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John Skinner

John Skinner is the author of Fishing the Bucktail and A Season on the Edge. He’s the creator of the fishing log software FishersLog. He’s a consistent producer of trophy striped bass and holds the current New York State false albacore record.

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June 17, 2012

Are They Watching Us?

by John Skinner

Are they watching us? In this case "they" means the fish, and "us" means whatever offerings we have on the end of our lines. I focus extremely hard on being where the fish are, and I'm confident that I'm rarely fishing barren waters. The height of my confidence concerning stripers within casting range is when I fish ocean inlets. Anytime during the fishing season, the bass have to be there. Deep moving water, bait flushing in and out between the bays and ocean, gamefish passing through, life-filled jetties – they must be there. I'm convinced of that, and there's no harm if I'm wrong. I fish those places with an almost foolish intensity thinking that the next turn of the reel handle will result in a hit. I'm making constant adjustments to cast placement, jig weight, retrieve, and where I'm standing if I have room to move. After all, the fish are there, I just need to make them hit. I think it's a productive attitude. I was talking with John Paduano one day about bucktail retrieves and he takes the fish presence confidence a step further – he fishes with the belief that there is always a fish following his lure. That's a great fishing attitude, but having near constant fish follows is unlikely – or is it?
This column is meant to be geared towards surf fishing, but I know that a lot of what has helped me succeed from the shore has come from observations made while boat and kayak fishing, and occasional scuba and free diving. I do a lot of light tackle fluke bucktailing, and I've always wondered what exactly is going on under the boat when we're fishing. With some effort, a lot of trial and error, and plenty of worthless video, I managed to get an eye into the fish's world. What I saw was pretty surprising. Even at times when there were no signs of life, fish would be very close to the bucktail and dropper combination and looking at it every which way. At one point I had the same fish on video for over three minutes as it nosed up to the rig but never ate it. There was one fish that just kept circling around the jig so that it could come up from behind it as it drifted backwards downcurrent due to difficult drift conditions. Another looked interested, but swam away when I stopped jigging for a moment, probably to do something in the boat. When the rig was in view of the camera, there was almost always something looking at it.
The video is now on numerous fishing message boards, so there's a good chance that you've seen it. It's embedded at the end of this column if you haven't seen it. Between the message boards and my YouTube channel ( , there have been hundreds of comments. One of the more common ones is - "If you had <insert bait of choice>, those fish would have hit. "Bait of choice" was everything from fluke strip, to killie, spearing, – you name it. With the immediate assumption that something other than the Berkley Gulp that I was using was going to make a difference. I have a lot of experience fishing fluke in my area and that experience and many side-by-side comparisons with these other baits has me sold on Gulp. So that's my personal preference. The reality was that the video was shot over two trips, with six hours total video. 99 fish were landed over those two trips, of which I fished solo about half the time. Because of shortfalls in my video system, most of the time when I had the rig in the frame of video was on very slow drifts, and those are always challenging when fluke fishing no matter what you're fishing with. I don't think it's a good idea to draw conclusions from the 4 or 5 fish on the 20 minutes of usable video that didn't commit. What I found interesting was that those fish were following the whole time, and the fishing was generally good when the drift improved. I will make one fishing adjustment from viewing the video. I'll take an occasional high, maybe 5 foot, lift of the rig because I saw so many instances in viewing the entire 6 hours of video where fish spotted the lure falling from a distance. The higher the jig, the wider the area of the bottom that the jig is visible. High lifts of the jig did nothing to deter fish that were following, so there seems to be no harm. There are few times from the surf when I can or want to let my lure sink to the bottom. One circumstance in which I'll occasionally fish this way is when fishing tins on the ocean beaches during a sandeel run. In these cases I'll let the jig fall to the bottom a little more often in the future, and as I always do, focus carefully on starting the retrieve at the very instance the jig makes contact with the sand.
A couple nights before writing this, a friend of mine nearly got shut out on a night boat trip to the Fisher's Island Race. Bucktails and live eels accounted for one fish for 3 guys. "It was like there was nothing there," was how he described it, but then added, "After seeing your video, maybe there were fish looking at our rigs the whole time." Maybe. I doubt those waters were fishless on a June night. Boat anglers have probably all experienced times when there were fish on the fishfinder, but nothing could make them hit. In the years when we had large schools of weakfish around they were notorious for filling up the fishfinder screen and ignoring everything, until they turned on like a light and hit just about any reasonable offering. On the beach I've seen gill nets and DEC survey seines loaded with bass when the fishing from the beach was totally dead.
My point is that it's easy to blame an absence of fish when we're not catching. The reality might be that the fish are there, but not in an eating mood. What can an angler do? Periodic lure and retrieve changes are a good idea. I usually rely heavily on a very proven lure, but will alternate between that lure and others if I'm not catching. The best approach is probably to fish long enough that the conditions change. Current is the thing to focus on here, because it's predictable.
Recently I was plugging a beach after dark and noted a lot of "fire" in the water. This is the light given off by small bio-luminescent jellyfish. The tide was high incoming, and when the current changed to outgoing, the jellyfish disappeared. Because these creatures are mostly dependent on current for travel, this meant that the water I was fishing was different on the ebb than on the flood. Maybe the temperature was different, given that the jellyfish are normally associated with water warmer. While it was jellyfish that tipped me off to the water change that corresponded with the tide change, there have been numerous times when fishing in and and near inlets when there was a noticeable clarity change corresponding with a change in current direction. The current speed is often a key factor in determining whether the fish will hit. If the current is fast, the fish may not wish to expend energy to feed. They might wait for the current to slow as it approaches slack. If you're in an area with mild currents – like most of our ocean and Sound beaches, the fish might feed best on the periods of stronger current because it will give them an advantage over their weaker prey.
Are we being followed frequently when we're bass fishing? Maybe. There's really no way to know for sure. It does make me appreciate Paduano's statement about fishing like something is following you. After watching the fluke video, I'm starting to believe that the fish may be following and watching our lures more frequently than we think.

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