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Casting Out - Your Fishing Voodoos

By Larry Dahlberg

As one ages, one's fishing voodoo becomes more complex. For me, it has turned into a career. Having traveled over 250,000 miles in the last 12 months alone for the purpose of fishing, I've been accused of being "tripped over" to the dark side.

"Perhaps," I argue, "but it really is my job. Just look at the title of my show. It says 'The Hunt for Big Fish with Adventurer Larry Dahlberg.'"

My job description is to hunt for big fish. (The "adventurer" part came from one of my earlier editors who didn't think, given current industry standards, the title "profisherman" was accurate.)

Anyway, 23 years of guiding taught me if there is any real secret to successful angling, it is to spend huge amounts of time on the water with your eyes open. I mean really open. Fishing is a game of observation. To gain what I call confidence that comes with experience, you need to spend months at a time, not days, on the water.

I think it's vital to first learn one body of water intimately, then branch out to other places. If you skip all over the place to different bodies of water, chasing a hot bite and relying on other people's observations, you never gain a complete, first-hand picture of your own. You never really internalize or become part of the place or process. So you never really learn.

You'll know when you've spent the time to achieve understanding of a body of water. You'll accurately predict when and where the next fish will come from, and most of the time, you'll be right.

Then you'll subconsciously name ten other spots that will most likely produce, and they will. You'll look at the sky and sniff the air in the morning and know whether it'll be tough or easy fishing that day.

But more importantly, when you go to new and different water, you'll understand the task in front of you.

The world of fishing is like a giant sphere with a billion key holes in it. Most anglers are peering through their local keyhole, blocking out light from other directions, hoping to get the best possible view and ascertain every minute detail. Each is viewing the exact same thing, but from a different perspective.

One looks long and carefully and proclaims that what he sees is green and wet. Another, peering in his particular portal, exclaims, "No, you're a blind fool, can't you see it's brown and dry!"

Another viewer swears that what he sees is black and smooth. While yet another who's dressed in a snowmobile suit and sitting on an upside down five-gallon bucket describes, despite the chatter of teeth, a white, frozen world under which fish swim by the thousands.

All accurate, but totally different views, that generate passionate arguments about what's real and what's not. What works and what doesn't.

Of course, each vision is as accurate as can be expected from a fisherman with his eyes glued to a keyhole.

The bigger truth is that when all views are combined, when many keyholes are peered through simultaneously, a three-dimensional aspect of reality, not observable from any one single key hole, is revealed. What has been complex becomes quite simple.

After all, there are only two questions you need to ask about fish: Where are they? What will they bite?

Sometimes the angler is fishless because he is fishing where there are no fish. At other times, he is fishing among them, but they are ignoring his presentation. Sometimes a minor refinement in presentation could result in dozens of strikes. Other times, nothing in the world would make any difference. The irony is: there's rarely any way of knowing which is which or when.

Out of this existential quandary, I make a major categorical division. One that indicates the tactical and strategic direction for all options that follow.

Fishing for fish you can see as opposed to fishing for fish you can't see.

If you can actually see the fish, there leaves no doubt as to where it is; all that remains to be learned is whether or what it will bite.

When you can actually see a fish, you can watch it react to your lure. You can observe its behavior relative to your own or to that of the lure you are monopolizing. You can make changes and watch the fish react or not react.

Some anglers actually choose a strategy of searching the shallows quietly in hopes of spotting a fish to which they can then make a presentation. This is called "sight fishing." If their presentation is refused, they may change lures or retrieves. They might use a lighter leader or make a longer cast. They can make tactical and mechanical adjustments based on the response of the fish.

Maybe they'll get a half a dozen good shots in a day. They're satisfied to wait for hours in order to make six casts to where there's absolutely something out there.

Perhaps these anglers lack faith. Or, perhaps they intuit something the rest of us missed: That you cannot catch a fish that doesn't exist-even with powerbait.

One thing for sure, these boys would rather wait, standing in the deck with lure dangling from their rod tip, than troll. That fact is, in itself, revealing.

When fishing for fish you can't see, the answer to perpetual questions numbers one and two get mixed up. Because in order to "find the fish," you must first get one to bite, or at least to follow.

