How To Get More Bites: Getting Caught in the Change Up
Story & Photos by Nick Ohlrich
How to get more bites using a tactical approach to navigating your thought process and trout behavior
A round of high fives was in order as we watched another mid-20-inch, eight-pound Kenai super slab slip out of the net, disappearing into the swirling turquoise of the Kenai River. It was mid-September 2018 on the middle Kenai and the bite was picking up for a great afternoon trout party after a long and lackluster morning. The major bites during this time varied from day to day, keeping anglers anxiously wanting to move and switch through a variety of patterns. On average I only switched patterns a few times a day, even when the bite was wonky to nonexistent. For me, patience puts folks into more fish of quality than changing locations or rifling through the dozens of patterns that accompany me on every trout trip.
When the bite turns off, it is too easy to chaotically sift through the myriad of choices in your tackle box, trying pattern after pattern, only to be confused with a lack of interest on the part of your quarry. Or you begin running around the river like a crazy person, changing locations every few drifts. This can become a dark and rambling rabbit hole. More times than not, an angler winds up putting back on the pattern that they started with. The same holds true for excessively changing locations.
What is the best way to navigate the many variables of staying on the bite? There are infinite possible solutions to finding the right place and pattern. Finding a tactical way to make level-headed decisions when conditions and fish behavior change is essential. Below are some points that help me remain calm and bring clarity to my thought process when the bite slows and conditions change.
It’s HARD to do nothing
Standing by and doing nothing when everything in your immediate consciousness says change is needed requires patience, patience requires knowledge, and knowledge (especially the best lessons) usually come from a previous mistake or three. Next time that sudden rush to change enters your brain, wait 15 minutes before changing your pattern and/or location. Typically, that initial surge of “the grass is always greener” is emotion masking itself as rational reasoning.
Once you feel that change is needed, use that as a warning flag that your current situation needs some buffering. The next 15 minutes should be spent coming up with two or three options, whether you decide to change location, pattern, or both. Once you hit that 15-minute mark go through with your next move. Many times, waiting 15 minutes or longer has saved me from making a change that was unnecessary. Power boaters really feel the tug of “change needs to happen now” due to the ease of mobility, but that can quickly increase your fuel bill and decrease your bite.
For you rockers out there, this is not a tribute to Detroit’s great rock band, KISS, but an acronym for another perspective on life and fishing: Keep It Simple Stupid. I have heard some folks don’t like the stupid part, but I enjoy the reminder to stay humble. K.I.S or K.I.S.S is another great way to recognize the variables in a given situation. This method ties in wonderfully to doing nothing. It requires you to slow down your thought process and look at the big picture. For all of us, it can be a great mental stretching exercise, removing one’s head from their rear end, stretching out the back, and hopefully bringing some clarity.
When a particular pattern stops working, begin asking yourself questions. Why did the bite turn off? Are other people still catching and you are not? I hate it when that happens. What time of day is it? Did other anglers move into the area? Did water temps change? Did water or light conditions change? Asking questions opens your mind up to the big picture and helps form a strategic plan to navigate change.
Watching others catch while your line drifts along uninterrupted easily lets you know that your pattern needs to be rethought. Before switching, think of two or three patterns and arrange them into plan A, B, and C and then ask yourself why you chose those particular patterns and why you arranged them in that order. If no one is catching, then something has caused the bite to be off. This is where patience and analyzing your environment comes into play.
Time of day has a gigantic impact on fish activity. Morning and evening are the two best times to tangle with big fish; which time is better depends on the immediate conditions. During June through early-August it is very hard to fish both morning and evening bites due to the length of daylight. Committing to one or the other is best during this time. When fall fishing, it is easier to key on which bite is better as the duration of daylight allows you to fish both low-light periods during an eight- to ten-hour day. Mid-day is usually the toughest time to stay on Kenai ‘bows. Somewhere between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. you can guarantee that the bite is going to suck. It’s a great time to take a break, and a terrible time to switch patterns.
