The Saltwater Magazine for Gulf Coast Fishing!



Fish Eye View

by Joseph J. Ott
Fall 1999


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Over the years, I've had plenty of time to ponder about fishing. Lately, I've been re-thinking some of the old fishing theories, for example, there's one that says warm water holds less oxygen, therefore it forces fish to go deep in summer. I don't know who was the first to expound that theory, but it doesn't seem to hold water, no pun intended. If it did, there'd be no summer wade-fishing.
Red drum, cobia, trout, snook, permit, pompano, and a host of other fish along the Gulf, can tolerate a wide range of water temperatures. That's why you can catch so many species of fish in the shallows, even when the water temperature is over eighty-five degrees. I have a strong hunch the position and intensity of the sun has more to do with fish location in summer than the temperature of the water.
When summer begins, the sun is located quite a bit further north than in the dead of winter. You can check this with a comparison of the length of your shadow at noon in winter and in summer. The winter shadow is much longer.
I needed a couple of eye operations to remind me how sensitive our eyes are to light. We wear large brimmed caps or dark, polarized glasses to reduce glare, but what about fish? They have no eyelids. Without eyelids, can you imagine how hard the sun is on a fish's ability to see in the summer, especially in shallow, clear water?
The deeper the water, the less light, even on bright days in clear water. It makes sense, therefore, that fish seek deeper water to avoid bright light even when they're getting all the oxygen they need in shallow water. If that's true, fish also seek out shallow, shaded places where bright sunlight doesn't affect their vision. Those are places available to wade-fishermen, and those are places I fish.
Like many a fisherman before me, I used to head for deeper water when the water temperature rose above eighty degrees. Now I head for shady shorelines, back bays, boat channel edges, and grass flats where the grass is tall and is liberally sprinkled with sandy potholes or numerous snags deposited by storms.
Don't expect to find fish in all shaded areas because the best are still those which contain a good food supply. The obvious places to fish on bright summer days, then, would be shady locations with a plentiful supply of baitfish or other food nearby.
Mangrove shorelines, from Tampa Bay to Key West, are great places to fish all summer. The same fish can be seen under the same mangroves time after time. Find mangroves and you've found fish havens.
Red drum, being bottom feeders, are found even at midday in extremely shallow water as long as there's an ample supply of bottom food, and if the fish aren't disturbed by some boater testing to see how shallow he can run before his lower unit is demolished by an oyster bed.
The red's favorite foods are young crabs, newly hatched horseshoe crabs, spotted or blue crabs, or stone crabs. I caught one red that was feeding on baby slippers, a shellfish. Reds, like other bottom feeders, don't seem to be disturbed by the sun when they're feeding head down.
Sight is the most important sense we have to determine distance. It's also true for fish. We've all had days when sea trout killed a lot of our live baits in clear water without becoming hooked. I feel certain that bright sunlight affects their ability to see the bait clearly, and to judge the exact distance to the bait. They're probably homing in using sound or scent to locate the bait, senses less accurate than sight. Fish the same locations when it's cloudy and trout seem to hit the bait harder and become hooked more frequently.
I've experimented to check fish reactions to bait placement when the sun is well overhead and when it's at various angles. I have greater success catching fish when I place the bait on the same side of sandy potholes in grass flats as the sun, especially when the grass is fairly long. That's equally true when fishing the sides of drop-offs like boat channels. The implication is that shade is on that side, and fish are lying about where you would expect the shade to be, given the angle of the sun and the location of the top of the grass or channel.
That also holds true for large trout which feed along the bottom edges of grass. I use pinfish for bait around midday in summer when I'm fishing for reds and trout because pinfish head directly for the bottom, giving the fish a clearer target.
Those who fish flats with the sun at their backs know how frustrating it is to see fish scatter in front of them as they move along. When fishing away from the sun, make sure your reel is loaded to the spool rim with fresh, light line. Full spools and light line allow longer casts. For optimum success, cover all fishable water in front of your shadow before moving because on a bright day fish are extra cautious.
When the sun is very low at your back in early morning or late afternoon, you'll cast a long shadow. Fish instinctively are wary of any moving shadows. They're on guard and flee at the slightest excuse, especially when the water is clear and shallow. If you have no choice but to wade in that direction, try to do so when the sun is high. That reduces shadow length considerably. I often catch a good stringer of fish at midday knowing that my shadow is short and isn't likely to disturb the fish as I wade.
When fish are working the shallows, you need to pay attention to the fact that they can see better looking away from the sun. Learn how to make use of that information.
I was fishing grassy potholes in mid-summer when I got a hard strike. A few minutes later, I reeled in an eighteen inch speck. Before I left that pothole, I'd caught five specks between eighteen and nineteen inches and a keeper flounder. All of the fish were lying on the same side of the hole as the sun, very close to the grass. I had to cast to within a foot of them before they made a grab for the bait. When they did hit, they hit hard, leading me to believe that they had a good bead on the bait before striking. A few days later, I had to shift the bait placement to catch fish in the same hole because I was fishing earlier in the day.
On bright summer days, fish those narrow little bays and tidal rivers that have grass, trees and brush shading the water. Toss your bait right up to the shoreline where there are gaps in the brush and work it back out, or cast parallel to the shore at the edge of the shade and slowly work it back to you. Be prepared for some explosive strikes. Few fish will allow a choice bait to go by in plain sight.
Nights, big fish hang in the shadows of lighted docks, jetties, piers and bridges. These locations give them advantages. They are invisible to any baitfish attracted to the light, and they are in position to grab any baitfish that swims within their strike zone.
I've found that fish need more time to decide whether to strike a baitfish close to the surface on bright, sunny days. This seems to indicate that they may be unsure what they are attacking.
Even with the abundance of baitfish in the summer, many of the fish I catch at midday have little or nothing in their digestive tracts. It seems to indicate that they have trouble seeing and may prefer to feed when the sun is at a lower angle. In my experience, however, most fish won't allow a well-presented bait to go by.
Reds are mainly bottom feeders, but I tease many to the top with lively, free-lined baitfish. Reds make almost as much noise as snook when they suck in the bait with a loud pop. I get far more misses from reds when I fish on top during bright, summer days, and they seem to follow the bait farther before striking it. I add a number 5 or 7 reusable splitshot to the leader when this happens. This is enough weight to sink even a lively baitfish below the surface where the reds can now get a better look at what I'm presenting.
Early morning, late afternoon, cloudy days, or shady shorelines are best for topwater plugs in summer. If you're fishing topwaters on bright days, give the fish plenty of time to look over the plugs. In other words, slow the plugs way down, and if they're missing, slow them down even more, or switch to underwater plugs or jigs once you have their attention.
Placement of bait on bright days is important to cruising fish. Bait tossed directly over fish usually spooks them, whereas one tossed a foot or two to the side draws strikes. Tossing the bait away from the side of the fish where the sun is located will immediately attract its attention.
Always check that summer sun angle. If you have to squint or shade your eyes when you look up, those fish aren't able to see too well either. Keep the fish-eye point of view in mind and you're on your way to better summer fishing success.