April 11, 2016

How To Outsmart Big Bass

How To Outsmart Big Bass

A Big Bass Brainboat fisherman with bass

Of course it’s difficult to know exactly what bass think, unless you believe they don’t really think at all! Studies have shown that bass CAN learn, and remember, sources of pain. Trout fishermen in highly pressured waters are all too aware that trout can become wary of certain flies and thick tippets.

We used to believe that fish brains were binary. Everything was one of two things:

  • Food
  • Danger

However, recent research had led scientists to discover that fish use complex senses to:

  • Perceive their environment

    A Fish Brain
    A Fish Brain
  • Coordinate hunts
  • Use tools
  • Remember
  • Learn

Some fish are able to do these things better than rats, or your toddler child!

How smart are they?

Testing various species of fish for learning and avoiding experiences that lead to pain, researchers have ranked types of fish according to intelligence. They measured:

  • Acquiring information
  • Storing data in memory
  • Retrieving stored memory
  • Combining and comparing stored information
  • Using the information in new contexts.

Researchers found that fish were basically smarter than we thought they were.

How big is a fish’s brain?

A Big Brained Elephantnose Fish
A Big Brained Elephantnose Fish

The brain size of fish varies widely according to the specific species, ranging from the lowest to the highest of brain to body ratios among vertebrates. That’s right, there is a fish — Africa’s elephantnose fish, which enjoys a relative brain weight that’s higher than that of human beings (plus it has the “highest brain to body oxygen consumption ratio of all known vertebrates: three times that of humans” Wikipedia).

Where do bass weigh in?

I could not find any articles online that compare where scientists think a bass’s brain or intelligence compares to other fish. But this much seems clear:

  • Bass won’t spend $20,000 on a boat to catch fish they’re not going to eat
  • Bass, in one study, stopped eating a bait researchers used to catch them
  • Bass don’t invest time or money to figure out how smart (or not) fishermen are.

So maybe bass ARE smarter than we are?

What does a bass DO with its brain?

Bass use their brains much as we do.

Apparently, that is not true. Fish see much the same way humans do. They are able to direct their visual attention to achieve a goal (eat prey) and ignore distractions.

While humans can see 3 bands of light in the spectrum: blue, green, and red (trichromatic); fish see all those PLUS ultraviolet (tetra chromatic). Bass can certainly see color, which is why having the perfect color bait sometimes seems to make a world of difference in attracting bass!

The fish brain’s ocular lobe (related to vision) is, well, HUGE! Their bulbous, protruding eyes are located on both sides of the bass’s head. Their field of view is very wide, and the only blind spots for a bass are directly below and behind them.

Most of the time, a bass uses monocular vision. To use binocular vision – focusing on an object using both eyes at the same time – the bass has to be directly facing what it’s looking at. And, it needs to be pretty close.

Bass can see in all water conditions, and even at night. The rods and cones in the bass’s eyes retract or extend to increase the bass’s ability to see. However, it is also true that murky, muddy, or algae filled water does reduce the amount a bass can see.

  • Smell & Taste. Anyone who’s lost their sense of smell for any length of time realizes these 2 senses are very closely related. Fish have the ability to smell & taste with their:fish mouth
    • Gills
    • Fins
    • Mouths

And fish have many more taste buds spread out over their body than we humans do in our mouths and nose. For example, the yellow bullhead has 175,000 tastebuds, compared to the 10,000 you have for enjoying eating that same fish.

  • Listen. It turns out fish talk! Or make sounds, anyway, related to:
    • Mating
    • Feeding
    • Dispersing a group

The larger members of one fish species make such a loud noise during mating that fishermen can figure out where they are!

  • trout lateral lineMove. Watch a school of fish. They are all swimming along, moving quickly, sometimes suddenly, yet it’s very rare to see a collision. Could humans could learn something from fish schools regarding highway traffic?

It’s due to the fish’s lateral line. The lateral line is a sense that has puzzled scientists and fishermen for a long time. Now it’s known that fish use these unique sense organs (modified epithelial cells) to be aware of water displacement created by other fish or objects in the water.

The lateral line system consists of tiny hairlike nerves that extend beyond the fish scales, and is used to create hydrodynamic imaging, which is likened to echo location used by whales. Fish employ hydrodynamic imaging to:

Lateral line of fish

* Locate prey

Follow current flows

Avoid colliding with other fish (like in schools)

* Evade predators (like YOU!)

Even blind fish can use their lateral line like sonar to successfully orient themselves in a school of other fish swimming in the water around them.