Angling pressure is the next factor in bites turning on and off. If you find yourself surrounded by a bunch of boats and no one is catching, pressure could be your main problem. Before switching patterns, try a different location not too far from where you are, but away from the herd. Kenai ‘bows are becoming more and more responsive (not in a good way) to boats and fishing pressure.
Fish are cold-blooded creatures and very motivated to feed or not feed by the water temperature. Rapidly rising or falling water temperature can turn a hot bite into a cold shoulder quickly. Trout do not react well to rapid change in their environment. If water temps move several degrees, it can often take trout days to acclimate and begin feeding consistently.
Water clarity can change very quickly on the Kenai and with that the effectiveness of what you are fishing. The middle Kenai can range from ultra gin clear where bottom can be seen in 12 feet of water to chocolate brown where anglers feel that noodling may be the technique of the day. To keep it simple, if the water is clear and you are fishing close to the boat, especially if you can see the bottom and you are not catching, there is a strong chance that it could be your proximity to the fish rather than your pattern. Before changing patterns, fish further from the boat or in deeper water. When the water clarity is reduced, upsizing your pattern can make a huge difference. Don’t change patterns; try the same pattern in a larger size.
The same philosophy holds true for changing light conditions. When the sun is out fish can see much better. A pattern with flash or mottling may be too much for our ultra-judgmental quarry. Conversely, upsizing or adding some flash can help your pattern standout when light conditions fade.
Keeping the Constant
In scientific terms, a constant variable is a variable that does not change. In my boat, this translates into the person who had the best performing pattern before the bite ended. We keep that pattern fishing to keep the variable constant, and the other angler(s) become guinea pigs by changing patterns. This does not open the flood gates for a mindless tour of the tackle box, but rather exercising patience and making small, well-reasoned changes.
If you assigned three patterns as A, B, and C before the bite died, you should not feel any panic. As you work through your starting lineup and find success in a different pattern, think about why ‘bows have switched focus onto this new pattern, and begin thinking of variations of this new pattern to switch to if you keep getting positive reinforcement. Fine tuning a series of shades of the same pattern can often turn your day of good fish into great fish. But if you find ‘bows are no longer rewarding you, remember the constant, and reunite with the old friend that was producing not long ago.
For some reason, after you notice that one pattern is truly the bread winner (the ultra-constant) and switch all anglers over to that pattern, the hero pattern sometimes shuts off completely. I have zero idea why this phenomenon happens, and it sucks when it does. Occasionally, going all-in on a pattern actually works out. Those rare instances have become cherished memories.
Whether it’s competitive angling, guiding, or the hardcore angler that spends every free moment on the water, all of these folks have two things in common, regardless of species or location on the planet where they target their favorite fish. The first commonality is an impressive abundance of lures, probably boxes of them.
The second commonality is that most of those lures rarely leave the tackle box, however, through trial and error those anglers found the warriors that catch fish. These tried-and-true few lures have given anglers great confidence in their ability to produce in many conditions. It does not matter if other anglers laugh at the idea, the proof is in the pudding. If you have confidence in what you are fishing and where you are fishing it, you will subconsciously fish the pattern and location better.
How to get more bites: tying it together
Whether it’s been a hot minute since your last day of fishing or conditions begin changing, looking at the big picture and asking why is a big step in simplifying the options. Once you understand the big picture it’s time to develop a tactical approach to isolating your variables.
Developing a tactical approach to navigate the multiple options for success and your initial mental reaction to those options will keep your gear in the water longer with more confidence. From rainbows on the Kenai, to tarpon in the Keys and everything in between, following this thought process will help produce rational decisions and put you on more fish.
Nick Ohlrich is co-owner/guide of Alaska Drift Away Fishing. If you would like more info or to book a trip please check out their website, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call them at 907-529-8776.
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Fish Alaska as Caught in the Change Up: A Thinkers Approach to Navigating Trout Behavior.