Science VS Gut Instinct: How We Learn to Fish

If there is one recipe that reliably yields top-flight fishermen — in terms of basic human traits, talents, root skills — I’m reasonably certain that a hard-wired scientific bent is the key ingredient.

Me? I’m a humanities guy.

A creative type. A science guy might base his angling strategy on months and years of careful observation conducted with absolute objectivity and a highly systematic approach to technique.

I based most of my own early attempts to catch fish on wild hunches and a willingness to log manic-episode-style hours casting plugs I didn’t know how to retrieve through water devoid of promise.

Everything I know at this point, 15 years into a professional fishing career, I learned the hard way, against every grain of my own hard-wired human skills, talents or basic inclinations. Most of it I picked up by leaning on my stunted, attention-deficient inner scientist.

Nowhere is my quasi-scientific ineptitude more obvious than in some of my early attempts at maintaining logbooks. These volumes follow a predictable course to a predictable fate. They’re hilarious.

Without exception, the first dozen or so entries of each volume — the “honeymoon phase” in my (repeatedly) newfound commitment to record-keeping — set a great and terrible precedent that ultimately dooms the whole undertaking. These first entries list conditions and every conceivable variable, along with meteorological, oceanographic and astronomical observations — water temp, tide stage, bracketed hours fished, areas sampled, current strength/direction, moon phase, weather forecast and actual weather, plugs and baits, the number and size of fish caught, baitfish present and so on — followed by additional “anecdotal observations” about technique, other anglers I encountered and anything else I could think to include by way of future notes-to-self.

These first entries, penned in my tidiest hand and entered with a different writing implement to underscore the fact that I absolutely did not write them from memory days or weeks after the fact, soon yield to the force of inevitability. Entries 13 through 18 are considerably shorter and are obvious products of a single sitting with one writing implement, the penmanship deteriorating rapidly, the diction more clipped, information less precise and more heavily anecdotal with each dated entry. The observed data vary, scientific method having jumped the tracks by this point.

By the 25th blurb, commitment is wavering. The 27th lists a date; the time I started (8:35 p.m.) and quit (“really @#$% late”); the words “eels” and “Narragansett,” then the number “6,” which presumably refers to what I caught; and lastly, the phrase “some bass,” which makes me wonder whether that “6” is related to bait consumption. (If I’d caught six bass, I might well just have written that instead of “some bass.”)

The next entry, dated two weeks later, features the date, followed by this: “Caught bass in Matunuck on a loaded Redfin, ebb, cloudy, moon.” Below the narrative portion of that little blast appears a painstakingly rendered line drawing of kelp swaying in some theoretical current, complete with cross-hatching to establish depth. That kelp, July kelp if my date system is to be trusted, marks the last entry.

By contrast, my more recent logs reflect a new understanding that what makes observations useful is consistency — more to the point, that consistent data collection requires narrowing the scope of what you record and recording it the same way every time at regular intervals.

Part of the problem non-scientists face is a stilted understanding of what constitutes sound scientific method. Too often, we creative types operate on the assumption that science is like stating an opinion (forming a hypothesis) and then setting out to prove its merit with evidence, often bending ambiguous observations to serve the argument along the way.

In an average season, there are endless theories ricocheting around the docks in every American fishing town. This season I heard all kinds of discussion over cold water — water temperatures, in general — as it affects the migratory patterns of forage and predator fish. All summer, there were quite a few folks who felt the season was running two weeks to a month behind a “normal” schedule. Always there are a million underlying “why” questions and many more proposed answers. The popular understanding of this curiosity: It’s all science at work.

As the depth of my own fishing experience has lengthened — as I’ve learned to use more effectively the lens of my inner scientist — I’ve started to realize that the most important function of science in an average angler’s day-to-day perspective is to keep him honest. It’s not about trotting out ornate theories to explain enigmatic fish behaviors, but rather keeping an open mind about exactly what he’s looking at. When everyone else on the dock is saying it’s running late, the smarter angler will go out of his way to consider the possibility that everything is right on time. That some unknown variable is skewing fishing results — such as, ironically enough, the two-weeks-behind theory — and giving the impression that fish have yet to follow predictable migratory patterns. That the fish have been around all along but are behaving differently.

The trick, I think, is to maintain a healthy skepticism about our own ability to explain things in terms of some singular fixed-point “normal,” to question at every moment whether we’re seeing what we think we’re seeing. I think of all the times there was one kind of baitfish all over the place, fish going crazy, while all my efforts to mimic that particular type of feed had come up skunked. So many times, closer inspection has turned up a different, less evident food source that was driving the whole feeding event, a second less obvious angling method doing every bit of the catching.

I think of all the times that friends and I ran through acres of life in cold, snot-green water in 40 fathoms, headed for some distant 10-degree surface-temp break outside 100 fathoms at Hydrographer or Hudson Canyon along the lead edge of some theoretical, satellite-captured piece of water we thought looked like the “Fountain of Bigeyes.” I think of the times we kept steaming through all that life toward theoretical perfection, only to find a dead (if cobalt-blue beautiful) ocean. And I think of the times we persuaded ourselves to stop short, against the advice of every acknowledged authority on tuna fishing, and wound up loading the boat.

The easy thing is to use the years of your experience to wall off ideas on the grounds that you know better from experience. Much harder, but probably more gratifying, is to use the stretch of your own experience as a measure of what you don’t yet know but might soon learn.

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