the above factors. Or through word-of-mouth reports from other anglers, boat captains, and bait-shop owners, you can find out where the fish are biting (or where they were biting a few hours ago, or yesterday).
Yet it's still a matter of skill to attract and hook them. Seasoned anglers match the size of the hook and bait to the size and preferences of the fish they are pursuing. For example, cod have a large mouth, allowing them to grab fairly large prey. That requires a large hook, along with an ample supply of bait to match. In contrast, winter flounder inhale food into their small mouths, which necessitates a smaller hook with a matching amount of bait.
In addition, be aware of state laws that dictate the type and size of fish that you may catch and keep, and when it is legal to do so. (See Appendix A, Fishing and the Law, for more information.)
Joining a saltwater fishing club is one of the best ways to move quickly along the learning curve. Some clubs focus on specific interests, such as surf fishing or offshore fishing; others cover the entire spectrum of saltwater fishing. Generally, all age groups are welcome.
Members of these clubs enhance their skills through talking with other anglers and participating in club activities. Fishing outings, beach barbecues, and contests often have a strong family orientation. Most clubs also hold formal business meetings at least once a month to discuss practical and political aspects of saltwater fishing in their region.
There are saltwater fishing clubs in every coastal state. Ask at your local tackle shop about clubs in your area, or search the Web for a club near you. Enter "Saltwater Fishing Club" + "(your state)" in your favorite search engine. There are also a few suggestions in Appendix E, Useful Fishing Websites, under Organizations.
Mother Nature provides fish with extremely effective and extremely diverse feeding instincts. To choose the most effective fishing rigs, you need to know what your targeted species is likely to consume and how and when it consumes it. The preferred food sources for each of the species are explained in Chapter 9, Natural Bait, and in Chapter 19, 89 Popular Species and How to Catch Them. Here, let's look at an all-important influence on their feeding behavior: tides.
Understanding the tides helps you know when to fish. Just like people, fish have active periods and rest periods. Unlike people, fish's activities are determined by the tides. The tide tells fish when to be on the move for food and when to rest. Because fish do not have eyelids, they cannot close their eyes to rest. Instead, most species remain inactive during certain tides.
Tides are up-and-down movements of the oceans caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun on the Earth. As the tide rises and falls, water flows in and out of bays, harbors, and estuaries and along the shore, creating strong currents. These currents provoke feeding behavior in fish. Whereas tidal changes have little effect far offshore and are of no concern to anglers who venture there in boats, tides are of the utmost importance when fishing inshore waters.
In most locations, the tide changes four times a day, resulting in two high tides and two low tides. Low tide occurs roughly 6 hours after high tide. At the end of each rising and falling tide, there is a period called slack tide, when there is little or no current, or movement of water, in or out of the bays, harbors, and estuaries. Slack tide usually lasts 2¾ to 3 hours, although it varies with location.
Published tide tables, such as those found in local newspapers, are general approximations. A strong wind from offshore can create a high tide sooner than predicted. When the wind is blowing against the incoming tide, the opposite occurs.
During slack tide, most saltwater predator fish that frequent inshore waters rest and do not seek food. Slack tide, therefore, is usually an unproductive time to fish inshore—which isn't to say that it's not worth a try. For example, anglers who like to be on the water at the very beginning of a tidal change often find themselves on the water during a slack tide. By presenting the proper bait, along with chumming or chunking, it is possible to provoke fish into feeding during a slack tide. After all, fish are curious creatures and are always looking for an easy meal.
A rising tide is referred to as a flood tide; a falling tide is called an ebb tide. The change in water level is determined by the phase of the moon and the relative positions of the Earth, the moon, and the sun.
Each month, the moon goes through four phases: new moon, first quarter moon, full moon, and last quarter moon (sometimes called third quarter moon). The new moon and the full moon occur when the moon, sun, and Earth are in a nearly direct line with one another. This increases the overall gravitational pull on the Earth, which causes relatively high high tides and relatively low low tides. These extreme tides are called spring tides, which has nothing to do with the season.
During the first quarter moon and the last quarter moon, the moon, sun, and Earth form the points of a triangle, with the Earth at the apex. This arrangement generates less gravitational pull on the Earth, causing relatively low high tides and relatively high low tides. These more moderate tides are called neap tides. Naturally, currents are stronger during spring tides than during neap tides. As you'll see later, the strength of the current has an impact on where the fish are.
Atmospheric pressure has a subtle effect on the level of the tide. Low barometric pressure allows the tide to rise higher; high barometric pressure pushes it down. During hurricanes, when the barometric pressure is extremely low, tides can be dangerously high, resulting in wave damage and flooding in low-lying coastal areas.
Using the Tide to Catch Fish
When the tide begins to ebb, the current forces baitfish into deeper water, concentrating them into smaller areas and making them easy prey for larger predator fish. The ebb tide thus triggers the predators' feeding instinct. Flood tides also trigger the feeding instinct, and predator fish lie in wait for baitfish to flow into the mouths of inlets, bays, harbors, and estuaries or along the surf. Fishing action subsides during slack tides because baitfish disperse themselves, seeking shelter from predators. There are exceptions, but this is what happens with each ebb and flood tide for most areas on the East and West coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico.
As a rule of thumb, the best fishing takes place 1½ to 2 hours after the ebb and flood tides begin. Tide tables appear daily in many newspapers, and many tackle shops give them away. Read them for the approximate times, but remember that weather conditions can make the tides occur earlier or later than "scheduled," and not all fish feed during a rising or falling tide. Exceptions are noted for some individual species in Chapter 19.
