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Why We Fish: For the One That Got Away

We all lose that big one we never forget. Bill Dance talks about his in Why We Fish.

Here's an excerpt from "The Big Picture":

With the fish so well hooked, Dance understandably thought he was about to land the biggest smallmouth bass of his young life, possibly even a world’s record. Based on mounts he’d seen at a taxidermist’s, he was certain this bass weighed more than ten pounds, but the next time the bass ran under the boat, the line went slack, and Dance retrieved his fishless popper.

He was devastated. “I wanted to catch him so bad,” he remembers. “I went back there for weeks and months. I went back early and late. I went back at night. I fished up and down that bluff, knowing smallmouth bass have home-range tendencies. I went for a year, I know.”

And he spoke often of the one that got away.

Finally, wife Diane said, “I know what that fish means to you. It will be imprinted on your mind for the rest of your life. I know how you feel and I’m so sorry, but will you please stop talking about that fish?”

Decades later, though, he still talks. “People ask me about the biggest smallmouth I’ve ever caught, and I’ll say three 8s,” Dance says, “but then I’ll add, ‘Let me tell you about another one.’”

Pro or amateur, young or old, all of us who fish have hooked fish that got away. Fortunately for our mental health, we don’t remember all of them, but one or two stay with us always. Heads shaking, they leap majestically in our dreams and memories. They burn drag. They burrow into brush. They throw baits back at us, and splash us back into reality with a slap of their broad tails.


Fish Talk? Yes, they Do!

Who knew?

Fish talk. And often they talk about sex.

Of course, they don’t “speak” in words because they don’t have vocal cords.

Rather, they are “soniferous,” meaning they make sounds. They use their teeth, bladders, and other means to grunt, croak, click, drum, and squeak, saying things like “Swim over here, fishy, fishy” and “Get outta here, you fat flounder. This is my nest.”

Up to 1,000 species of fish are believed to be chatty and, yes, the sunfish family, which includes bass, is in the conversation. In fact, hydrophones were used to study bluegill courtships sounds more than 40 years ago.

“Some centrarchids do make noise,” said Gene Wilde, professor of fish ecology at Texas Tech. “But it seems to be only during breeding season, and we’re not sure how they do it. Possibly by rubbing mouth parts together.

“Some species make sounds year around,” he added. “But most fish sounds are associated with breeding. For example, drum attract mates that way.”

The gizzard shad, an important forage fish, is one species that makes sounds year around, and what a Texas Tech graduate student recently discovered about those sounds when the fish are exposed to environmental stressors is significant.

“Gizzard shad are widespread, in about 2/3 of the country,” said Matt Gruntorad. “They produce calls when stressed, and these calls could be an early warning system when there’s a  (water quality) problem. They could help protect valuable game fish and water supplies.”

The Texas Tech researcher exposed the shad to various levels of salinity, pH, and toxicity (ammonia hydroxide). As levels increased, the fish became louder--- up to a point. At the highest levels, they were quieter. “There could be a threshold when they are too stressed to make sounds,” Gruntorad said.

Sounds made by fish of 2 inches or so were too soft to analyze. But 12-inch shad yielded strong signals for the hydrophones.

Even so, though, their calls would be difficult, if not impossible, for the human ear to detect.

“They don’t croak,” the graduate student said. “Their calls are very simple, very quiet. They release gas through the anal duct. It’s like a fish fart.”

Compared to saltwater, much work remains to be done to recognize and understand sounds made by fish in freshwater, Gruntorad said.

Wilde agreed, adding that drum make their unique sound by playing muscles against their swim bladders, while catfish create their characteristic “grunts” by rubbing the pectoral spine against the pectoral girdle. “Smaller fish click their teeth together,” he said.

The fish behavior expert also said that any fish sounds that an angler hears above the water is not the same as what would be heard under.

“It’s tough for people to hear fish noises (in the water),” he explained. “For schooling fish, like herring, sound is a close-range thing to keep the integrity of the school.”

With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Wilde assured animal rights activists that fish do not scream when hooked. “We put a hydrophone in a phone where we catch a lot of bass,” he said. “And that did not happen.”

