Instinct literally took over when Jeff Little connected with this smallmouth double on Prettyboy Reservoir. Photo Jeff Little

Instinct literally took over when Jeff Little connected with this smallmouth double on Prettyboy Reservoir. Photo Jeff Little

Intuition, Intellect or Faith in the Fish?

By Jeff Little

Before launching on a chilly December morning on Prettyboy Reservoir, I consulted my fishing log. Three prior years of entries showed one dominant pattern: repetitively smacking shelf rock along a creek channel in the 25 to 50 foot range with a 3/4-ounce blade bait.

So why when positioned directly over the perfect example of such a location did I keep looking shallow? It was as though someones hands kept rotating my head and line of sight toward a shallow gravel point leading out to the deep creek channel bend and submerged rocky bluff.

"There's no way they are up in 8 feet of water,” I thought, looking away and down at my depthfinder screen. But for some reason, the next cast went to that shallow water. The bait didn't get to make that familiar crunch on a rocky substrate before a 20.75-inch smallmouth snatched it. A 19.75 incher did the same on the second cast to the same spot. It made no sense in terms of an explainable pattern, but something caused me to pay attention to that spot. I can't tell you what that something is, but that something comes to other anglers who spend a lot of time on the water.

Virginia Angler Rob Choi explains two similar situations where intuition trumped what made sense if you had to explain a pattern.

"I’ve had instances where my buddy followed his instincts and showed me up. I could have sworn it was too cold to throw topwater for speckled trout in late December so I stuck with jigging soft plastics. He said the water just looks right for it, and within a few casts, he was getting blowups. Jigging is fun, but I put that rod down immediately and put on a Skitterwalk."

Following someone else's hunch is a tough leap of faith, even with the proof in a buddy's tight line. Rob tells a story of his fish faith, and a buddy who almost missed out on the results:

"I met several other kayak anglers under the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel for a night time striper raid. There had been several reports of people getting into them on the light line at a section of the bridge that was relatively close to the launch. We all got there and nothing was happening. The stripers just weren’t there. A few guys decided it wasn’t worth it and left. A couple others stayed in that area and kept trying. My buddy and I had a feeling that the fish had to be somewhere along that bridge so we kept paddling. We were both starting to lose confidence as we approached the rock island where the bridge turns into a tunnel. He turned around and started to head back, but the rocks were calling me so I paddled over. Before my buddy go too far, my voice screeched through his radio. ‘I found the mother load of schoolies. Get over here!’"

In Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" he addresses the nature of experts in a field being able to know something without knowing how they know. Gladwell's book is rife with examples of tradesmen, coaches, military experts and therapists who can pick up on something, make the right decision based on that something, but not be able to tell you what that something is. He refers to the ability as "thin slicing”.

Anglers who have logged tens of thousands of hours on the water logged no doubt develop the ability. Maybe it's the faint whiff of a baitfish school coming whenever the wind changes direction. Maybe the angler experiences deja vu in the form of a previous successful angling situation and gets excited and on point because as Rob's buddy put it, the "water just looks right for it."

My father in law, a lifetime dairy farmer can call the next 24 hours of weather, local to his farm. He has "thin slicing" down in the form of looking at the sky, smelling the air, kicking the soil and being able to tell me, "These thunderstorms are going up toward the Mason Dixon line, but they will pass us by save a few drops, just to knock the dust off the leaves." I'll watch the weather channel, an app on my phone, see a massive cell headed in from the next county head straight for us, then dissipate inexplicably. When pressed for how he knew, he will modestly reply, "I didn't – just a good guess." But he did know. He's right all the time. He just can't explain how he knows. It has something to do with 67 years of looking at that sky, smelling that breeze and kicking that dirt.

In each of Gladwell's examples, the expert in a field had the confidence to trust their instincts. In the situation of Rob searching for stripers, he was almost swayed by an erosion of confidence in the form of several buddies, one by one saying, "They aren't here.” The instinct he had to stick to it might be written off as tenacity. But unless you've experienced it yourself, you might not understand how profound it is to have your head turned in a direction of fish where others would, with sound logical explanations, tell you that there aren't fish.

Nagging doubt visits me constantly in tournament situations. But when I'm just fishing, all I have is confidence. When fishing with others, I can be swayed off the path that my intuition is leading me along. But when it's a solo trip, the "zone" seems easier to find. The instincts also there when I fish with certain fishing buddies, but not there when fishing with someone for the first time. Some mental noise drowns out that ability to thin slice.

Whatever barriers you have to unlocking your kayak fishing instincts, figure them out and avoid them. If you just haven't developed intuition, keep fishing. The profound type of glowing light from the heavens, illuminating "the spot" isn't coming. But a little voice inside your head saying, "Reel it in, move over there and make a cast" is. Listen to it!