Chasing the Ghost Fish
By Chad Hill, U.S. Anglers Choice contributor

  It’s a cool, semi-foggy morning, your pulse quickens with anticipation as you idle away from the dock through the no-wake zone to the take-off buoy. A myriad of thoughts speed through your mind. The adrenaline rush of another day on the water is addictive! Then, blast off! Throttle down, you shoot out of the hole jetting to your first stop of the day.

You shut down and coast to a stop. Life jacket slipped off and into the seat, you hop onto the front deck, push the power button on the front locator, and drop the trolling motor over the bow. . . . all this time unsure of what the day will bring. It is once again time to identify and assemble the pieces of the puzzle to reveal the clues to a successful pattern for catching bass on the day. This challenge, above all else, is what brings you back to the water time and time again.

Knowing there is an arsenal of rods and reels in the locker, you look down at the four choices laying on the deck, to which you tied a variety of baits the night before. You hope that one or two of these baits are the keys to unlocking the bass-catching pattern for the day. Your first selection is made and you begin probing the depths in search of the potentially elusive black bass. The process you have worked through a million times is in motion once again. Using a calculated rotation of presentations, you dissect cover and structure like a surgeon with scalpel in hand.

Twenty minutes pass. “If I can just get that first bite, that first clue.” You say to yourself. Then out of nowhere, your casting rod bows as a bass boils on and inhales the bait near a grass clump. With a quick hookset, the battle is on. In a minute or two, the bottom lip of a chunky three pounder is firmly in your grasp. You quickly remove the hook with a “pop”; she swims away with the swish of her tail in acknowledgement of a good battle and a pleasant farewell.

You say aloud “OK, I’ve got it” as you look to repeat the successful catch. Fifteen minutes pass. Thirty minutes pass. Then, fifty minutes have gone by. You look down at the graph to check the time. More than one hour and twenty minutes have elapsed since that first bite. Not only did you fish through the area where the first bite came from thoroughly, two other very similar areas were picked apart to be certain that first bite was very repeatable and not a fluke. Much to your chagrin, it was. Now what, you wonder. Was there a patternable clue in that bite that was overlooked, or are you just on a “wild goose chase”, or “chasing the ghost fish”? While I am very familiar with this scenario, until earlier this year, I was unfamiliar with the phrase “ghost fish”.

While watching some live tournament coverage earlier this year, a professional angler used this phrase when discussing situations in which an angler gets the first bite of the day, or a when an angler gets a single bite after a long period of time without a fish catch. He explained that after a single bite, an angler often cannot tell if it is the beginning of a pattern or a “ghost fish”. A ghost fish, as he defined, is a bite or fish-catch that an angler pursues for a period of time but is unable to repeat it. This phantom pattern is often distracting and can derail an angler for hours or an entire day on the water. In a tournament, time devoted to chasing the ghost fish often translates into forgettable results.

So, how can an angler avoid “chasing the ghost fish”, that bite that can quickly derail an otherwise successful day of fishing catching? Are there ways to identify that phantom bite and avoid pursuing a pattern that does not exist?

As the pro angler explained that day, and an opinion that I share, there is no way to really know. There is no full-proof checklist to reference, no tell-tale sign to look for. Instead, each bite must be analyzed and pursued to see if IT is the pattern for the day or the first of a series of clues that quickly will lead to a solid fish-catching pattern for the day. There is no way to figure that out other than spending some time trying to repeat THAT bite. The key, however, is the amount of time an angler invests chasing THAT bite. Is it ten minutes? Is it thirty minutes? Is it more; is it less? Does the correct amount of time vary by situation?

During a recent day of chasing largemouth on Crab Orchard Lake, I was faced with a potential “ghost fish” scenario. After fishing for a relatively short time, I got a bite in an area in which I expected to find them. However, the combination of factors that produced that specific bite were unexpected and a bit unusual based on previous experience. I was staring straight into the face of the questions I posed a few paragraphs previous. Fortunately, using two complementary presentations to the bait that produced that first bite, I was able to unlock the way for me to catch ‘em that particular day. The presentation that produced the first bite was not the key detail. Instead, how the bass was set up was the key. I chose other presentations to more effectively fish how the bass were set up and was rewarded. While I did not put any giants in the boat, I had a solid day of catching some nice fish. I listened to myself, made the correct decisions and dedicated the right amount of time to “figure it out”.

The intuition of knowing how long to spend, or even whether to devote anytime at all, pursuing a particular bite is what separates those in the front of the check line from those on the outside looking in. If you have ever wondered why most anglers must spend every minute on the water that life will allow, it is to gain the foundation of on-the-water knowledge and experience on which the strong intuition (gut instinct) required to handle this situation is built. An angler’s gut instinct is the resource required to avoid chasing the ghost fish. When encountered with this situation, listen to what that little voice in your head is telling you. Work that first bite for 10, 20, 30 minutes, or however long YOU feel is right. If a pattern does not materialize, move on when you feel it is right to do so. Don’t look back. Don’t second guess yourself. Trust yourself and be confident doing it. If you do, your self-confidence in decision-making will grow, strengthen, and galvanize around you. Over time, often without realizing it, your fishing will more consistently be woven together with decisions that yield positive results creating momentum that fellow anglers will find difficult to compete with. Over many of years of watching professional anglers on TV and live coverage on the web, as well as competing in local and regional tournaments, there is one common trait that all the most successful anglers possess…self-confidence. They believe in their ability and trust their decision-making.

Even the pros lose way more than they win. Although building a strong, knowledge-based angling intuition with which decisions are made confidently is not a full-proof recipe for success, those characteristics are vital to creating a positive mental environment in which successful on-the-water decisions become the norm and far outnumber the fruitless ones. Building and trusting your “angling gut” will make you a ghost buster on the water. You will uncover productive bass-catching patterns more frequently and spend far less time chasing ghost fish.