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Do fish learn to avoid our lures?

I believe that anglers in general tend to give the bass far too much credit for recognizing what it eats. Most of the real food a bass captures and consumes is blessed with natural camouflage to help it avoid detection and capture. Nature wouldn’t bother with camo if it didn’t actually work, so accept that the prey’s camo coloration works. Once you accept that concept, the logical deduction is that bass don’t get a clear look at their food most of the time.

Instead they usually strike at what might be food. A little movement, a touch of flash or the briefest hint of color might be a meal. If it’s close enough to be an easy catch and a bass is on feed, it’s strike now, and ask questions later. If it’s not food, she can expel it just as quickly. Unless it’s got a hook on it, anyway.

But despite the fact that most of the real food a predatory fish encounters is not very recognizable,  many of our lures are. Things like bright colors, loud rattles and distinctive vibration patterns give lures a signature that bass can recognize. An identity profile, if you will.

Is it possible that bass are able to draw the connection between the recognizable attributes that drew their attention to the possible meal and the unsuccessful and even stressful feeding attempt that followed? We know that they repeat behavior that is beneficial, and do not repeat behavior that is not beneficial or that proves stressful. (Or at least we know they can be conditioned to do so in a controlled environment — we can only hazard a guess that something similar happens in the real world, too).

My own experience has been that soft baits and jigs, particularly those in colors that (like natural prey) blend in with the environment, don’t get worn out as quickly or easily as lures with a stronger identity profile. The same fish seem anxious to hit them over and over. Even the most subtle baits eventually diminish in productivity, but it takes a lot of repeat exposure and getting caught a lot before the fish seem to catch on. I’ve found that the best way to avoid wearing out subtle presentations — or to recover a declining favorite’s former glory — is to experiment with the extremes in weight. Think lighter than normal or heavier than you would normally even think of using.

Hard baits on the other hand (with the exception of some surface plugs) and to a lesser extent, spinnerbaits, seem a lot more likely to get worn out. Fish learn to avoid them much quicker than soft baits or jigs. Some of this avoidance is no doubt due to appearance, but it’s been my experience that vibration patterns are the main culprit. Change the vibes, and you can often ‘resurrect’ a worn out lure. Fish in your favorite pond seem hesitant to bite that chartreuse tandem spin they used to eat up? Change its vibration pattern by grabbing a pair of pliers and putting a bend in the blade. It might never catch another bass. Or it might just catch ’em better than it ever did.