FISH PATTERNING IS a modern term for a very old methodology. It is a reasonable, deliberate and highly effective way of fishing. It depends on understanding the dynamic relationship between predator and prey in their environment. The phrase describes the essential survival approach to fishing that enabled commercial and professional fisherman to succeed in their day-to-day quest for a good catch that would ensure their livelihood.
Patterning fish behavior is similar to hunting. With all methods of hunting, you must study your quarry to understand their behavior. Many modern sport anglers simply arrive at a familiar spot and hope to catch fish. Their fishing strategy is limited to chance occurrence. Anglers who fish that way are dependent on happenstance alone rather than observed, fact-based knowledge. Fish, like all successful predators, base their feeding routines on the habits of their prey. Fish do not starve to death because of poor luck. They have an intimate knowledge of how to find food. Like these fish, the best fishermen are familiar with their quarry’s routines and use this knowledge to form strategies that enhance their chance of success. Learning how fish find bait in their environment is fundamental to becoming a consistently successful angler.
Develop a Plan
The fast lane to learning how to pattern fish is to study the flats. Flats have finite borders that are filled with classic structures like bars and channels, coves and points, rips, basins, and various bottom types (mud, sand, cobble and grass). And fish are restricted in their ability to move. They are subject to the boundaries of the environment. Flats are first and foremost laboratories for observing fish behavior. The first task is to develop a plan or a strategy that you can use to find fish. Simplicity is the order of the day. Start by heading to a flat at slack low tide so you can study its structure. Fish move along structure lines, and it is critical to note where the bars drop into channels, where one bar ends and another begins, where there are grass beds and where there is higher ground. The bait will follow those edges when the tide floods, and larger fish will follow the bait.
Then start at the shallowest edge that you can get to and move along, and head into the current, parallel to the flow. This will do several things for you in short order. It will eliminate water that is not holding fish in a matter of minutes. Using a depth line as a guide and following it allows you to observe and quantify the life on the flat. This is the most important skill you can master. If you cover an edge thoroughly and find no baitfish, move to a slightly deeper edge. You should spend at least 45 minutes to an hour scouting out the depth line before wetting a line. Resist the urge to cast, even if you see fish. After several passes, you will begin to notice the baitfish moving along an edge, and you will see their relationship to the water’s surface or the bottom. You’ll see how they move along the edges of current seams created by bottom structure and moving water. You’ll notice their depth and whether they are high in the water column (closer to the surface), low in the water column (closer to the bottom) or somewhere in between.
As you move along the depth line, you will come upon shallow bars and edges that focus the current, consolidating the bait into dense schools. These schools will pause and gather together to move over a bar or through a small rip as they move into the current. Observing the patterns of how individual schools of baitfish move is significant; this determines how the predators locate bait in order to feed easily. The patterns of bait change daily, depending on water temperature, light levels, wind velocity and wind direction. Once you locate the bait and register their patterns, it is natural to look up-current and notice where the water flow provides an easy place for predators to ambush them. Use your GPS to mark spots, or do it the old-fashioned way and take ranges (line up two vertical landmarks, one behind the other, like in a rifle sight, such as a house chimney in the back and a flagpole in front of it). Once you have identified the baitfish’s patterns, repeat the same steps, with the focus turned toward predators. Return to the shallowest water you can get into, and this time move quickly along the edges and start looking for your quarry. Move along an edge until you have eliminated it, and then move incrementally into deeper water until you find the depth that the fish are moving in. The difference between your shallow-depth runs and your deeper-water runs will probably be only a matter of inches. Note the depth in which you find fish, for they will stay at that depth as the tide rises. That means if you find them at 21/4 feet, they will constantly move in a depth of 21/4 feet, regardless of their physical location on the flat as the tide rises. If the depths are uneven, then the fish will reposition to move at a depth of 21;4 feet. They will mill at a bar and only pass over it when the water rises to their preferred depth of 21/4 feet for that day. They may go around the bar rather than wait, but that type of movement is not hard to notice. Once they go over the bar, they will continue to move at their preferred depth and search out baitfish as they go along. This depth orientation is one of the most amazingly consistent patterns fish display on flats and an important one for you to know.
