Make No Mistake

May 2016 Dan Armitage


Across much of North America, if you can’t catch a fish in May, you’re just not trying. May is the month when most of our popular gamefish species, across much of the nation, are either spawning or just completing their annual mating ritual. Either way, they are as hungry and as shallow (read that “accessible”) and as active as they are going to be at any other time of the year. That’s why many states offer their annual Free Fishing Days this time of year: it’s the best time to introduce someone to the sport when they have the best possible chance to achieve success—and therefore get hooked on the sport and start buying fishing licenses (and that’s just the start). 

For the past 20 years, I have hosted a weekly fishing and hunting show that airs on two dozen radio stations across my home state of Ohio. The show is an hour in length and I only cover what are called “consumptive” outdoor sports: hunting and fishing. Although they engage in outdoor activities that fall under the broad “outdoor sports” umbrella, I don’t host guests who are expert hikers, birders, climbers, skiers or spelunkers, for example. I figure my listeners are fairly well-focused, and want to hear how to get within range of more game or how to catch more fish—and in two decades they have learned to trust me to offer them just that—and primarily in our shared state to boot. 

Doing Wrong?

To depart from the common “What tips can you share?” format, a question I have come to ask just about every guest expert I interview each week takes a different tack, and often results in a fresh response: “What do most people do wrong that keeps them from being as successful in the field or on the water as they could be?”

I’m more specific in that, for example, I’ll ask a bass expert to name the most common mistake he sees anglers make when trying to catch a lunker largemouth, but you get my drift.  

Come May, when everyone should be able to experience plunging bobbers and tight lines, I pose that question to myself: “What are the most common mistakes I see average anglers make?” Five of the six answers that first come to mind are extremes: they involve using or doing “too much” of something. The first, however, concerns bait.

Live Bait

Most people I see fishing instead of catching could enjoy more of the latter fish if they used the right bait. Specifically, if they used the right live bait, for nothing fools and therefore hooks fish like the real thing. Artificial lures are great—in the hands of those experienced and confident in their use who enjoy the challenge. But when push comes to shove and I need to catch a fish, I nearly always turn to the ‘real deal’ and start soaking the live stuff—from worms to minnows to crabs and shrimp. Most freshwater fish will pounce on a properly presented worm. Most saltwater fish will devour a lively shrimp. 

Hook Selection

Note the ‘properly presented’ caveat. Many beginning anglers I see are using hooks that are too large for the fish they are trying to catch. Big hooks damage live bait and weigh it down, making it look unnatural. They are also too large to slip undetected into a fish’s mouth. When in doubt use smaller, wire hooks (which are often gold in color) with live bait. The smaller diameter does less damage to the bait, doesn’t add weight and, as a bonus, can usually be pulled and straightened to release when snagged, instead of breaking the line, to save your rig. 

Big Lures

Using lures that are too big is another common error I see novice anglers make.  I’ve come to  believe that reading magazine articles and watching cable fishing shows featuring anglers hooking big fish in prime fishing destinations while using large lures give people the wrong idea, making them believe they need to use those same size baits in their local waters. That’s not the case; when in doubt about lure size, “match the hatch.” Look at the size of the baitfish that are being eaten in your local waters and by the gamefish you seek and use lures that size—if not a bit smaller. 

Heavy Line

Fishing line that’s too heavy can be seen by wary fish; if you do everything else right but your line is thick enough to be seen by your quarry, you can still go fishless. Heavy line is also harder to cast. I rarely use line testing more than 12 pounds when fishing in freshwater. Most of the time I use four-, six- or eight-pound test line. I use mostly 12- and 20-pound test in saltwater.

Right Setup

Ditto tackle. Each season I see people trying to catch crappies and sunfish using bass- and walleye-size rods and reels designed for use with 15- or 20-pound line. Even when they are successful, how much fun is it to reel in a six-ounce fish on a rig built to handle a 10-pound-plus fish?

Speed Kills

I think many anglers fish too fast. They don’t give a particular fishing spot enough time for the fish to settle down and locate their baits, they cast and reel their baits back in too fast, or they troll or even drift at speeds fleeter than the gamefish are used to seeing their food swim past. There are instances when triggering strikes from lethargic fish calls for fast-moving baits, but most of the time slowing down is the key to success.

Correcting any of those common mistakes may have you catching more fish this month.


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