Old fish or new fish?

We’ve been talking about finding fish when they’re moving up and down or on and off a bank. This time we’ll take a closer look at what you’re finding — old fish or new fish. It’s not impossible, but it isn’t easy. There are no black and white rules to go by.

The first thing I look at is size. Smallmouth have a strong tendency to school or group by size. If you start seeing fish that are smaller or larger than the ones you’ve been catching, it’s likely that you’re into new fish. It’s a rare day when a 2-pounder hangs out with a 3-pounder.

The second thing I look at is color. Fish that have been living at the same depth and around the same kind of structure or cover will all look about the same. Pale fish are almost always deep fish; green fish are almost always grass fish; brown fish are almost always rock and gravel fish. Clear water smallmouth generally have more color than muddy water smallmouth.

After that it’s experience and intuition. You hear all the time that there’s no substitute for time on the water. Nothing replaces experience in the sport of fishing. Sometimes you can “just tell” that you’re on new fish or that you’re fishing the same bunch. It isn’t anything in particular. It’s just something you sense.

I’ll tell you that fish aren’t the same any more than people are the same. If you see a set of identical twins once in a while, you’ll swear they’re exactly the same. There’s no way to tell them apart.

But, if you’re around them all the time, you will soon be able to tell which one’s which without ever being wrong. If you doubt what I’m saying, you should ask a mother or an older brother or sister of identical twins. They’ll tell you I’m right.

Experience will let you do the same thing with fish. How many times have you heard a professional angler tell you he caught the same fish twice? If you ask him how he knows it was the same fish, he won’t be able to give you a concrete reason, but he’ll be certain he’s right—and he probably is. Learn to see fish as individuals rather than as generic copies of each other.

Pay attention to your surroundings, too. If you move up or down a bank and come across more activity in or out of the water, that might be a clue. Are the baitfish skipping? Are the birds singing? What are the squirrels doing? Is everything dead silent?

Physical things also matter. How close is the channel? Is there more or less grass in the area? What about wood and rock? Is the wind blowing away from the bank or up against it?

Learn to understand what’s happening around you. Ask yourself if your fish have moved or if you’re over new ones. You won’t always get it right, but over time you’ll get better at it. And at some point you’ll realize you’re right more often than you’re wrong.

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