This is only confusing if you let it be. When you're fishing for fish you can't see, you're operating with two random variables.

Are you fishing the right lure in the wrong places or the wrong lure in the right places? You won't know until a fish bites. You must have faith. You may not find out soon. Perhaps this is why people sight fish. But, take heart. Regardless of whether you fish in freshwater, saltwater, fly-fish, troll, cast, fish lakes, rivers, streams or reservoirs, fishing always boils down to three common elements: strategy, tactics and mechanics.

Strategy is based on observations regarding the habitat and the creatures that live in it, and tactics on what conventional wisdom and voodoo say will get the job done. Mechanics involves all the skills needed to execute the plan with the tools at hand.

Actually, it's little different than mowing the lawn or picking the corn. Put together a plan, select the tools and try not to drive over anything not in the original plan.

If you cannot actually see the fish you are hoping to catch, which is usually the case, most good fishermen agree that a strategy based upon observations or experiences from a prior trip is advisable.

The strategy is to fish points, the tactic to use crankbaits and the mechanics to put the boat in the right spot, while delivering long, backlash-free casts of the distance needed to drive the crankbait to the necessary depth, usually whatever is sufficient to make it ricochet off the bottom.

How do you determine the best strategy?

Before I address that question, I make another categorical division, this time breaking it down into two distinct groups: fish that eat bugs and fish that eat each other.

To catch fish that eat bugs, it's usually important to use an insect imitation as close as possible to the size, shape and color of the insect being selected by the fish. You should also observe which stage the insect is in-pupa, emerger, adult, spinner, and this should be imitated as well. You will find this out by turning over rocks, looking in spider webs and, of course, just watching the water. Fish that eat bugs often reveal themselves as they surface in pursuit of food.

But most important of all is presentation. When cast into water, the insect imitation must appear to the fish as though it is not connected to the line. In no way can the fly's drift appear to be influenced by the drag of the line, or the fish, in most cases, simply will not buy it!

Fish that eat each other are usually more aggressive and less selective than bug-eaters, but can be confoundingly difficult to catch.

Start out by investigating the environment. Memorize maps, and when you get to the real place, begin filling in the details. Don't confuse cover and structure like so many anglers do. Structure is the shape and contour of the bottom. Cover refers to things like specific aquatic vegetation or sunken trees.

Break the habitat into categories, try to find patterns consisting of common cover options and structural elements. This can take a lot of time; maybe more than you have or are willing to spend. Get a picture in your mind's eye of all the options.

If the species is new to you, gain insight into the forage options and seasonal habits of what you're trying to catch. Look at its shape and size. Look at its mouth; something to provide clues regarding food or habitat. Put together a game plan consisting of at least two of all the different kinds of places to fish. Consistently look for forage to betray the presence of predators. In time and by process of elimination, you'll determine where the fish are.

Most of the time, some sort of live bait is the most effective tactic, but when using lures, the best tactic is usually determined by the habitat. Rather than ask yourself what the fish might like to eat, instead determine which method would most thoroughly and quickly cover the area you're exploring, and how you can package the best "attracting" and "triggering" methods in one approach without getting hung up too often. Then systematically cover the area you've defined by either casting or trolling. Attracting characteristics or lures are: large size, bright color, noise, flash and bubble trail.

Triggering qualities are: speed, bottom contact or physical contact with an object, small size, erratic random action, change of direction, suspending as opposed to floating or sinking, and the appearance that the lure is reacting to and attempting to get away from the predator.

Catching fish can be straight-forward and quite simple. Why make it more complicated than that?

Larry Dahlberg grew up in Grantsburg, Wisconsin and began guiding on the St. Croix River at the age of 10. Today Larry travels the world-over filming his show "The Hunt For Big Fish," which is broadcast on ESPN, Saturday mornings, and is also the creator of the Dahlberg Diver, a world-renown fly fishing lure. Mr. Dahlberg, who writes occasionally for Chevy Outdoors, promotes catch and release practices.

Excerpted from Woodall's Plan-It·Pack-It·Go...