Why fish won’t bite

An Outdoor View

Why fish won’t bite is one of the great mysteries of fishing. It’s been attributed to everything from circadian rhythm to karma. To make the puzzle even more exasperating, each species has its own feeding preferences.


Understanding fish is on a par with understanding women. Many times, I’ve seen an individual fish turn up its nose at my offering while a nearby fish of the same size and species will jump on it like a robin on a June bug.

So many times when the bite is slow or nonexistent, people will say, “There’s no fish here.” That’s sometimes true, but many times there are plenty of fish. They just aren’t biting.

The “why” of the bite has a lot to do with efficiency. Feeding can be hard work for fish. If a certain prey item isn’t worth the energy required to catch it, fish won’t try, or will give up after a short chase. Fish are always looking for an easy meal.

Well, almost always. When they’ve eaten their fill, they usually stop feeding. When you present a bait to a fish that’s stuffed to the gills, the most you can expect is a yawn. The occasional glutton is an exception.

Fish become tired after feeding, especially if they’ve had to chase down their prey. They also use energy by migrating, spawning, escaping from predators, protecting feeding areas and simply maintaining position in current. They need long periods of rest. If they become too tired, they become easy prey for predators. It stands to reason that a tired fish is less likely to chase a lure than a rested fish.

Why sockeye salmon won’t bite has driven people mad, but silver salmon can be just as infuriating. One of the most frustrating days of my life was spent fly fishing on a small stream near Cordova. Thousands of silvers swam past me, within easy casting distance. Not one of them bit, no matter what fly I threw at them. The previous day, I’d caught one after another. The difference was that the fish I caught the day before were resting, not moving. A heavy rainstorm that night caused the river to rise, triggering something in those fish that told them to get moving and to ignore size 2 Clouser Minnows.

When fish have been “spooked,” they temporarily stop feeding. I’ve seen the shadow of a gull flying over a creek panic adult salmon. While fishing from a small boat near a coral reef off Christmas Island, I cast a plug toward a grey reef shark that was cruising near the surface. The plug landed about a foot ahead of the 8-foot fish. I was certain it would bite. This was a carnivore, and I had presented it with an easy meal. Instead, the big shark turned 180 degrees and fled in full panic.

On the Kenai River, we see times when salmon won’t bite, when the only fish hooked are snagged—hooked elsewhere than in the mouth. In the lower river, these fish might be “off the bite” because their systems are making the change from saltwater to fresh water, or from the deep sea to the shallow river. Farther upriver, who knows why they don’t bite?

Just because fish don’t bite doesn’t mean they can’t be caught. While fishing out of Homer a couple of years ago, the fishing was very slow. The fish were there, but they weren’t biting. All eight of the halibut we caught that day were hooked in the belly. They apparently had been lying on our bait. Whether this is to keep other fish from getting it, or for some reason known only to halibut, I don’t know. What I do know is that it ended badly for the fish, but good for us.

I’ll never understand fish, but I suppose that’s a good thing. It’s what keeps me coming back for more.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.


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