Knowing how fish seek food is just as important as knowing where and when they do it. Fish use three of their senses: hearing, smell, and sight. Of these, hearing is the most important, especially for predator fish.
Fish hear through their internal "ears" (fluid-filled canals with sensory hairs), and with the aid of their lateral line (also called a longitudinal line), a sensory device that runs along the sides of some fish and detects low-frequency vibrations, such as the sound of another fish swimming. Predator fish are especially attuned to the sounds that wounded and struggling baitfish make while swimming, and they respond to these sounds before they see their quarry.
You can take advantage of this behavior by using various noise-making artificial lures or by creating a commotion in the water while retrieving the lure. Surf anglers, for instance, use rattling lures to attract predators as they work (retrieve) the lure through the water. Certain flies are designed to push the water and make a burbling sound as they are worked. Jigs such as bucktails, rubber worms, or surgical tubes also move water, creating enough sound to draw the attention of predator fish.
However, surface or subsurface swimming fish tend to spook easily when they hear unfamiliar sounds from boats, a wading angler, or an artificial lure that haphazardly hits the water. Don't run your boat through a suspected area of surface-feeding fish, and avoid making noise while anchoring. And don't go splashing into the water like a charging rhinoceros, or the fish will flee.
Fish also rely on their keen sense of smell, so anglers often release food particles, or chum, into the water to entice any nearby fish to feed. You can also apply a couple of drops of fish oil on artificial bait or lures to encourage a fish to strike. Natural baits, such as mackerel strips, bunker strips, clams, sandworms, or bloodworms, should have a fresh scent of their own and need no additional fish oil unless you want to create a stronger aroma. Fish oils can be purchased at better tackle shops.
Wherever possible, avoid wearing hand cream, cologne, aftershave, and other fragrant concoctions before heading out to fish. Fish will avoid any bait or lure that has a non-bait-like odor. After applying sunscreen or bug dope, wash your hands thoroughly with mild soap before handling bait or lures.
Predator fish rely least on their sense of sight, at least until they are close enough to see their prey. Fish are nearsighted; they don't see distant objects clearly, and they lack the ability to judge distance. Fish can see clearly only up to about 2½ feet, and they cannot see directly behind them. However, their eyes are sensitive to movement, and a streaking artificial lure is often perceived as a fleeing baitfish—that is, an easy meal. Some saltwater fish species can differentiate color; others cannot. However, most fish can distinguish between dark and light shades.
LEGAL AND ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Before you head out to fish, you should have a tide table, which tells the high and low tides for each day, familiarize yourself with the habitats and feeding habits of the fish you're after, and know the laws protecting the species. Fishing is an ethical sport, with standards of behavior to protect its participants, its future, and the future of the species. To that end, it is important to know how to properly release fish back into the environment without injury.
Many coastal states require a current saltwater fishing license. Bring it with you when you're fishing in case law enforcement personnel ask to see it. Most states also have laws specifying the minimum size and maximum number of saltwater fish you can keep. They also have moratoriums—times of the year when particular species may not be kept regardless of size—to give the species adequate time to spawn, help increase the stocks, and prevent the extinction of a species. All of these laws are strictly enforced, and hefty fines are imposed on anglers who ignore them. The regulations differ from state to state, and even within a state they change constantly, so check with the state's marine and recreational fishing agency. (For more information, see Appendix A, Fishing and the Law.)
Any fish you intend to keep must meet the legal size limits for the species. An accurate measuring device, such as a tape measure, will do, or you can use the large plastic rulers sold in most tackle shops. There is no room for guesswork here, such as using your arm or foot as a measuring device.
The law stipulates specific measuring guidelines. For example, some species must be measured from the tip of the nose to the fork of the tail, whereas others are measured to the end of the tail. Be aware of any stipulations that require the mouth of the fish to be closed while you're measuring. (If the mouth is open when you're measuring the fish, the measurement may read slightly longer.) If a state official happens to inspect your catch and finds one fish that's not long enough, or one fish too many, you may be fined. It's easier to comply with the laws than to pay fines, not to mention the legal fees involved if you elect to contest the fine in court.
Most anglers take the ethics of the sport seriously—especially a commitment to protect and preserve the environment. Regardless of where you fish, consider what you bring with you. Use trash receptacles to discard empty wrappers or containers, and never discard anything in the water or on the dock, jetty, or beach. Not only does trash create an unsightly mess, it can threaten the well-being of wildlife and fish.
Most anglers fillet their catch after they get home and dispose of the remains responsibly. If you clean your catch in the field, be considerate of other anglers and the environment. Before you even begin, make sure there's a suitable refuse container handy. And be one of the good guys: tuck a plastic trash bag in your belt and collect any debris you stumble upon that's been left behind by inconsiderate anglers.
It is unethical to keep more fish than you plan to eat. Although there is nothing illegal about taking home a full limit of fish, day after day this adds up to more fish than most of us could comfortably consume. It unnecessarily stresses fish populations, reducing the number of fish that will have a chance to spawn, and limiting the number of fish for years to come.
So rather than taking the limit, please limit the take. Fish all you want, but release the fish you don't plan to eat. If you want to prove how successful you were, or just preserve the memories, bring an inexpensive camera on your fishing trips. Disposable cameras are ideal. As soon as you photograph the fish, you can release it to fight another day.
Excerpted from SALTWATER FISHING by MARTIN POLLIZOTTO. Copyright © 2006 by Martin Pollizotto. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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