 Fish Sounds

 One of the reasons that the learning curve regarding soniferous fish has improved in recent years is that researchers have modified their diving gear. For years, they were unaware of conversations because sounds of bubbles released by SCUBA gear masked them, as well as frightened the fish.

Now researchers use self-contained breathing systems so no gas bubbles are released.

“Increasingly scientists are discovering unusual mechanisms by which fish make and hear secret whispers, grunts, and thumps to attract mates and ward of the enemy,” said

“In just one bizarre instance, seahorses create clicks by tossing their heads. They snap the rear edge of their skulls against their star-shaped bony crests.”

Meanwhile, the swim bladder, also used to control buoyancy, is one of the most common instruments for fish sounds. A muscle attached to the swim bladder contracts and relaxes in rapid sequence, causing the organ to produce a low-pitched drumming sound.

Some species use stridulation, pushing teeth and/or bones together. And still others use body movements to make sounds by altering water flow.

 Fish Hearing

 Yes, fish have ears --- of a sort. Actually they possess ear bones known as “otoliths.” Also used to age fish, they vary in shape and size according to species, just as human ears vary from individual to individual.

Only fish otoliths can’t be seen eternally.

Sound travels through water as waves or vibrations, and, because a fish’s body is of similar density, the waves pass through it. But they cause the ear bones to vibrate.

Additionally, a fish can sense vibrations and movement with its lateral line, which is a sensory organ consisting of fluid-filled sacs with hairlike cells, open through a series of pores along the side. And the swim bladder works in a similar fashion, according to Robert Castenada, founder of Livingston Lures, which mimic distress sounds from shad.

“A fish has three ways to pick up sounds, but only one way to see and smell,” he added. “That’s why, in my opinion, sound plays the biggest role in bass locating prey.”

But because sound travels farther and 4.4 times faster in water than in air, a fish can struggle to hear through the “clutter” of outboard engines and recreational activity, according to Hydrowave, which makes a sound device designed to attract bass and other game fish by imitating the sound of baitfish and predatory fish feeding on them.

“This speed, combined with the poor visibility characteristics of water is the reason that a fish is so dependent on vibration and water displacement . . . for location of prey,” the company said.

“The source of sound clutter is always present. This forms the basis of how fish have developed keen senses that allow them to specifically identify clutter from prey and feeding activities of other fish.”

Four-time Classic winner Kevin VanDam said that the Hydrowave works in two ways. “It excites the fish because they hear the sound of other bass eating,” he explained. “And it excites the bait. It draws it up.”

On the other hand, Castenada’s topwaters, jerkbaits, wakebaits, and crankbaits replicate the distress sounds that shad make when they are assaulted by bass. For years, anglers have used rattling baits. But the lure designer said those just make noise, while his make “an actual biological noise.” 


Great Read for Hunters, Anglers, and All Who Love the Outdoors

Many books about fishing and hunting are written by people who are skilled in those pursuits, but sadly lacking in writing expertise.

M.R. James is not one of those. The memoir of his life, Hunting the Dream, is one of the best written books about the outdoors that I've ever read. And you don't have to like hunting to enjoy this book. If you appreciate good writing, enjoy reading about life during a simpler time, and love nature, you'll like this book.

Written in narrative style with lots of dialogue and showing instead of telling,  it more resembles good fiction, as readers join James on a vividly detailed trip through his life, starting as a small-town boy growing up in Illinois during the 1940s and 1950s. Following his passion, he became a world-class bow hunter and founder of "Bowhunter Magazine" as his life moved full circle, to sharing love for the outdoors that he developed as a child with his son and grandsons.

Although I liked all of the book, the first of three parts was my favorite overall.  It featured "The Longest Day," about the sudden death of a friend, and another about "elephant trunks" and "the C-word," as James shared the pain, innocence, and, in retrospect, the wry humor of childhood.

In the second part, anyone who's ever known the love and loyalty of a good dog will love the story of "Sadie," the stray who adopted the James family and enriched their lives for 15 years.

And love him or hate him, Ted Nugent is brought to bigger-than-life by the author's excellent prose in "Hangin' With the Nuge," as he relates his relationship with hunting's most outspoken and outlandish supporte

For the hunters, and, especially the bow hunters, James offers plenty in the third part, as he details memorable hunts for deer, elk, moose, bison, and even muskox.



