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Seven factors universal to all fishing
By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
Published September 7, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - A fellow from New York called the other day and wanted to talk fishing.
"I fished a lot of streams and lakes back home," he said. "But I don't know anything about fishing down here."
He wanted books, Web sites, magazines - anything - to help him catch fish.
"Don't worry," I told him. "I can tell you everything you need to know in two minutes."
A silence followed.
I expected the caller to respond to my boast the same way Ned Pepper did in True Grit when Rooster Cogburn said that he aimed to kill the outlaw or see him hang.
"I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," Pepper proclaimed, prompting the marshal, played by John Wayne, to grab the reins with his teeth and ride full-speed ahead, both guns blazing.
"Two minutes," I repeated, and then proceeded to explain.
Fishing is fishing. It doesn't matter if you are talking about trout in the mountains of Switzerland or barramundi in the billabongs of Australia, our finned friends all have something in common: They've got to eat.
As a boy, chasing pickerel and sunfish in a 10-acre pond called Mallard Lake in New Jersey, I learned quickly that a finite set of variables determined whether I caught fish. Those same factors, which I'll call the "Simple Seven," still determine if I go home empty-handed or with fillets for the grill.
Let's take them one at a time:
Species: Before you set out, learn some basic facts about your prey. Are you after a schooling species, such as red drum, or a solitary hunter, such as cobia?
Does your quarry feed in the water column or down on the bottom? When and where does it spawn?
What does it eat? Crustaceans, minnows, hot dogs, anything? Knowing the answers to those questions are the difference between failure and success.
As a young trout fisherman, I made it a point to open the stomach of any fish I kept, just in case knowing the contents might help me on my next outing.
Time: My friend Bill Serne has a saying: "Start early, stay late." No, he's not referring to happy hour. He's talking about taking photographs. The light is best right after sunrise and right before sunset.
The same can be said about fishing. I like to be on my spot, be it a bend in a river or on top of an oyster bar, at the start of what I call "the shift change." That is when the creatures of the night give way to the creatures of the day and vice versa.
Breakfast or supper, call it what you like. Bottom line: It's time to eat. There are exceptions to this rule, i.e., major and minor solunar times, peak tidal flows, etc., but in general, you cannot go wrong fishing at dawn and dusk.
Temperature: Fish are a lot like people. They have an optimal operating temperature. If it is 50 degrees out, you don't feel like a swim, unless you're Russian. When it's 98, you don't feel like a run in the midday sun. But when that mercury hits 72 degrees, all bets are off. Mountain bike Madagascar? Sure. Sea kayak to Kodiak? Why not?
Fish don't like extremes either. If it is cold or too hot, they seek out spots where it is warm or cool. Either way, they won't be feeding, unless you make them an offer they can't refuse.
Structure: There is a reason why a lioness sits in the tall grass and waits for a zebra to come to drink from the watering hole. The structure, i.e. grass, helps keep the cat hidden.
Marine predators, such as snook, also use structure to ambush prey. It could be a dock piling, mangrove root, oyster bar or even a drop-off. The structure also gives the snook an avenue of escape should a predator get too close for comfort.
The key is learning to identify structure. In a trout stream, it might be a rock. On the flats, it might be something as innocuous as a grass bed.
Current: Fish feed in moving water for a simple reason: most small food sources simply get carried by the current. I guess it is possible to catch fish on a slack tide, but it has never worked for me.
Anglers argue over which is better, incoming or outgoing, and to be honest, it varies by location. But more important than high or low tide is the rate of the flow. If the tide is predicted yes, they are only predictions to drop 2 feet in four hours, the current will be ripping and the fish will be feeding.
Tackle: This category includes the subcategory "angler error." Tie strong knots, keep your reels serviced and with fresh line. Downsize in clean water. Sharpen hooks. Support your local independent tackle store.
Location: This is where it gets dangerous. Teach a man to fish, and you'll feed him for life. Show a man where to fish and he'll steal your spot.
The best anglers are the ones who spend the most time on the water. That's why a good guide is worth every penny he is paid. Remember, you might be paying for a half-day charter, but you are getting two days' worth of research for free.
After I finished talking there was a moment of silence. I expected a thank-you, but then the fellow from New York said: "That was an awfully long two minutes."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.
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