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Who's Outsmarting Who?

I'm afraid fish are very capable of learning. In fact, I'm beginning to think they are learning at a much faster rate than I am. They learn short term  (trout or snook under dock lights)  and they are clearly adapting to whatever we come up with next.

Fishermen (well, some fishermen) are also capable of learning. Hence we are locked in a race that fascinates me as much today, as it did 50 years ago.

Now the pessimist (and seemingly anybody involved in federal fisheries regulations) will tell you that the reason fishermen have been forced to constantly refine their tactics is because there are fewer fish of all species than ever. But I'm sorry, I've just seen too much evidence to the contrary.

My mentor, Capt. Fred Morrow, was one of the first fishermen in Northeast Florida to put a trolling motor on his skiff and head into shallow water in search of reds and trout. I'll never forget the day we motored up a creek with his 50-hp Evinrude, tossed out his anchor, and caught 46 reds without moving the boat.

Keep in mind that those fish stacked in those creeks had been chased by netters and fished hard for decades. The year was 1982, and it was the wild wild west of commercial fishing. If you could catch it, you could most certainly find somebody to buy it. In essence, we killed just about everything we caught.

The reason I'm telling you this, is because I know good and well there are more reds now than there were in the early 80s, but you'd certainly never get Capt. Fred to believe it. That's because every time he motors up a shallow tidal creek in Northeast Florida and tosses out his anchor today, he becomes more and more convinced we caught all the reds that ever lived there.

I would give anything, and I do mean anything, if I could just load his 83-year-old body into one of my kayaks at a daylight low tide and take him up that same creek. All his old friends and their descendants are there all right.  They're swimming around with their backs out of the water, feeding as they have for generations. The first few years I paddled my kayak back there, they could have cared less if I joined their party. I could catch them until the first flats boat tried to force his way up the flat. Now, each year gets a little tougher--the presence of my kayak is enough to switch off the feeding light. Now my casts have to reach farther, and my kayak has to stay still and silent. We haven't killed these survivors, they've adapted.

It happens in lakes, it happens with the mangrove snapper in your marina, and it happens on the open sea.

Captain Tommy Jamison was one of the best fishermen I ever knew, and back in the 1970s he was a sailfish machine. A successful career took him out of fishing for decades and I was thrilled to see him on the dock at a small tournament we fished in Fort Pierce a couple years ago. Tommy had no time or inclination to learn about fluorocarbon leaders, dink ballyhoo or dredges. “By God, if they couldn't figure out  Number 10 leader wire, big ballyhoo, 2 -ounce sea witches, and 9/0 hooks in 1976 they can't figure them out today.”

After we ran him 13 to 1, guess who my new best friend was.

I guess maybe the fish's ability to learn and adapt may be part of the difference between fishermen and people who like to fish. If you like to fish, August may well be set aside for thoughts of golf or the upcoming football season. If you're a fisherman, long windy nights with no fishing on the horizon are set aside for wondering why that tarpon kept turning away from your bait six months ago. heck that tarpon would have eaten it if you'd tried that lighter leader you almost tied on.

And so the game goes on. Here's hoping it never ends.


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