Brain Power

Are the fish smart or are we dumb?

(A not very serious look at getting skunked)

Flyfishing is one of the most written about subjects on the planet, more than likely at least in part because there is so much that can’t be explained. One generic theme that repeats itself constantly in various writings is that what with all our computing power we can’t get it right all the time.

How is it that a trout, a cold blooded and slightly slimy creature (albeit pretty and much loved one) can outwit us a lot of the time? What is it that means that a fish, with a pretty limited view of the world and a brain the size of a pea can drive us to distraction with its antics?

Hell all we are doing is trying to con the fish into thinking that a simple twist of fur and feather is actually a real and edible food item, surely that shouldn’t be too tricky, I mean we are smart aren’t we?

We have massive brains, computers, graphite fly rods, ultrathin tippet, fancy vests, myriad fly patterns and all that angling literature, it should be a doddle but frequently it ain’t.

Sure if you mess about with fly fishing for very long you start to realize that there are various means at the trout’s disposal to avoid making a mistake. The colour, shape and size of the fly being used, the presentation and of course that all important little corollary the onset of unnatural drag to give the game away, but still come on we are at the top of the intellectual food chain here, we should be winning the race.

Many people, both anglers and non anglers alike keep asking me “but surely the fish can’t be that smart”, I mean really they can’t actually learn stuff or process information in an organized cognitive fashion the way that us smart and highly developed hominids can manage?

Well it would appear that our arrogance once again proves to be a failing; recent research into the ability of fish to feel pain, (another generic theme that runs through angling literature on a regular basis) has apparently shown that fish can learn a whole lot more than we previously imagined. Of course if you have a PhD and torment fish in a laboratory your opinion is perceived as more valid than if you simply spend a lifetime trying to catch them, but I don’t need a doctorate to know that at least some of the time my best efforts aren’t enough.

That trout can learn is, at least to my mind, more than adequately explained when you watch the change in behavior over time on waters that are transformed into Catch and Release venues where the fish have the chance to add to their experience without paying the ultimate price for the first error of judgment.

Over time the rise forms become more subtle, refusals of the artificial fly and inspection rises to have a better look at what is on offer become more common and what the English refer to as “short takes” catch us out on a far more regular basis.

The evidence may well be subjective but the sheer volume of it has to stand for something and for my money the fish are getting smarter and they are becoming more and more tricky to fool. I have heard it said that trout aren’t hard to catch because they are smart but because they are too stupid to recognize a good thing when it comes along and simply eat the same old same old one after the other during a hatch. I don’t buy that for a moment apart from anything else I need to believe that they are smart to justify my own failings. It is one thing to be skunked by a highly evolved self protective mechanism in a thinking fish, quite another to admit defeat at the hands, or in this case fins, of an unworthy opponent.

However having spent years pontificating on the subject I have come to the realization that there is indeed an explanation, one so remarkably succinct, so simple , so logical that I absolutely had to share it.  Our brains are in some ways our biggest limitation, we look for complexity in everything, even when it isn’t there.

So perhaps the following charts of what goes on in both human and trout brains during the day will offer some explanation, perhaps a little solace and if nothing else a valid excuse for those days when your net remains dry.]

So there you have it, that is why, when you are struggling to come to terms with failure and the world is on your shoulders you can’t get the fish to take. In the end perhaps the most important part of fishing is to clear your mind, it may give you something of an edge when you get right down to it.

This blog post is brought to you by Inkwazi Flyfishing Safaris, Cape Town’s premiere fly fishing guiding service.

Brought to you by Inkwazi Flyfishing Cape Town's best fly fishing guiding service.

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6 Responses to “Brain Power”

  1. sharland East Says:

    Most interesting and rather fun to read early on a wet and miserable Saturday morning.Do not like the needles.

  2. Paddy Coleman Says:

    This is spooky! Perhaps you are the long lost brother my parents never mentioned? Or maybe you too had a full moon and dropping barometer this weekend.
    I’ve just returned from a skunking on water that I know fairly well and have always caught on before. As I ground my teeth during the 4 hour drive home last night, I came to the conclusion that reading ALL of Gary LaFontaine’s writings, a lot of Gary Borger’s, and numerous other words of wisdom in the past six months – as a poor substitute for actually fishing – I have overloaded my mind with theory to the point that I failed to adequately perform even the most basic manouvers well enough to catch.
    The fact that the water had been silted up by a storm a few weeks ago, the weather was all over the place, mostly worsening if that’s possible, and there was a blazing bright full moon on the one clear night we had, cam’t have helped. But as a faithful Fishing Gene disciple, equipped with a full compliment of grey matter, I should have mastered the situation. Shouldn’t I? But I didn’t.
    So it’s back to the very basics for me, after a lovely bonfire tonight, fueled by 20 kg of excess literary baggage.

  3. paracaddis Says:

    That you are a faithful Fishing Gene Disciple is most rewarding te hear Paddy, and of course the advantage of electronic publication is that these tomes of questionable import at least cannot join the rest of your library on a bonfire.

    That said if we never got skunked then the game would be diminished so take heart. When the fish want to get caught it is easy, when they don’t.. well then it is impossible

  4. Roland Says:

    Another brilliant read Tim. Found myself nodding my head and smile on my face right till the end. I must say your site has damn good info on it, I don’t always post comments but I make sure I read your articles slowly, so I can absorb the multitude of info.
    Thanks for the effort you put in.
    Have a good weekend and hope you are fishing

  5. paracaddis Says:

    Thanks for the kind words Roland.

  6. The latest Cape Piscatorial Society newsletter | Fishing the Western Cape Waters Says:

    […] out the Fishing Gene Blog on to see a somewhat tongue in cheek explanation of where you might be going […]

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