Nature-Deficit Disorder

The average child spends 4 to 7 minutes outdoors daily in unstructured play and more than 7 hours in front of a screen, according to Child Mind Institute (CMI). How sad is that?

Yet studies show that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive and less anxious that children who spend most of their time indoors. My book, Fish, Frogs, and Fireflies: Growing Up With Nature, details the many lessons about life that I learned by spending my childhood with nature.

Please, if you have kids, introduce them to the real wonders of nature, not those on a screen.

CMI also says this:

While it’s unclear how exactly the cognitive functioning and mood improvements occur, there are a few things we do know about why nature is good for kids’ minds.

  • It builds confidence. The way that kids play in nature has a lot less structure than most types of indoor play. There are infinite ways to interact with outdoor environments, from the backyard to the park to the local hiking trail or lake, and letting your child choose how he treats nature means he has the power to control his own actions.
  • It promotes creativity and imagination. This unstructured style of play also allows kids to interact meaningfully with their surroundings. They can think more freely, design their own activities, and approach the world in inventive ways.
  • It teaches responsibility. Living things die if mistreated or not taken care of properly, and entrusting a child to take care of the living parts of their environment means they’ll learn what happens when they forget to water a plant, or pull a flower out by its roots.
  • It provides different stimulation. Nature may seem less stimulating than your son’s violent video game, but in reality, it activates more senses—you can see, hear, smell, and touch outdoor environments. “As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow,” Louv warns, “and this reduces the richness of human experience.”
  • It gets kids moving. Most ways of interacting with nature involve more exercise than sitting on the couch. Your kid doesn’t have to be joining the local soccer team or riding a bike through the park—even a walk will get her blood pumping. Not only is exercise good for kids’ bodies, but it seems to make them more focused, which is especially beneficial for kids with ADHD.
  • It makes them think. Louv says that nature creates a unique sense of wonder for kids that no other environment can provide. The phenomena that occur naturally in backyards and parks everyday make kids ask questions about the earth and the life that it supports.
  • It reduces stress and fatigue. According to the Attention Restoration Theory, urban environments require what’s called directed attention, which forces us to ignore distractions and exhausts our brains. In natural environments, we practice an effortless type of attention known as soft fascination that creates feelings of pleasure, not fatigue.

Wagamons Pond Yields Second Delaware Record Bass

With little Wagamons Pond yielding two Delaware record largemouth bass in less than four years, it's logical to wonder if the same fish was caught twice. After all, double-digit bass are a rarity in general that far north, and, in a 41-acre impoundment, they would seem even more so.

But the11.10 (11 pounds, 1.6 ounces) bass that A.J Klein caught on Feb. 20 just might be one of a number of trophy bass that thrive in that unique fishery, along with the 10-pound, 10-ounce largemouth that James Hitchens caught and released in 2012. That's because the reservoir on the Broadkill River has both hydrilla and an unusually rich forage base, with a fish ladder providing entry for both alewives and blueback herring.

At the very least, though, that 11-pounder once again is swimming in Wagamons because Klein released it after quickly weighing and measuring it and getting it certified by a Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control official.

"It swam away slow at first because it was in shallow water," said the angler from New Castle. "But once it got to deep water, it jetted off. It was healthy, and we were so happy. We were relieved because that was the one thing we were really concerned about."

Klein caught the fish just as he and friend Joe Lattis were about to leave the pond because the bite was slow. As he slow rolled a Strike King Bleeding Shad spinnerbait near the bottom, he felt a subtle hit.

"I set the hook and thought I was snagged," he said. "Two seconds later, my line dropped, and I had a crazy fight on my hands."

Finally, Lattis netted the fish for him. "Once the bass was in the boat, we both just sat there and looked at each other," the angler said. "We didn't expect the bass to be that big."

Klein used 14-pound Berkley monofilament, a Daiwa Megaforce rod, and an Abu Garcia Hank Parker baitcaster to catch the Delaware record largemouth. Hitchens caught the previous record on a live shiner.