Fish sense: Hatches, matched and otherwise

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Match the hatch. Yet another three-word morsel of alleged angling wisdom rendered more or less inert by overuse. My brain barely acknowledges the phrase anymore, skips right over it the way it does articles and other bits of grammatical sinew. And so it loses whatever strategic insight might once have lived in it.

Sometimes success hinges on how well your offering contrasts with actual baitfish.

Meanwhile, the frequency with which an inexperienced angler is apt to hear this fishing-strategy truism lends the words gravity well beyond their usefulness. The whole concept of hatch-matching — trying to mimic as closely as possible a target species’ natural food source with an artificial lure — smacks of field biology best practices to the extent that some anglers forget how unscientific their fishing tactics really are.

It’s one thing to gather nymphs off the bottoms of upended stones in a trout pool, comparing the samples to the contents of your fly box, looking for as close a match as possible to the critters trout are clearly eating. In a trout stream, there are variables, though not so many that you’ll need to make three leap-of-faith assumptions just to decide what you’re actually seeing. When there’s an insect hatch underway and trout are rising to feed on it, you can believe what you’re observing. But when you move your operation to the local salt marsh or a tide rip and switch to striped bass, things get exponentially more complicated.

Which hatch? Match what?

Obviously, match-the-hatch technique is not top-of-the-fold, front-page news for anyone with a rod, a few plugs and a pulse. But over the last few seasons, in the Northeast and beyond, the consensus among my sources is that they’ve never seen more feed clogging the fishing grounds. In other words, whatever the reasons we’re seeing less gamefish, it looks quite unlikely that their absence relates to a lack of feed to draw predators in or keep them around.

If you’re getting into the fishery now, proceed with a wary eye for the many roads to nowhere that await the present-day devotee of hatch-matching. In periods of slow fishing, you need to fish better or get used to being skunked. A big part of polishing your technique relates to how efficiently you can determine whether you’re casting into barren water, even when the surface is frothing with bottom-of-the-food-chain life. You’ll need to learn to think a bit bigger than the most literal kind of bait-matching.

Matching the hatch beyond the cozy confines of salmon rivers quickly becomes a maelstrom of environmental and ecological variables — tide stage, seasonal timing, daylight angle and intensity, water clarity and temperature, weather, barometric pressure, sea state, concentration or size of forage, bottom composition and predator abundance, among four dozen other factors that will quickly cut your breakthroughs down to size in a volley of asterisks, disclaimers and caveats.

A big part of ferreting out the useful elements of matching hatches will be internalizing the simple and unavoidable truth that there’s no uniform connection between what a human sees and what his quarry experiences on a sensory level. As important as Which hatch should I match? is the follow-up few beginners know to ask: Which aspect of species X — behavior, coloration, profile, swimming speed, direction or depth — is the right one to match? Put another way, how does your target species decide to strike one prey item and let another swim by unscathed?

Does a 30-pound striper holding down-tide of that sandbar in the rip horse down a foot-long bunker after zeroing in visually, or is it “marking” its position with its lateral line, then picking up its profile by the contrast between the baitfish and the daylight or moonlight beyond it? These initial questions are endless; most blaze trails to nowhere.

Usually an angler discovers that understanding the target species yields greater and more consistent success than scrutinizing its prey. Matching hatches only really bears fruit once you’ve learned that, ironically enough, fishing through tackle trays for the right lure is the smallest and quickest part of a headier process. And often it’s a lure whose design and finish bear precious little resemblance to the actual prey item that creates the most convincing impression of the real McCoy. For example, some of my surfcasting counterparts argue that when you’re trying to match a “hatch” of 6-inch sand eels, it’s the little puffs of bottom sediment that a bucktail, Kastmaster or diamond jig kicks up, more than any physical characteristic of the lure, that sells the fake.

Timing “hatch” bites

It’s worth noting that although some element of matching a hatch can help your catch rate, during certain “hatch” scenarios when one forage species swarms a confined piece of bottom, your success will depend on how effectively you can create contrast between your offering and dense clouds of the real ones nearby. One solution to the much-lamented case of “too much bait” is to work larger versions of “matching” lures on the margins — the outskirts — of the biggest bait clouds.

Some of my sources have noted they abandon the notion of matching a hatch that offers predators too many natural alternatives to their hook-bearing versions. Faced with massive schools of bay anchovies or young-of-the-year menhaden, they will work the fringes with big, loud, bright, slow-moving shock-and-awe plugs that might represent a more substantial meal that looks easy to run down.

The driving force behind angling success in swarm situations is generally the ratio of predators to “feed” fish. Better than slugging it out when the forage abundance peaks will be waiting for any environmental change that thins out the supply of prey — and often puts predators in the area on a high-intensity feed. For example, Nereid worm spawns in certain southern New England estuaries around the May and June moons create some stunning school bass surface feeds, generally in late afternoon and through the night.

Most anglers who try to capitalize on these brief and often maddening events focus efforts during the hours when the worms are rising from the solar-heated mud at peak intensity. A good friend of mine, who pulls more and bigger fish out of these niche striper scenarios than anyone else I know, chuckles as he lays out his top-secret strategy: “I’ve never understood why it doesn’t occur to these guys to go in the morning or early afternoon the day after a big hatch,” he says. “You know there are still plenty of bass hanging around the area, but there are barely any worms — the bass will actually eat a lure you throw at them.”

I’m reluctant to close on another oft-discussed truth — that the only way you’ll rein in the variables and begin to understand which pieces of the hatch-matching strategy deliver the most consistent boosts to your catch rates is sustained time in the chase. The good news is that thinking a bit harder about what you’re trying to accomplish tends to keep you in a pattern of discovery. And when you’re learning — catching fish and taking pride in your hard-won revelations — the experience stretches out behind you without a whole lot of effort.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.