Rick Clunn is a professional bass fisherman and 4-time winner of the Bassmaster Classic, tying him with Kevin Van Dam. Clunn believes that understanding the lateral line is essential for bass fisherman to continue to be successful.

How can I use this information to catch big bass?

Clunn believes that thanks to their lateral lines, a bass can distinguish between a smooth sided lure and one with grooves cut into it, as well as between a willow leaf and colorado blade on your spinnerbait. He further asserts that bass can become familiar with certain types of lures, and remember that their previous experiences with them were less than favorable. In short, that they realize your lure is NOT a tasty treat, but a painful experience to be avoided.

So how does that help you?

Appeal to every bass senseboxed lures

  • Lateral Line: Use baits that throb, wobble, spin, vibrate, or otherwise displace water to attract the bass.
  • Sight: Have a selection of lures or plastics in various colors and shapes for the bass to see.
  • Sound: Include rattles, beads, or tungsten weights to click, clack, and clatter that the bass can hear. A bass’s favorite prey are crawfish, whose segmented tails “click” when it’s swimming. Sound travels farther underwater than the displacement of water, so making sound can be riding the dinner bell for a bass!
  • Shape: Have lures that are smooth, segmented, grooved, ribbed, round, and flat to offer various body contours to the bass.
  • Smell: A bass smells better than you do!
    • Be careful using sunscreen on your hands. Perhaps sun gloves are a better choice, as sunscreen on your lures might be detected and rejected by the bass.
    • Fill your truck and boat with gas the night BEFORE your fishing trip.
    • Wash your hands using unscented soap before your trip.
    • You might also try spraying bass attractant onto your lures (plastic baits often include scents and flavors embedded into them). I’ve never tried attractant, but may just do that this year.

Offer something unique or different

Clunn credits some of his championships to slight modifications to the lure(s) he was using. He believes that the bass become accustomed to seeing the same lure over and over again, and so they avoid them.

So what’s a BassHole to do?

  • Adjust an existing lure: Change something!
    • A blade
    • The hooks
    • Add a rattle
  • Choose a different lure: Search for something the bass are not yet accustomed to.antique fishing-lures
    • Try a new type of lure
    • Pick a lure you haven’t used for years
    • Be creative and experiment
  • Vary your retrieve:
    • Try slower
    • Try faster
    • Try slow, then fast, then slow
    • Use stop-and-go (retrieve, then pause, letting the lure sink)
    • Walk the dog
  • Change the depth: 
    • Fish on top
    • Fish just under the top
    • Fish from 1 to 5 feet deep
    • Fish 6 to 10 feet deep
    • Drag your lure along the bottom

Woman with Large BassIn short, modify your offerings, and use these tips to try and entice lure shy fish to strike again. Exploit the senses the bass uses to find and attack bait, and then offer imitations that, in one way or more, resembles what a bass looks for in a good meal.

Don’t try to “outsmart” the bass, use his or her own intelligence, that has allowed them to survive for 3.5 million years (hey, that’s what some experts say), to YOUR advantage.

Just remember, bass have been around a LOT longer than fishermen — and fisherwomen (we’ve been around 200,000 years, thought we didn’t spend ALL that time fishing). So don’t be surprised when, despite all your efforts, all your planning, all your techniques, the bass wins.

You lookin' at me?
You lookin’ at me?

But there are always those times when YOU pull the bass up out of the water, and look straight into those tetrachromatic eyes. And, if you’re like me (which I doubt you are), then you’re sure that bass is staring right back at you, and thinking, let me get one good bite on this guy, and he’s MINE!

Celebrate your victories, and share them here with your fellow BassHoles!

Tight lines!

Roger, The Smiling BassHole

Catch-Big-Bass http://catch-big-bass.com/ is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

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The Smiling BassHole

I'm a BassHole!Kickin' Bass and lettin' them go.

Roger, The Smiling BassHole

    • Jaron,

      Making people laugh is its own reward! Glad you got the joke! I knew a guy who, when I explained my wife would never allow me to buy an expensive boat like his, said, “Roger, you’ve got to get your priorities straight.” Then his boat-mate said, “And he should know: his wife divorced him for buying this boat!”

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Wow, what an interesting article. I had never given fish any credit at all for intelligence. I guess that is a bit unfair and prices my own ignorance. I don’t know whether to be happy that I now have an excuse for not catching a fish or if I should be embarrassed that I was outsmarted by a fish

    • Sue Lee,

      To be honest, when I started writing the article, I thought fish were basically about as bright as a tin can. I thought they reduced everything to 1 of 2 questions: Food? Or not food? I had to rewrite the intro after learning more!

