Blue landscapes. Biting, swirling winds. The water is far from tepid on a cold Alaskan morning. I say morning, but the sun has been up for hours already. The first mate, Luke, is scrubbing lures with scentless soap (inexpensive, hypoallergenic Arm & Hammer soap does the trick) and a soft bristled brush as we make our way out of the bay and into open waters off the Pacific.
Sounding like a true fan of the NFL the Captain relents ‘They do ok is why. But, you’ll only catch the fish you should have and none of the fish you shouldn’t have, unless you wash your lures down’ when I ask him why scrubbing down lures hasn’t caught on in the Continental US.
Fishing for Salmon, or any other species for that matter is no different in Alaska than it is in the Great Lakes. It’s the same. What is different is the mindset. We spend all this time and energy on fuel, and equipment, on electronics and gear, on our truck and our boat payments, and we completely miss the last step. As Capt. Mike said, we catch the fish we should have and none of the ones we shouldn’t have. Let’s turn for a moment to an analogy. Mammoth Caves.
If you’ve ever been to Kentucky’s National Park, or participated in any other cave excursion for that matter, then you’ve seen stalagmites (those that form from the floor up). One of your first instructions was ‘don’t touch’ the formations. They took a millennia to form and your greasy, grubby, oily hands are gonna muck shit up. In fact, the calcium salt formations turn black when enough clean (yet still oily) hands can’t keep well enough alone.
Human skin produces sebum, a naturally occurring body oil designed to keep skin moist and pliable (https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/understanding-your-skin#2-6). This oil is what turns stalactites black. And, this oil is all over your lures when they're not washed. We tie lures, affixing them to lines. We change them out when they aren’t working. We box them in Special Mate and Plano boxes for safe storage. We handle our lures ALL THE TIME. We do so without so much as thinking twice about the possible implications.
The staff at Mossyoak have done a fine job cataloging evidence of and arguments for fishing with new fishing lure designs, ‘something the fish haven’t seen over and over again’ (https://www.mossyoak.com/our-obsession/blogs/fishing/the-pros-and-cons-of-making-your-own-fishing-lures). They rightly conclude that old lure designs are becoming less effective.
Along those same lines a study bringing together the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and The University of Queensland (UQ) has shed light on fish behavior in a big way. Specifically, they found that ‘fish learn’ to avoid lures (https://phys.org/news/2016-04-clever-fish-caught-angling-hotspots.html). Professor Tibbetts continued by saying, "This kind of behavior indicates that the fish observe and learn from their environment and from the mistakes of others." The study was published in the International Journal of Marine Biology.
Suffice it to say that when we handle lures the oils on our hands create a chain of behavior reinforcement with every fish that is caught and released and every fish that is foul hooked and gets away unscathed. Likewise, our old standby lure colors, that don’t work as well as they used to if we’re being honest with ourselves, have outlived their utility for much the same reason. Sure, we still catch the fish that we’re supposed to (mostly younger and smaller adolescent fish), but we unknowingly miss the wily old Lunkers that we’re not supposed to catch (they’ve learned from every near miss they’ve ever had and are the pickiest, most finicky eaters in the water).
It takes only one encounter with a lure of a certain pattern or lure with human scent on it and the next time that fish will completely ignore it. Here’s the kicker, you may never know. If you’re feeling like you use to catch more fish, you’re probably right. It's time to start using new lure designs. And, we would all do well to take sound advice from an old Alaskan Angler. Don’t miss the last step, wash your damn lures.
Happy fish and Tight lines. Welcome to the Evolution,
Article written by Mike (Fish Mitts) Hiller