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Volume 13, Issue 18 ~ May 5-11, 2005
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Bill Burton
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Do Fish Fly?
How to catch a fish’s eye

There’s a sucker born every minute. —Phineas Taylor Barnum, 1810-1891

Sucker. Well, there’s a tasty white-fleshed variety of fish that goes by that name. In the eyes of more than a few makers of fishing tackle, more than a few Izaak Waltons are also suckers.

I can’t argue that.

I was in an Annapolis tackle shop the other day when up to me came a young bass chaser; that’s largemouth bass chaser not striped-bass chaser. In the hand of this stranger was a surface plug, a gaudy bait painted with a meticulous flair. So detailed, fancy and realistic was it one might have thought Rembrandt could have been the man at the brush.

“Look at this, Bill,” he said. “How could a fish not take it?”

Over the years, I’ve looked over countless thousands of baits for fish large, small and in between; little ones, crude ones, fancy ones, spoons, plugs, flies, bucktails, parachutes, you name it, I’ve probably seen it.

“Do fish fly?” I asked.

The enthused angler looked at me in a questioning way.

“The plug you’re holding looks like a sunfish on the sides and the top,” said I. “But all the gingerbread is at the top sides and top, with its belly and lower sides a bland baitfish-like white and yellow. Nine out of 10 bass will never see all that fancy hologram artwork.”

No need to remind him (or was there?) that a fish is in the water and a surface plug is worked atop the water, so a fish will be looking up as it makes the split-second decision to strike or not to strike.

If a fish were to decide to take that bait because of all the fancy (and expensive) artwork, it would pretty much have to be above it. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty, almost all fish rise to grab an artificial bait. Seldom does a fish head down to strike an offering.

Look at it this way: through the eyes of a fish. It has long been said — and with merit — to catch a fish one must first catch a fish’s eye. So let’s look at all of this like a fish would.

Fish-Eye View
Not infrequently, fish lie in wait looking up for their snacks to pass by. The eyes of more than a few species are so placed that they see mostly what’s above them. Regardless of where the eyes are, consider a typical angling situation.

Waters below a fish are darker than those above. The sky is above, and the sky even on a dark day or even at night with any moon showing is lighter than the bottom. So a fish down there lying in wait to grab a bite by looking up at least sees a silhouette of any bait offering.

The bait is between the fish and the sky. That’s why on a dark day, many fishermen use a black or dark purple bait, as some rockfishers of the mid and upper Bay have been doing this year, seeing that Bay waters have been considerably more murky than usual. The darker colors present a more distinguishable silhouette.

Looking down, from a fish’s vantage point, there is no backlighting. The bottom is dark and obscured. Moreover, it’s more natural for a fish to rise to a bait than to descend for it. Basic fish behavior.

Fishers’ Eye View
Getting back to that glitzy bass bait. ’Tis also long been said that tackle manufacturers design baits to catch fishermen, not fish. Catch a fisherman’s eye, and he’ll probably cast a few bucks on the counter. That’s marketing, for regardless of how many baits are in a tackle box, to an angler there’s always room for another that hints it might catch the eye of a fish.

Look, I’m not suggesting that young fisherman with the bass bait didn’t know fishing. I’ve been at the game for about 73 years. I own perhaps 5,000 assorted lures for assorted fish just about anywhere. On that day, I myself left the tackle shop with several more different ones I thought might catch a rockfish’s eye.

The old philosophy among fishermen: He who has the most toys wins.

Where Spoons Come From
It all started, I guess, back in the late 1800s when a Vermont fisherman was lunching on canned preserves while on a rowboat. He hadn’t had much luck, and he thought bad luck was still with him when he dropped his spoon overboard.

No sooner had the spoon hit the water than a big fish grabbed it. The artificial bait of the larger type was born; artificial flies had been around long before.

That Vermont angler hurried home, sneaked a few more spoons from the kitchen, put hooks on them, and started bringing home more fish than others on the lake. No fisherman can keep a secret long, not when he’s catching fish, and before long in many a kitchen, spoons were missing. Then some entrepreneurs got into the act. A new and busy industry was underway.

Missed Bait
How zany can it get? Tops that I’ve witnessed was a gadget that hit the market in the 1950s. I’ve forgotten what it was called, but it had a battery-operated buzzer designed to be added to the fishing line next to the hook and worm, where it would make bee-like sounds.

The inventor’s promotion told of a boyhood experience of a bee’s nest on the edge of a pond. All the fish congregated thereabouts to snatch a real fly that might wing too close to the surface. I was sent one to field test; in effect I told him to buzz off. Gullible as fishermen are, I don’t think he sold many.

But I can be awfully inept at evaluating new things designed to catch fish. I recall the early ’50s when I had an opportunity to get in on the development of the first rubber worms (now they’re of soft plastic). I looked it over, field tested a few prototypes and declined a very attractive offer.

The plastic worm and its offspring of later years, the Sassy Shad and Twister Tail (both popular among rockfishermen as well as bass chasers), are the biggest success stories in artificial baits of the past 50 years. Had I been a little more innovative at the time, I’d own this newspaper and many like it today. Trouble was, we had a worm of plastic that looked like one of flesh but had no clues as to how to rig it and fish it. Someone else eventually did, caught many a fish’s eye and a bundle of greenbacks.

Don’t Bite
I do have a word of advice for anglers tempted to buy baits heavily promoted in most infomercials. That word is Don’t. For a year, I worked on such promotions, learning that trained whopper bass are not infrequently used in those exciting scenes. I also learned the standard profit margin is seven times the cost. And get this, if you buy one and send back for a refund, what you pay in postage and handling still guarantees the seller a bit of a profit.

You’re the one that’s caught, so with a too-good-to-be-true bait (one that might advertise “banned in many states because it’s so good”), keep in mind that a fish wouldn’t get into trouble if it kept its mouth shut. And you won’t go broke if you keep your billfold in your pocket. Enough said.

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