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Bass pro says fish are getting smarter too

There's no doubt that fishermen are becoming better educated.

But is it possible that the fish are, too?

Denny Brauer certainly thinks so. He is convinced that the more fishermen learn, the more the prey learns, too.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we've educated the fish," said Brauer, a top bass pro from Camdenton, Mo. "In the old days, you could go down to a bank with a spinnerbait and catch all the bass you'd want. It's not that way anymore.

"The fish have seen it all. They have seen a lot of different lures and different techniques, and they react.

"We've conditioned them. That's why it's so important to keep looking for new ways and places to catch them."

Rick Clunn, another legendary bass fisherman, agrees. He, too, has seen signs that the bass are learning just as quickly as the fishermen.

"There is an extra variable now - fishing pressure," Clunn said. "A lot of these fish have been caught and released, and they've learned. Bass are a lot like deer. When they feel pressure, they'll avoid it.

"I believe that's why we're not finding them in a lot of the places where we used to. They're still out there, but they're being pushed to more subtle places.

"They're reacting to the fishing pressure."

Educated fish? Some might find it hard to believe that a creature with a brain the size of a grape can become an Einstein.

Fisheries biologists say it really isn't that way. They say the fish, if anything, become conditioned. When they have a negative experience - say, being stung by a hook - they react.

In most cases, a fish's memory is short-term. But if it is caught and released often enough, it can become conditioned. And that can shape behavior.

Luckily, there are other factors at work - weather, barometric pressure, and water temperature, to name a few - that can trigger aggression and cause a fish to hit. But pro fishermen know that fishing pressure can be a factor.

"I believe the conditioning factor is real," said Al Lindner, a fisherman from Brainerd, Minn., who founded In-Fisherman. "Species such as bass and muskies that are exposed to a lot of intelligent fishing pressure definitely will change behavior. I've seen it many times.

"That's why the good fisherman is continually adjusting, like going to more subtle presentations with smaller baits or by going to the grotesquely large swim baits.

"You're trying to present something the fish haven't seen before."

Though there have been few studies documenting a fish's reaction to fishing pressure, fisheries biologists also believe it has an effect on their behavior. But they shy away from drawing absolute conclusions.

They say fishing pressure may be one of many factors affecting fish behavior - but not the only one.

"Fishing pressure does present challenges for us from a management standpoint," said Mike Kruse, fisheries program supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "Sometimes, fishing success doesn't match what we find in our surveys.

"We might find good populations of fish in a reservoir, but that doesn't always mean they are going to be caught. From my own perspective, it's very humbling to fish somewhere and not do very well and then go back over the same spot with an electrofishing boat and find all kinds of fish.

"Why those fish didn't hit, who knows? I'm certain they get conditioned to lures they see a lot. But there are other factors at work, too."

Gene Gilliland, a noted fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, doesn't deny that negative experiences can affect fish behavior. But he, too, thinks there are many other influences, some of which man might not fully understand yet.

"I talked to another fisheries biologist who went diving one time to observe how bass reacted to the lures cast their way," Gilliland said. "They watched lure after lure come right past them and they wouldn't even move.

"But all of a sudden, it was like a light switch and they started hitting the same type of lure they had seen an hour earlier. The biologist tried to tie it to solunar tables, the barometer, the weather, all kinds of things, but he couldn't find anything.

"More than anything, that told me we still have a way to go before we understand why fish act the way they do."