Here’s the tough part: To learn how to pattern fish, you’ll need to leave fish in order to find fish. Now is the time to see if the pattern you observed is correct. If you find fish on the southeast corner of a point bar at 2 1/4 feet, go to the next southeast corner of a point bar at 2 l/4 feet and see if they are there. They probably will be. As the tide rises, the bait and the bass will also move up the bar in that 2 1/4-foot zone. They will follow the structure line until it ends. Then they will use a current line to bridge their move to an adjoining structure, always maintaining the same amount of water over their head. Leapfrog your way across the flat, and observe as you go.
Pay Attention to Subtleties
If you have a pattern that is producing consistently and you find a similar structure or current that does not produce fish, do not assume that the pattern has changed. So why is this area barren of fish? Try to discern a difference. You’ll likely notice something, like the current has changed or your pattern was for offshore bars and this one is an onshore bar. Perhaps there is a point bar forming an uptide rip current that pushes the flow into deeper water. Remember that bar, because it may fit into a different pattern that you learn about later on. While that bar did not contain fish on the flood tide, it may be an escape route for the fish once the tide ebbs.
Now you can make your first cast. Because you patterned the fish, you can station your boat or yourself so that you can catch them consistently. You’ll know where they are coming from and where they are moving to. You can deliberately position yourself above them to make a proper presentation. You will not spook them because you are waiting for them, not chasing them.
By patterning fish, you will notice the different mannerisms of fish. You will become aware of whether fish are positive, neutral or negative. Positive fish are easy to catch. Negative fish are spooky fish, jittered by even a sea-gull shadow. Neutral fish are inquisitive and can be caught if you make them interested enough to strike. Hunger governs positive fish, wariness governs negative fish, and indifference governs neutral fish. Positive and neutral fish can be caught through patterning. Negative fish can be caught if you use patterning to intercept them with stealth.
When the tide drops, the direction of the current reverses, and fish will slowly drop back off the flat, always facing into the current. They will move off the flat at the same depth in which they came onto the flat. To learn to pattern fish, you must get rid of your preconceptions. Just go to the water and observe. Avoid routines. If you return to the same spots you always fish, you won’t broaden your skill set. Instead, notice the current, examine the wind, and note how the two interact. Watch how the current and the wind move on structure and form edges and pathways for fish. Look for those edges, and look for bait. If you incorporate observations like these into your fishing, you’ll be able to read water and understand the structure of every flat you encounter.
Fishing is much more than just catching fish. If it were passive, then we might as well go and watch a spectator sport. Sometimes when we go fishing, we spend the entire day and make only a handful of casts. Our day is spent studying the baitfish, the environment and then the fish to see how they interact. When we do make a cast, we hook the fish deliberately. As you spend time patterning fish, test out all hunches, no matter how irrational they seem. If you are wrong about a current or a location today, you may find that it is useful tomorrow. When you are right, log the pattern. You’ll quickly become a savvy angler.
When the water begins to move, study the current to see which direction it is going. The fish will move into the current. Note if the current is moving to the left or to the right. Observe how the wind interacts with the current. An onshore wind will push the current and the fish closer to the structure, while an offshore wind will push the current and the fish farther out. A wind that blows into the current slows it down, and a wind that moves with the current increases its speed. If the wind is faster than the current, it will form a surface current that predatory species might move into. Notice what speed of current the fish prefer. See if they favor the hard currents around the end of a point bar or if they prefer the softer current in the middle of a shoal. Look for edges where currents meet and join or where they separate and split. Cardinal points are critical; use these compass directions to note how fish approach bars and which side of the humps they use to move into the current. These behaviors may seem random, but they are patterns that are predictable and consistent.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Fly Fishing in Salt Waters.