Beware the Dumb-Fish Deficit

Who’s smarter: fish or fishermen? The truth might hurt.

September 6, 2016


I read a new study…

It suggested fish might be smarter than fishermen, but I didn’t understand it.
But seriously —this new study has provided possibly the best reason of all for traveling to fish remote or isolated areas: dumb fish.
And, God knows, those are my kind of fish. Not that they have to be really stupid — just dumber than I am. The many hours anglers can spend trying to land one really good catch does lead one to ponder the relative intelligence of angler and quarry

dumb fish
A new study shows that alpha fish tend to hang back while the little guys rush in to grab a bait or lure — leading to the discouragement evident in this hapless angler’s expression. Scott Salyers / Sport Fishing

Fools Rush In

Scientists in Australia observed the response of fish in areas of reef long popular among anglers and found that larger fish in these areas had apparently learned (either the hard way, through direct experience or possibly even by observation) to not rush in to eat baits on hooks. They hung back and let the smaller fish dash in.
Anyone who’s ever tried to catch one of the fat 3- or 4-pound grey (mangrove) snapper hanging around the clear waters under a Florida dock, only to watch them show little interest while half-pound kamikazes fight to get themselves hooked, can relate to what those scientists witnessed.
The researchers deployed the same baited hooks in similar areas with little fishing pressure. Here, however, it was a different story, with the larger fish moving in quickly, taking advantage of their alpha status, and showing markedly less caution when chomping down on hooks visible in baits.

Where Fish Are Stupid

Lure manufacturers must be appreciating the implications of these findings. Sure, first and foremost, lures are designed to catch fishermen. I get that. But this suggests there is actually a legitimate reason for buying lures with new designs (listen up, nonfishing spouses!) beyond the fact that they just look cool: You need to show these big fish that have grown clever something new to sucker ’em into biting.

crazy fishermen
These clever anglers decided to show fish a new look, but not with their lures. Apparently they found at least one yellowfin tuna they were able to fool. Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

And as I mentioned earlier, charter-fishing operations and resorts in remote locales ought to be applauding this study too. If I owned such a resort, the big ad I’d run in Sport Fishing magazine would proclaim: “Our Fish Are Stupid!”
I’d always assumed that the great action associated with a pricey trip to an exotic destination was a result of more fish in the waters there. But it ain’t necessarily so; now we learn it may be that the predators in these areas simply aren’t yet used to seeing baits or lures with hooks.

Staying One Step Ahead

Unfortunately, it’s tougher and tougher to find lightly fished waters near home, waters where big fish, not clued in to our tackle, might still be as reckless as we’d like. We have a dumb-fish deficit, as it were. So all we can do is try to stay one step ahead of our quarry.

In any event, I love this study. Anything that helps justify the ridiculous amount of money and effort expended to fool a fish makes me feel a bit less silly.


It would have been most disheartening if the conclusion of the research had been: “All fish are really stupid. Frankly, any idiot can catch them.”

That, I can assure you, is just not true.


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