The knowledge and insight of a marine biologist has always been incredibly alluring to me. I imagine all anglers feel a certain amount of curiosity and even envy when imagining that marine biologists might have a unique and cryptic piece of the secret formula for successful angling. Through the countless hours grinding away in laboratories and sifting through piles of research and analysis, they clearly know more about the biology of our quarry than we ever will.
Like some form of fish psychiatrists, they spend their days unraveling the most intricate and indiscernible mysteries involving the whys and wheres that drive fish. That has to be valuable to better angling. What Freudian slip makes a trout bite? What Jungian tendency makes a redfish move offshore? Did momma trout ignore them, or was daddy redfish too hard on them growing up?
I have to believe marine biologists have that all figured out.
With the lure of a truly scientific approach to Texas bay angling, I targeted three very different Texas-based biologists to share their best tip to improve angling skills. All three are true experts in their respective field, but each one brings intriguingly different perspectives to their studies and to our shared development in the art of angling.
Larry McKinney, PH.D
Dr. McKinney has seen it all. From studying marine biology at Texas A&M University in the 1970s to heading the Coastal Fisheries Division for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, he has both studied and helped manage the fish. He currently serves as Executive Director of Texas A&M University’s Harte Research Institute in Corpus Christi, Texas, and drives their program vision in marine biology. In his off time, he frequently kayaks the flats of Texas’ middle coast with fly rod in hand. When asked about his most surprising observation on the patterns of fish, his insight reveals a critical clue.
“Fish move much more than people could ever imagine,” said Dr. McKinney. “It goes against everything my dad ever taught me. He always believed that you go to the spot, and the fish are simply going to be there. Tagging studies have shown that species like speckled trout move tremendous distances. You may pull into your favorite spot and the fish from the prior day or even tide may be long gone….and may never return. Other fish may replace them, but you have to remember that they have those fins for a reason.”
Joan Holt, PH.D.
Dr. Holt is a living legend along the Texas coast. Her years of study and instruction at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute have fundamentally changed the face of marine biology. She is as storied and acclaimed as she is passionate about marine biology and the coastal environment where she lives, studies, teaches and (of course) fishes.
Years spent tank-side tending to all makes and models of finfish have taught her a lot about feeding patterns. Her observations regarding the odd-looking and often-mysterious southern flounder reveal an important fact for anglers.
“Anglers tend often assume that if they are not catching fish, the fish are simply not there. That could not be farther from the truth,” warns Dr. Holt. “Southern flounder are particularly disciplined in their feeding patterns. When hungry, they will literally swim to the top of the tank to be nearly hand fed. When not feeding, you can place any form of food in front of them and they will not budge.”
As an aside, a graduate student at UTMSI once recounted to me a story of watching a live shrimp gingerly walk across the face of a resting flounder without harm. That stunning imagery highlights Dr. Holt’s point that fish are as particular and finicky about their feeding as we humans are. Just because there is a steak in front of you does not mean you are going to eat it. Additionally, an important takeaway is that just because you do not get a bite does not mean you are not on a school of fish. Remember that finding fish can often be just a part of the journey to a successful fishing trip.
Robert Vega, PH.D
Dr. Vega directs one of the largest marine finfish hatcheries programs in the world (literally), rearing primarily speckled trout, red drum and southern flounder. He is a pure scientist and in his role as Enhancement Director of The Coastal Fisheries Hatchery Program, which includes the Flour Bluff CCA Marine Development Center, Sea Center Texas and the Perry R. Bass Marine Fisheries Station, he helps produce millions and millions of fish every year. This rather unique day job of fish creation provides an eerily intimate insight into the minds of fish. Think about it…Dr. Vega literally makes trout and redfish.
Although an angler, he would never call himself an expert in fishing, but for this exploration, that is merely a caveat. When asked how we as anglers could better understand the role of patterning trout and redfish, Dr. Vega notes the critical role that water temperature and salinity play in the patterns of all species of coastal finfish.
“Each species is unique in its wants and needs regarding temperature, salinity and habitat,” advises Dr. Vega. “These critical environmental features control all aspects of life, including spawning, seasonal migrations, growth, and feeding.”
Dr. Vega’s observation comes from years of being immersed in the lives of the finfish species that are so important to us, and his input speaks to a key component to successful angling – be observant of the environment you are fishing. You have to be a student of the fish and environment in which they dwell. Virtually every pattern has some tie to an environmental underpinning. Remember to be adaptive and observant in defining fish patters. As the saying goes, they change as often as the weather. Also, study the species you pursue. There is something that drives them uniquely in many of their seasonal and daily patterns. The better you know these motivations, the more you will intercept them.
Back To School
One of the timeless beauties of angling is that you are never done learning. Every day on the water, every conversation with a fellow angler and every article you read help refine your art. The best angling advice I ever received was to never stop learning, and I think to properly do that, you have to never stop looking for new and different sources. Marine biologists are always pushing their science. They constantly stretch to increase our shared understanding of the marine resources we all adore. There is no scientific formula for angling success, but adding a little marine biology to your tackle box will clearly increase your odds.