Angler Education

Can Bass Learn, Or Are They Like My Pet Cat?

Don't get me wrong, I really like my cat. As cats go she's as nice a specimen as you could ever want. But when I look into her eyes all I see is empty space. The lights are on, but nobody's home.

Many bass anglers wonder the same thing about bass. Can bass learn? Do they remember their experiences with lures? Can they apply their knowledge to lures they have never seen before?

The answer to all of those questions is an emphatic yes. In fact, as fish go bass are reasonably intelligent creatures. From my years of experience in observing bass in the laboratory, I would have to rank them around the middle of the intelligence range: definitely smarter than trout (at least hatchery trout) but dumber than carp (no insult intended carp are smarter than you think!).

However, the key phrase is as fish go, because as members of what has been called the lower vertebrates, fish in general are not equipped to be proficient learners or to apply what they have learned in ingenious ways. Their primitive brain is well-equipped to do basic functions: receive information from the different senses, process or integrate that information with other pieces of information about the animal's present state of being, and control the muscles affecting the necessary behavioral response.

Yet one key brain structure that the primitive brain lacks is a cerebrum, responsible for associative learning.

I was once asked if bass know to hate or fear anything. These are two mental or emotional states that probably do not apply to fish. It is highly unlikely that fish brains have enough nerve cells to generate even rudimentary emotions. So, to think that bass hate some things, fear others, and show expressions of love in some circumstances (such as when they pair up to spawn) is almost certainly incorrect.

What should have been really asked was whether bass instinctively view any other animals as their natural enemies ? I doubt it. However, I think that bass are designed to instinctively avoid certain patterns of sensory stimulation.

For example, I suspect that the visual image of an on-rushing, large, dark object will always evoke an escape reaction from bass once the image exceeds a certain size. Likewise, a sudden burst of sound nearby will automatically cause the bass to launch forward and away from the stimulus area. A sharp increase in an offensive smell, water acidity, or salinity, or a sharp decrease in oxygen levels can cause the bass to turn rapidly around and seek cleaner water.

What these patterns all have in common is that there is altogether too much sensory stimulation, or the rate of stimulation increases too fast. A bass will continue to avoid (escape from) these sensory patterns until it learns that no harm will come. Bass kept in a public aquarium, for instance, will initially shy away from passing pedestrians or kids tapping on the aquarium glass. But in time the bass learn from the repetitive annoyances, and like my pet cat, will ignore these foreigners and go about their business.