Angler Education

Bass: Smarter than a 5th Grader?

Some anglers grossly underestimate the brain of a bass, especially its capacity for change. In reality, a bass's behavioral response to any given experience leaves a physical mark on the bass. In other words, bass learn.

Some fishermen apparently think fish are too dumb to learn anything. But the process of learning has nothing to do with intelligence.

Let's say a bass hears a rattling crankbait. The longer, or more frequently, the bass is exposed to the rattle, the more memorable the sound. Should the bass attack the crankbait and be hooked, then the trauma of being hooked will be associated mentally with the sound. With each subsequent exposure and consequent hooking, the likelihood that the bass will attack the lure shrinks because of growing
negative associations with the lure. The bass learns to just say no.

There is also huge variation among bass in how quickly they learn, such as the susceptibility of individual bass to being caught more than once. In one four-year study of angling recapture rates at a catch-and-release lake in Illinois, the average largemouth was caught twice each season. However, some bass were caught up to 16 times in a single season.

Bass can gradually become less sensitive to particular stimulus situations. One common example is bass in large store aquariums, where they regularly see huge crowds of people each day. When first placed in the aquarium, the bass shy away from the passing traffic, especially those bystanders who enjoy pressing their faces up against the glass. With time, the bass learn to ignorethe people. Another example would be bass learning to ignore the presence of boating traffic on a busy lake.

When possible, bass often stake out home territories. This requires them to learn the difference between home and non-home. To do this they learn the layout of various structural landmarks. Without this learning, bass would be forced to start afresh each time they set out to find a distant food source or relocate a preferred spot. In the laboratory, bass have found their way through an underwater maze to reach a desired point.

Finally, as predators, bass have a strong dispensation for learning prey search images. An animal is said to have developed a search image if it actively looks for a particular object with an indefinable visual, acoustic, vibrational, or chemical signature. Given enough positive experience with a certain prey type, a bass will gradually come to actively seek out that specific prey.

Smarter than a fifth grader? Well, probably not. But bass are a lot smarter than most people give them credit.