From the water’s edge

January 2015 - Ravenous packs of one.

I hope that you find my journal interesting and entertaining. If, having read this, you think that I am talking rubbish then at least you have stopped and thought about it long enough to come to that conclusion which is something of a result in my book. If you would like to comment on this article or anything else relating to my website, please feel free to contact me using the adjacent form. Feedback is always greatly appreciated and very helpful when it comes to improving both my site and my angling. Thank you for looking. If this form will not work for you, please e-mail me at

Pete and I have a standing ‘joke’. ‘Have’ not ‘are’, please note. It is wheeled out on an almost weekly basis, whenever we walk into a swim, catch a fish straight away, and then fail dismally to provoke any other interest at all. First find your fish is rule no 1 for me, so getting a hit will always encourage further effort in an area. The hit proves they are there.

Anglers of a certain age will remember the “Ravenous packs of zander are rampaging through our fisheries, destroying everything in their path”, headlines of yesteryear and maybe like us wonder how if that was ever true, we can so often only manage to get one hit in a swim. Hence the tag line we so frequently resort to, “ looks like another ravenous pack of one!”

Regular readers will also notice my incessant whinging about lure anglers (ourselves included) ruining their own fishing by teaching every fish they catch not to take lures again. They may then wonder how that can be true if our quarry are shoal fish, surely catching just a few from what may be a substantial congregation is unlikely to put them all off? I point out here that this entire article ignores pike which are as dumb as a bag of spanners anyway and outside of their annual spring shagfest, hardly shoal fish.

Our standard thinking on the shoal of one phenomenon has always been that they are just passing through, not really having it or that they are more solitary than we ever thought that they might be. All of those are reasonable assumptions, but I have just been watching a very interesting programme on iPlayer  about wildlife that has perfected techniques for sponging and stealing off us and the herring gulls in it displayed some very interesting behaviour that may well have some relevance to lure fishing and why we can so very rarely empty a swim with lures.

In St Ives, the gulls have perfected the art of snatching food directly from the hands of unwary holidaymakers. That was not what caught my over-developed lure angling imagination though. The film-makers discovered through experiment that among the resident flock of gulls there were one or two that were always the first to try a new food source. They tested this by putting firstly, ordinary looking but artificial (plastic) food out, then unnaturally shaped but normally coloured ordinary (real) food and lastly normal real food, unnaturally coloured. One or two birds would come close, eventually testing the bait and as soon as  it proved safe to do so, all the rest would pile in from all over the seafront. In seconds all the edible stuff was gone. They lost interest in the artificial stuff very quickly as you would expect.


Now I know it is a big leap from gulls to perch or zander but just apply this scenario to a day on the canal. You or I walk into a likely looking swim. The bait goes in and is, unbeknown to us, retrieved through a shoal of 5, 10, maybe for all we know, a hundred fish. They are prepared to feed, one hits it and discovers 1) that it isn’t food and 2) if we are lucky, that he is being lead around the swim by his nose in front of all his mates, struggling and thrashing like a mad thing, prior to vanishing completely from sight. How many more of those shoal-mates do you think will be tempted to try that lure next time it come past. It’s obvious of course if you stop to think about it even for one millisecond, but we all still wonder why we catch one and no more. We should be more surprised if we catch two than if we catch one.

Now the alpha male who was bold enough to test out our not very realistic lure ( and I believe that nobody has ever or probably will ever make an artificial fish that looks real to another fish) is if he is lucky, sulking in the margins with his nose well and truly out of joint. That shoal may have another bold fish, we could call him a beta male, who might if he hasn’t been frightened out of the area, try the next lure that comes past especially if it is not the same as the first one which was so demonstrably not a free meal. It is easy to see a law of diminishing returns coming up here isn’t it.

Lets move on to the next swim. We have caught a fish or two here before, the bait goes in and unbeknown to us is retrieved through a similar shoal of 5.10 or a hundred fish, but we get no takes. Not even, shock, horror, on the 2” yellow kopyto that caught here last week and never fails! Funny they (one) should be feeding in the previous swim but these aren’t, isn’t it? Or is it?

If the shoal is watching the lead fish for clues, and that fish is scared of a lure because it has been fooled before, and avoids it like the plague this time, that is as good as having a poison label slapped on your bait. If the head honcho won’t touch it, then the wimp at the back certainly won’t and nether will many or any of his mates.

Again it is obvious and didn’t really require a tv programme to point out that catching fish frightens them. What interested me was the concept of a flock or shoal having natural strange-food testers within it. Basically the boldest of the bunch, which whenever anything that appeared remotely edible appeared in front of them would be the one prepared to give it a go while the rest just watch on ready to dash in a join the frenzy once it was proved safe.

The gulls in this film were not put off from testing the next new thing that came by either. The alpha male was still the same alpha male once he had been let go again. So if we extend the comparison, maybe repeat captures are more common than we or rather I like to think. More importantly, if we want to catch more from the same spot then by returning fish further away and changing lures we could improve our chances further. Often we already do, but most likely because up to now, we felt that they could communicate the danger to the rest of the shoal when in fact, it might just be because, while the alpha male is there the next one in the pecking order will not step up to the plate and become our second catch from that swim.

In any case, the shoal will be ‘learning’ faster because all the testing is being done by a small number of fish and the rest are letting them take the risk. It would mean that you cannot necessarily spread the bad experience of being caught on a particular lure through a hundred different fish, only through the very few the bolder, more dominant males. None of this implies any particularly high intelligence in our quarry although they are almost certainly cleverer than we give them credit for, it is simply natural flock or shoal behaviour, instinct if you like.

Right through this piece, I have referred to alpha males, which was not really what the programme suggested, that is my supposition, but it did make me wonder how many female fish we do catch , and it would be interesting to know if the ‘one in a swim’ phenomenon was biased in favour of the male fish. We have all caught female fish that is certain, but in the spring, what percentage of the fish we catch are carrying spawn? It should be more than it ever is. I know that for me and Pete a fat spawny fish is always worthy of comment and nature may well have engineered males to be more expendable just as it apparently has in my house and I am told in Pete’s.

Bait anglers will surely wonder what I am waffling about as they often catch many fish from one swim, but then they have usually got the whole shoal taking free food. If the alpha male has tested the halibut pellets found them good and the others have then come in and joined him then any one of them may get caught first. If the alpha male loses the lottery and picks out the one with the hook in it from the thousand or so laying on the bottom, then the bait angler may well have a one fish day but the chances of that happening are reduced by the number of fish in the shoal and the number of free offerings laying about. Even then there will still be a load of harmless freebies down there to pass muster with the beta male.

It is a well observed practice of big chub to let small ones sit at the front of the shoal taking the risks with food coming downstream until they have proved it safe enough to be bullied off. Certainly in my experience big chub are far harder to catch on lures than on bait while smaller ones are pretty easy and it is certainly not because they are less predatory.

There will always be exceptions of course, times when we catch several, maybe many fish from a swim or a big chub slips up,  but there can be a million reasons for that, nevertheless the fact remains, they are exceptions.

Throughout nature, flocking birds and herd animals seem to have, if not leaders, then at least one or two bolder members that the rest will allow to take the lead, why should shoaling fish be any different?

This kind of speculation bleeds through my mind all day long because I find the whole art of catching fish on lure so fascinating. I guess I am seldom right, but if you don’t ask these kind of questions, you never get any better at the game, so maybe that shoal of one is a shoal of many and they are not all the same. Maybe it wasn’t just the nearest fish that took your lure. Maybe you have to get it where the alpha male can see it or you won’t catch even one. Maybe we know bugger all.

artificial lite



journal 2015.


journal 2015.