Stealth Bombers and Smart Hooks

by Geoff Maynard

A solar powered alien from a planet without an atmosphere lands on Earth. He has no digestive system or ears and is stone deaf. How does he begin to comprehend our appreciation of music or food? Anglers have the same problem when relating to fish. We humans cannot begin know what the life of a fish entails, even by relating it to our own human values. We can begin to make assumptions about fish only after studying them and their habits. Even then, those assumptions that we do make are all too often coloured by us bestowing upon the fish our own human sensory values. Not a very smart thing to do, but we all do it because it's all we have to work with. Except our imaginations.

I've been reading a few of those Tom Clancy novels recently. Big heavy tomes full of intrigue, packed solid with data regarding state of the art, high tech weapons systems. Heavy stuff in some ways, but very interesting. The things that our scientists can do! From Clancy I have learned that modern warfare is all about how good our defense force's radar and sonar systems are. The methods used for detecting a threat. Aided by modern computer technology, they are excellent.

What's all this got to do with fishing? You may well ask. Maybe nothing at all, maybe a great deal. The modern nuclear submarine is equipped with sonar which can pick out another submarine many miles away and classify it into type, identifying it as friend or foe. All from just the noise that it makes. Amazing. It all sounds so sophisticated, yet it is very primitive compared with the 'sonar' built into a whale. Sharks can sense blood from miles away, yet we would need to invest millions to even attempt that feat. Likewise, the most advanced computer in the world is a mere pocket calculator compared to our human brains. My point is that the very best sensory equipment is supplied by Nature, not silicon valley.

Anglers, good ones anyway, have always known that to catch a fish it is important to think like a fish and to be aware of the sensory systems that fish use. For example, we know that pike are drawn to vibrations, so by using vibrating lures we address their sense of 'feel'. A match angler knows that he will get more bites by using tiny hooks and ultra fine line. He tries to outwit the visual senses of the fish, as most of his fish are sight feeders. So.. we know that we should normally address the senses of the type of fish that we seek, in order to try to improve our catches. It's all this rubbish about the smell of bait which makes me laugh. Stay with me, I'll explain later.

Leisure Sport Angling boss, Ian Welch, has in his office a tank containing a catfish. He has described to me how it feeds. This almost blind creature can home in on food introduced in the tank with great accuracy. Drop some food into the tank and it's whiskers twitch. One goes up and one down. The next second, wham, it hits the introduced food spot on. Vibrations? Of course, this is well documented. But perhaps something else as well. Another sense that we don't know anything about. Perhaps a Sonar/Taste system of some type.

Just because humans have only five senses doesn't mean everything else has to have the same. And different creatures use those senses in different manners and modes. I'm told that dogs can hear ultra-sound yet see only in monochrome and that snakes see in infra-red. Not how we do it, is it? And you can bet your life that fish have even more alien sensory systems as they exist in a totally alien environment. At least dogs and snakes breathe air.

What interests me is how the catfish functions as a predator. It can successfully predate without sight. Catfish are primarily nocturnal feeders. Their sight is poor and so it is less important to address that sense when presenting a bait to them. What must be considered is not the visual presentation of the hookbait, but its 'feel' and taste. Nature has designed this fish to be very long, so its lateral line is also very long. So is the towed sonar array on a submarine. The catfish has a wide skull which contains an inner ear of much larger proportions than fish which feed mainly by sight. As this inner ear processes the messages from the lateral line we can assume that vibrations are very important to the catfish. Its whiskers too are a miracle of nature. They are covered with taste buds. Some catfishes have these taste buds all over their bodies, so taste is obviously very important too. The catfish is a natural sonar and tasting machine. It is perfectly designed to feel and taste in the same manner as our high tech radar and sonar systems - at a distance. But as it is designed by Nature, it is probably far more accurate.

I've been chasing catfish this summer. I've had quite a few fish and feel that I've been pretty successful. However, with every take, for every fish that I hooked, I lost another one. Either by the fish dropping the bait before I could strike, or from not hooking the fish on the strike. From conversations I've had with other anglers, these dropped runs do not seem to happen so often on virgin waters with fish that have not been caught before. 'Virgin' catfish are not alarmed by metal hooks, they have no experience of them and therefore have nothing to fear. These cats just grab the bait and swallow it, hook and all. On hard fished waters it is a different story. Dropped runs are common. Why? Back to Tom Clancy.

Today's modern warfare aircraft have to be 'radar resistant'. To be effective, they must have an 'outline' which is hard to detect.. Remember the Stealth Bombers during the Gulf War? Undetectable by the other side's radar, they were the most successful weapon used. Assuming now that fish (some or all?) have the sonar/taste sense mentioned above, perhaps we should try to get our end tackle more 'stealthy'. When angling in a heavily fished water with a lip or tail hooked bait, the catfish seems to try to grab it whilst avoiding the hook. It grabs just one end of it, the unhooked end. Hence striking does not connect and a fish is lost. How is it that the virtually blind catfish can do this when it is in 'predator mode' ? It cannot see the hook so it stands to reason that it must 'taste - sense' it.

Let us break the mould. Start afresh. Use our brains. Think about this. Humans exist in a gas environment - air. Air is a poor conductor of taste but a good conductor of scent. The reverse applies to fish. Fish exist in water, an excellent conductor of taste, but a poor conductor of scent. Bearing this in mind, it is obviously wrong to impart our human sensory values to a fish. Taste and smell are related senses - but only related. They are two distinct, separate senses. With regard to baits, we anglers have been concentrating upon the wrong sense. Especially concerning catfish, though the carp boys would do well to read this too and adopt some of this theory. I think that a smelly bait is not so important as we have previously thought, that taste is what really matters.

I feel sure that catfish can 'taste' at a distance. Maybe a few feet, maybe a few yards or maybe a lot more. And if the cat can taste the bait at a distance, it can also taste the metal hook! Therefore perhaps a 'stealthy' hook is needed, one which will confuse that remarkable ability of this fish, and maybe many other types of fish, to detect a hook. Perhaps a hook made of a material that occurs naturally in the fish's home environment would be ideal. The human race used bone hooks for thousands of years until metal was discovered. A sophisticated bone hook is impractical though, better that we disguise our existing hooks.

I am now trying out a 'smart' hook on heavily fished waters, sheathing it in silicone rubber to disguise the feel/taste 'outline' detectable by the catfish, to give the hook a softer 'taste reflection'. The silicone tubing is split from the point of the hook to halfway up the bend so that when a strike is made, the rubber falls away leaving the hook free to do its work. The rubber is also rubbed into the bait to attempt to make it taste the same. I am using small hooks, carp sized models instead of the usual huge catfish models. This reduces the amount of metal taste to the bait. What? You think metal doesn't taste? Pop a coin into your mouth! I once knew a scrap metal dealer who could taste different types of metal. A totter would bring in some scrap and if its composition was in doubt, a quick lick from the dealer would settle the matter. I worked with this guy for six months and watched him at work many times. He was never wrong. And he was only a human!