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Does the First Fish Tell the Story?

By on May 1, 2016


While you’re truckin’ across America this coming week and daydreaming about your next fishing outing, ponder this—why do you often catch
the biggest fish on the first few casts at a good spot? Conversely, how many times have you cast a favorite big-fish hotspot and been both surprised and disappointed to find nothing but smaller fish?

I have your answers! It all boils down to basic predator hierarchy, and it matters little what fish species you are after. Once you are keyed into this concept, you can quickly assess the potential of any given spot with just a few casts.

Most of the best guides and tournament anglers know all about this theory, which I simply call “the lead fish principle.” Others might not call it by the same name, but they’re still playing the same game.

How It Works

Essentially, it all begins with visualizing the most dominant fish taking up the most opportune ambush position. In most cases, the biggest fish—on any given spot during a specific time period—faces into whatever current is available and swims forward until it reaches the front edge or head of the structure or cover. This current can be created by many forms including inside a river system or simply by wave action on a natural lake. In other words, current concentrates the largest and the most active fish at the front edge of the structure.

All fi
sh species feel and sense current, no matter how strong or slight. They use it to their advantage while hunting for food. Baitfish use current to school tightly and gobble up plankton. Current pushes the plankton flows right to them, and because they are facing the current, they can most effectively consume it. Predatory fish face into current for the same reason. Only instead of gobbling plankton, they are ambushing prey. The underwater world of fish, for the most part, is very much like the Disney movie Nemo in the sense that bigger fish eat the smaller ones. Big predatory fish are aggressive, dominant critters that demand the best ambush spots. Therefore, active predator fish will slide up to the very front edge of the ambush and assume the role as the “lead fish.” None of the other fish get a first, or sometimes even second, shot at meals until the boss finishes breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Stay or Go?

What’s also important to note is the lead fish—which is also the first fish that you are likely to catch—reveals who’s the boss at that time and place. In other words, if you catch a big one right off the bat, keep fishing! If a small fish strikes on your first cast, it is usually a bad sign. Howfishing3ever, this scenario is bound to change throughout the day so you need to keep rechecking good spots to find out when the big fish are there. Other factors such as weather conditions, wind direction, solar heat, moon phases and time of day all are bound to have a bearing on who or what is active on the spot at any given moment.

Essentially, this concept works no matter what the fish species. For example, if that first cast yields a small snake northern pike, or a little buck bass, it’s a good bet that the next fish caught will be of equal size. In fact, the odds are against you catching anything of any size during that time period on that given spot. A lead fish of this caliber tips you off that there’s no big fish active on this particular spot at that time. In essence, this is a huge time saver.

If you’re skeptical, make a few more casts to make sure. It’s a good bet all you’ll catch is another fish of similar size. Think about it: If a larger fish was active at that spot, would a smaller, less-dominant fish really have a chance to feed there? Don’t waste any more time at this spot. Move on. Head to greener pastures.

Works for Any Fish

Like I said, it seems to matter little what species of gamefish we’re after. The same principle works for smallmouths, largemouths, walleyes, pike, and—above all—muskies. It even works on panfish. In fact, the bigger the fish and the higher it is on the food chain, the more this principle seems to come into play. It matters little where you fish, what you fish for, and what the spot looks like. If there are fish present, and there is current, you can predict the spot’s potential in a few casts.

When you’re dealing with a fishery that harbors multiple predators, this knowledge also quickly tells you what species of fish are active. For example, on many of the waters I fish in the Great Lakes Region, there are at least three and sometimes four major gamefish predators competing inside the same ecosystem. While bass might be the largest predator on many lakes of the south, they are apt to be a couple of notches down the food chain on any waters containing critters with big teeth. Generally, toothy fish are always the “top dogs.” This includes the presence of big, predatory, rough fish like gars and bowfins.

On my home lakes in northern Wisconsin, any given main lake reef is bound to hold walleyes, largemouths and smallmouths, northern pike, and muskies. However, the time of day when each is active on this single food shelf might vary greatly. Pull up on that reef at first light and bass might be all over it. By mid-morning, a wolf pack of pike is bound to take it over. At any moment, a big muskie slides up on this reef, and every other species hunkers down. Then as nightfall approaches, a school of walleyes is bound to control the turf. So, that first cast not only tells you how big the predators are, but also what species is active.

So, there you have it! Day in and day out, you’re going to be surprised how accurate this lead fish principle is. You are now armed with a secret weapon that enables you to quickly assess the potential of any given spot not long after a few casts.


Joe Bucher is a National Freshwater Fishing Hall Of Fame Legendary Angler and host of the popular TV series Fishing with Joe Bucher. He is also the author of six books, as well as a contributing writer for monthly fishing publications on a variety of subjects and gamefish species all over North America.


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