      I also had no idea how much information fish receive through their lateral line. But it was a big surprise how many taste / smell buds they have!

      So I learned plenty myself! And I’m still not sure I’m any smarter than that bass!

      Thanks for the comment!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Hi, Roger,
    You have written another impressive article! I have never thought about fish that we catch in this way. Very interesting and helpful details. So that’s because of bass’ vision features they need the lure being put right in front of their mouth to make them get it! And thanks for mentioning their sense of smell- do you know how do they react to tobacco smell?
    Thanks for great article. Kirill.

    • Kirill,

      Yes, the bass’s vision requires that the prey be right in front of the bass for the bass to see it clearly. BUT the bass’s wide view means they can see things beside them, they just can’t use their binocular vision until they face them. Also, a bass can sense the prey (or your lure) moving through the water from virtually any direction. And smell! And hear! A bass uses all its senses to locate prey, and to avoid being preyed upon itself.

      Tobacco is one scent that produces a strong NEGATIVE response from bass! Other offenders include: insect repellent, sunscreen, and cleansers. So keep the tobacco away from your lures and plastic baits!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Hi there Roger, What a very informative article. I guess most of us human beings don’t think twice about a lot of the other species. This article does one thing very well (apart from highlighting fish psychology of course), it pointed out to me how ignorant I am about a great many things. Right now I’m wondering do flies have brains, do they think, what about spiders? Lol.

    I am really glad to come across this article, as a beginning fisherman, living in North Padre Island, known for being one of the best places to fish and surf in North America. I loved your humorous writing style and learned a lot. I will definitely frequent this site for more tips and hope I learn enough to catch me my first Bass! Thanks for writing such a great article.

    • Thank you, Mimi-CU!

      I must admit, I learned a lot about bass writing this article! I had thought bass were pretty limited in their thinking, and were more “Yes / No” in their intelligence, so I was quite surprised to learn how well they see, smell, and feel their environment around them. And I’m in the same “boat” as you are, wondering about flies, spiders, and so forth.

      I’m also lucky because a lot has been learned about how bass sense and understand in the past decade. So I have a lot of catching up to do!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the humor as well, I like to spice things up a bit.

      And I’d love to hear more about your fishing adventures on North Padre Island. I believe there’s some wonderful flats fishing there? Please share your adventures! We BassHoles want to hear!

      And should you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask. I’ll answer what I can!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Hi Roger,

    I love your site and all its refreshing vitality! Your passion for this niche comes across with excitement. You are a true fisherman’s fisherman. You have the live bait to catch a net full of followers with this content. I love how you have written and presented not only this article but also your website. I think you will be catching a whole lot of fish!


    • Thanks for the kind (and very clever!) words!

      I am certainly enjoying writing these posts and pages. And I’m learning a lot doing it. As I’ve said before, I actually had a completely different notion of bass intelligence (which I figured was an oxymoron) before I started writing this article. I had to change my own opinion “mid stream”! I love to learn new things (and realized writing this that scientists have themselves learned a lot about bass and fish brains in the past 20 years) and share them with others.

      Let your fellow BassHoles know if you tackle tangling with a bass on the brains level, and tell us all about it here!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Fascinating post! I didn’t know I had any interest in bass until I started reading your post. That’ s amazing about their sense of smell. Do you ever feel like we are the dumb ones, always behind the natural world? The more I discover about various species I knew nothing about, the more astonished I am. Thanks for a great read and showing me that I am interested in fish brains!

    • Thanks, Sarah!

      Glad to have sparked your interest in Bass Brains! And let me admit, I thought completely differently before I started researching this post. Indeed, I had to change my opinion while I was writing the post. And I was surprised by how well bass see, smell, hear, and sense vibrations. And what I’ve learned will help me catch big bass, or will it? We’ll wait and see!

      I don’t necessarily think we are the dumb ones, but rather realize that high cognitive intelligence is only ONE feature that aids in survival. I’m always humbled to remember a couple of the most successful species to have ever lived: dinosaurs (among vertebrates) and cockroaches (and other insects, among all animals). So maybe it’s that our super intelligent brain only makes us THINK being smart is such a great thing!

      Thanks for your comment, and if you decide to pit your wits agains a bass’s brains, tell your fellow BassHoles all about it!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • A very interesting post. As a species we humans do have a habit of not giving enough credit to our fellow earth dwellers when it comes to intelligence, and I have to admit the last time I was tucking into a plate of fish and chips I didn’t give a great deal of thought to the IQ of what I was eating (the fish I mean, I’m pretty sure potatoes are quite stupid). I will however bear this in mind the next time a Bass offers me a game of scrabble.
    Great post and I do like the humor in your writing, keep up the good work.

