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Secrets of Fishing

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

I don't remember at what age I started fishing, but I do know that by the time I started school, I could bait my own hook and didn't need help unhooking a fish-unless it swallowed my bait. At the time, I thought I was quite an accomplished angler.

Most of my early angling experiences were at farm ponds, fishing for anything that would bite. I was always excited by the time I got to the water, and it was almost impossible for my folks to control my enthusiasm. However, they warned me that if I was too noisy I would scare all the fish, and then we would have to go home without a mess of fish for supper. This was the first secret of fishing I learned: You had to be quiet at all times.

In college, I learned that fish can hear, but that sound traveling in the air will scarcely penetrate the water. Looking back, I'm not sure my parents believed their secret of fishing. I think they just wanted some peace and quiet.

As an avid angler and fisheries biologist, I think I've heard just about every rule, secret and myth about fishing. Many have merit, but some, I believe, are just tall tales passed down from one generation to the next.

From an early age I remember hearing, "wind in the east, fishing is least; wind in the west, fishing is best." I paid little attention to this as a kid. It was my opinion that no matter which direction the wind was blowing, fishing was better than yard work. That's a belief I still hold today.

The saying, however, has some validity. In Missouri, an easterly wind usually is the forerunner to bad weather. Most anglers agree that this is not the best time to be fishing unless the barometer is dropping fast, which often causes a feeding frenzy among fish. Unfortunately, most of us don't have time to constantly watch a barometer, nor do we have the luxury of dropping everything and heading to our favorite fishing hole when it does start to drop fast.

My early fishing excursions often ended with a stringer of bullheads. However, the pain involved in getting the bullheads sometimes didn't seem worth it. They always seemed to have the ability to stick a fin in my finger when I unhooked them or put them on the stringer. After being finned, I immediately rubbed the wound on the fish to help ease the pain and heal it.

Many species of catfish, including bullheads and madtoms, have glands at the base of their pectoral fins that produce a toxin that can produce a painful sting. Many people believe that if you rub the wound along the side of the fish, the mucous will reduce the stinging and allow it to heal quicker.

I guess we knew what we were talking about. A professor of biochemistry at the University of California at Davis heard of this folk remedy while in Kuwait and tried it himself. Cuts healed entirely in three days when rubbed with catfish slime. Untreated cuts took 10 days to heal.

Catfish slime contains 60 different proteins that are fundamental in wound healing. All catfish have similar proteins, but Kuwaitian catfish secrete them more easily than our native catfish species and thus are better at healing wounds.

More than one bona fide river rat has told me to fish a rising river. After years of taking their advice, I think I can now explain why fish are more active and feed more when river flow is increasing.

When a river is rising, the increased current washes more food downstream. This new bounty often prompts opportunistic fish to embark on a feeding frenzy. I've seen catfish that were so full of earthworms after a rainstorm that they could not possibly eat another one without bursting.

On the other hand, rapid increases in stream flow can be stressful on fish and make them tight-lipped. As a rule of thumb, a slow, steady rise in a river provides better fishing than a river rising rapidly.

When fishing was slow, my dad often spat on his hook. It seemed to work for him, so I picked up the habit, much to my mother's displeasure. Looking back, I'm sure some of my father's success was related to the fact that he usually chewed plug tobacco or ate black licorice while fishing. Either added an additional scent to his bait, which attracted fish.

Many commercial scents for fishing lures contain anise, which is the major flavoring in black licorice. Some people say adding WD-40 or Preparation H to lures and bait brings added success. The explanation is that both contain shark oil, which attracts fish. The manufacturer of WD-40 said that shark oil is not an ingredient in the product, but the manufacturer of Preparation H stated that their product contained 3 percent shark liver oil. Both said that they had heard of these angling secrets, but did not recommend using their products in such a manner.

Besides, introducing a commercial lubricant, such as WD-40 or any petroleum-based substance, in our waterways is illegal.

I've often heard that a chunk of soap works as a good bait for catfish. I wonder if you have to clean a fish that ate soap for bait?

For more than 50 years, many anglers have planned their outings based on when the moon was "right." John Alden Knight first published Solunar Tables about 70 years ago. These tables, still available today, indicate daily major and minor activity periods for fish and wildlife throughout the year. The tables are based on theories that originated during market hunting days in the swamps of Georgia and Florida and are founded on the relationship between solar and lunar patterns, hence the name solunar.

There is no denying that there are periods when fish are very active, and much longer periods when they are not active. Whether or not these periods coincide with Knight's periods or any other moon system is another matter, since so many other factors, including weather and water clarity, can affect fish activity.

Almost everyone has heard the stories of the huge fish that supposedly live immediately below large dams. The fish have all the food they can eat and grow as big as Volkswagens. One version of the story involves local amateur divers who were frightened by the huge size of the fish.

Large fish do live below dams. However, they are not nearly as big as those of legend. Besides, the peak weight of fish seems limited no matter how much food is available. Likely, divers frequently report seeing big fish because water magnifies objects 1.4 times their actual size. Therefore, a 48-inch fish would appear to be about 67 inches long.

Here's another bit of lore to think about: Some anglers won't release fish they've caught because they fear the fish will "tell" the others not to bite. Fish communicate via color, sound, smell, and even electrical signals. However, you often can take several fish from the same school, even after releasing them, and you may catch the same fish over and over again.

The value of many of these fishing "secrets" is that they are fun to think about and chuckle over when fishing is slow. During our last fishing trip, I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to figure out how such myths could possibly persist in this modern world, but my daughters kept interrupting my train of thought. I told them to be quiet, or they'd scare the fish. I'm not sure they believed me.

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