    • Thanks, Dan!

      Yes, I agree that we humans may underestimate the intelligence of other creatures. Plus, our egos tend to blind us to the fact that though our special kind of intelligence may have some advantages, it does not necessarily mean we are “superior” to everything else. Indeed, we seem to be the only species hell bent on destroying the very ecosystem that we require to survive! Living in harmony with nature seems to be something we need to learn how to do, while it appears to be completely automatic in many other species.

      Being smart is great when what you need is smartness (may not be a word), but sometimes instincts will take a life form a long way.

      Now, I don’t know how smart a potato is, and no one has argued that plants have brains, BUT scientists in plat neurobiology have found some very interesting facts. Admittedly “plant neurobiology’ is a poor name since no one believes plants have neurons OR brains, but scientists say they have “analogous structures” that allow them to gather sensory data and integrated into their behavior! Examples include plants secreting defensive chemicals when they “hear” tapes of caterpillars munching leaves and sensing obstructions to their roots and shifting direction even before they come into contact with it. You can learn more about this here: New research on plant intelligence.

      Thank you for the kind words, and I enjoyed YOUR sense of humor as well!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Great article!

    I always believed that fish can only remember 5 seconds prior but now I know that isn’t the case at all. It was interesting to hear all the science behind how the act. I will use this info the next time I go on a fishing trip to see if I can catch anything.

    Thanks for the read!

    • Thanks Derek!

      Yes, I also believed that fish had a VERY short memory, but it turns out this was just a myth! Check out this article.

      I also thought fish were basically “yes” or “no” binary thinkers. It turns out scientists have learned a lot about how a fish’s brain works and how they use their wide array of senses to stay safe.

      But of course we BassHoles will still try to figure out ways to get the bass to bite our lures bristling with hooks!

      Be sure and share your stories (successful or not, note that on my first fishing trip this year, I got bupkiss) with your fellow BassHoles!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • I love the info and learned a few things. Everything on this planet is the best and has been tested for a mililium.

    I do agree fishermen should not try to out smart the fish. Do you ever get the feeling there is a group of older fish laughing at you as you sit in the boat trying to catch them? LOL

    • Thanks Tony!

      I agree, there’s wonder and mystery in the entire system of life on this planet. And while we keep digging deeper into those wonders and mysteries, we keep learning more and more, but we are still only scratching the surface.

      As for older bass laughing at me? I’m not so sure bass have a sense of humor, they always look very angry to me! But of course maybe because they got caught! So, sure, there may very well big, smart bass watching my lures and offerings, chuckling and laughing, and saying to one another, “What a BassHole!”

      Thanks for the wisdom and the smiles!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Wow, that is a lot of information about bass! I haven’t been fishing since I was very young, so I’m sure I wasn’t thinking about how smart the fish were or not. This looks like a lot of great advice for a bass fisherman (or fisherwoman).

    • Thanks, Amanda!

      If you decide to give fishing a try again, just let me know, and ask any questions. I’d love to help out if I can!

      Be sure and have fun!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • For a moment a thought I was reading an academic published paper! I live in South Africa and Bass is a common fish that we do catch here (by the way I am a beginner fisherman) and these tips will really help and assist me while navigating to bass fishing. The statement that ‘I have a fish memory’ is irrelevant if Bass can remember and store memory.

    • Thanks, Uwais!

      No, this would never do as an academic paper — too many jokes! But I did research some scientific articles on the subject, which is where I learned facts that required me to completely change my opinions of bass braininess!

      If you ever have any questions to help you become a better bass (or other?) fisherman, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll do what I can to help!

      And yes, it turns out a fish memory may be just as good as mine. Now, what were we talking about?

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Great post. We go fishing close by in the summer months, mostly trout. I’m no expert but I’m beginning to wonder if its not just Bass that can tell the difference between the different lures as last summer was worse than the year before , so I’m starting to wonder. I’m going to mix it up this time… I’ll let you know.

    • Thanks, Brendan!

      Trout ABSOLUTELY will “shy” away from certain baits they see frequently and have painful experiences with (like getting hooked!)!

      I remember visiting Vermont while living and fishing in California. In CA we used or 4 or 2 size flies (small), so I was surprised to see in the VT fly fishing shop a lot of 8 and 10 sizes. I asked why their flies were so much larger. The owner asked me, “How many fisherman do you see when you’re out fishing in California?” “It depends, maybe a few, maybe a dozen.” “OK, and how many when you’re fishing in Vermont?” “You know, I’ve yet to see another fisherman here in Vermont.” “There’s your answer!”

      So yes, mix it up! Trout feed on insects a lot, but the biggest trout I’ve ever seen (and no, I did not catch it) was caught on a crank bait! The old, “Big bait, big fish” rule.

      And absolutely let us know how you do this year! BassHoles like to hear trout tales too!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Haha, I liked your combination of humor with advice. I certainly learned a lot. What I found most interesting was the part about some bass having bigger brain to body ratio than humans. I’ve always thought humans were the smartest race because our brains were so big in comparison to our body. Interesting stuff Roger, keep up the good work!

    • Thanks, Matt!

      Glad you appreciated the humor smattered throughout the post. I really can’t help myself!

      Just to clarify, it’s not any BASS that have bigger brains in comparison, just some species of fish. I tried to find out where bass lie on that continuum, but could not find any data.

      And of course the type of intelligence is certainly different. Not sure how much abstract reasoning bass are doing. But what they ARE doing with their brains have served their species for a lot longer than ours has humans! So you gotta give them credit for that.

      Glad I could bring a smile to your race!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Wow, what a great article on how to outsmart bass…

    They do sound like a pretty smart fish though.
    You do give some excellent tips and advice on how to use all this information to your advantage.
    The sound, shape, smell tips will come in very handy for anybody on the look out for bass.

    But like you say they have been around a lot longer than we have, so…

    The question remains who is actually outsmarting who?
    Man vs. Bass? Who will be the winner?

    Great read Roger,


    • Thanks, Vicky!

      It’s tough when you try to figure out “smarts.” But as for “savvy,” well, bass are very well adapted to their realm. Perhaps they are not the top of the food chain in a lake, but don’t tell them that! Though they are very wary of predation. All fish start as fry, after all, and everyone else in the lake is trying to eat them. Including their own kind! So they become very wary.

      I really had no idea how much was going on in the bass’s brain until I started researching this article. NOW I’m very impressed with their senses!

      Thanks for the kind words, Vicky!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • Cool, some interesting and detailed insight you provided here. I guess I should be paying more attention to this in the long run.

  • Thanks, Aasiyah!

    Glad you had such a great time fishing in Sri Lanka. Obviously I love the “tug of war” with the fish!

    One of my favorite outdoor writers (now deceased), Norman Strung wrote a book called To Catch A Trout. At the end, he advises the reader to take a piece of line, tie on a hook, put on a worm, and drop it into the water. When you get a fish on the line, ask yourself this question: who’s got whom?

    I hope you continue to have fun fishing! And if you get back into fishing, be sure and let me know if you have any questions!

    Tight lines!

    Roger, The Smiling BassHole

  • What a great article, of course my favorite line is about spending $20,000 for a boat….in over 25+ years together, the ONLY piece of NEW furniture we have ever bought are 2 chairs for the kitchen at $125 each. Neither I or my children, have ever had an actual bedroom set…I could go on and on here….BUT…we always have a bass boat!!!!! Even if it doesn’t leave the garage…so much so that my son went & bought his own bass boat….My hubby is so lucky I am so low maintenance!!!
    But now you have stirred up some muck cause I am so lazy when it comes to using other baits. Its PopRs in the morning & worms or slugs the rest of the day. I hate fishing with stuff that gets stuck in weeds all the time. yeah, I need help.
    On another note: my husband fished a tournament a million years ago out of the back of Rick Clunn’s boat & beat him. EVERY time his name comes up I hear about this story…my response: then how come he has (had) his own TV show & you don’t? you think he would stop telling it to me!!!! HAHAHA
    now how about an article for us lazy bassholes????

    • Thanks, Donna!

      Obviously your family has their priorities straight — always have a boat! And be sure and let me know when your husband gets his own fishing show!

      You’re not a lazy Pop-r / worm fisherwoman — you’re a SPECIALIST. There are plenty of fisherfolk who stick to worms. Nothing wrong with that. Especially as long as the bass agree! I WAS fishing worms 99% of the time (or other plastic baits, like lizards, crawfish, etc.), but now have branched out to other lures. And I’m liking it!

      I’ve got about a zillion worms that I take with me every fishing trip though. Best to be prepared.

      I will have to think about what would be a good article for “lazy BassHoles.” But then, I don’t want to have to work too hard on it! Check back in a few weeks and see if I figured it out.

      Thanks for the grins and chuckles!

      Tight lines!

      Roger, The Smiling BassHole

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