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Pleasure Boat Paradox

It’s highly doubtful that pleasure boaters would be part of musky fishermen’s description of a dream day on the water. Though we share the water with jet-skiers, wakeboarders, pontooners, tubers, and the like, rarely is there is deference from one party toward the other.

For most musky hunters, the daily presence of pleasure boaters is reality, and most automatically conclude that fish are turned off by boat traffic. However, while I may not care for the headaches of fishing amongst the masses, I firmly believe recreational crafts have positively impacted my outings.

Pleasure boaters are truly the wild card to the musky game for they can be the providers of change to otherwise lifeless waters.

Pleasure Boat Paradox

The author and his mom, Holly, with a midday tiger musky that ate among the chaos of heavy boat traffic

The Pattern

Seasonal conditions throughout summer make for difficult fishing. High skies and little to no wind bring calm water, often leaving fish sluggish throughout daytime hours. For this idle behavior to shift, a change of some sort must occur. While solunar patterns can bring about such positive mood swings, it is the recreational boater, often times launching at mid-morning or early in the evening, who unwittingly provides that all-so-important break in the norm.


A big point of emphasis within this pattern is the subsequent wave-action generated from the wake of the craft. This wave-action yields a prolonged effect as it transfers over a vast area, in most cases running until it is broken by shoreline or an island. In short, this expands the impact zone far beyond where the boat passes and covers both sides.


There are limitations to this notion, bound by pleasure boat volume and proximity. Readers may be reluctant to fish waters churned to froth on a weekend, though this is not to say fish cannot be caught in these circumstances. The preferred situation is far closer to the standard weekday traffic on most waters. Both angler and boater are at safe distances from the other, though anglers periodically feel the wave-action from passersby.


We must first recognize that that this pattern weighs heavily on an introspective component. Usually, the presence of a pleasure boater causes many to assume muskies will shut down based upon their sheer presence.


Frustration and irritation wrongfully ensue, hope is lost. Some anglers vacate the premise in search of new, untainted water, and fail to capitalize on the pattern that presented itself. Those who remain in the spot often do so with a lack of confidence, resulting in halfhearted effort. Casts become haphazard … figure-8 attempts grow meager.


Mental barriers such as these exist within all of us. To fully reap reward from this pattern it is crucial that our mindset turns 180-degrees.


Let’s delve into this theory by analyzing the impact of fish activity in relation to boat traffic from a psychological perspective. This dynamic will help us better understand the correlation between positive fish activity and boat traffic.


One of two psychological principles may apply to this correlation, the first of which is habituation. Habituation is defined as a form of learning in which an organism decreases response, or ceases to respond, to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Recognize that boat traffic is a stimulus. A stimulus, by definition, is something that causes a physical response from an organism, in this case a musky. In short, boat traffic, though not naturally occurring, becomes an external factor within a musky’s environment.


In order to apply habituation into the realm of musky fishing, consider two angling tactics frequently employed – trolling and using the outboard to maintain boat position – as well as common places muskies take up residence. The commonality amongst each of these examples is a running outboard. These real-world scenarios indicate an overlap of positive fish activity and boat traffic.


The success of trollers indicates that fish are not necessarily as off-put by outboards or boat traffic as many care to believe. Propwash trolling takes the churning water and noise factor of an outboard to an extreme, yet still produces muskies. Therefore, our perception toward the correlation between fish activity and boat traffic may be slightly skewed and biased.


Casters, meanwhile, often use a tiller outboard to maintain boat position, Again, the common theme is success while the prop s engaged. Even though anglers are casting throughout this tactic, and may be in relatively shallow water, muskies remain active. What’s more, it is not uncommon for fish to follow and eat at boatside.


Lastly, consider popular hangouts for muskies where boat traffic is common, namely access ramps, public or personal docks, and marinas. These areas provide cover, shade, shelter, and food, all of which attract and support the entire ecosystem top to bottom. They are also riddled with boat traffic, but the constant disorder and disturbance doesn’t provoke evacuation, nor does it necessarily inhibit their willingness to feed.

Learned Behaviors

Many write off the intelligence of fish. With brains the size of a marble, it’s easy to draw conclusions over their relative intellect and judge that anglers over-analyze the sport.


Perhaps the latter assertion may still be true, but I feel it is a matter of giving credit where credit is due. Muskies are wild animals. To survive they must be aware of their surroundings, playing off of these external factors in an advantageous manner. They must adapt. They must evolve. They must learn.


I believe that, in some cases, muskies use the presence of boat traffic as a means to feed and thrive. This illustrates a second psychological principle that may support the correlation of positive fish activity to boat traffic: boat traffic as a learned behavior.


Remember that boat traffic is not natural to a musky’s environment, so they do not have a genetically-programmed reaction to their presence. Therefore, we can rule out the possibility that this is an innate (or instinctive) behavior. Any response will then be a learned behavior.


Beyond this initial distinction, we can draw parallels to a deeper concept within learned behavior theory – classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dog experiment). Classical conditioning pairs two stimuli (a food source and boat traffic) to develop a response (feeding). When the first stimulus (food) is not presented alongside the second stimulus (boat traffic), the second stimulus eventually elicits the response (opportunity to feed). In short, I believe a musky hears or feels the boat’s vibration within its lateral and associates this with the opportunity to feed.


I have three hypotheses as to why boat traffic is advantageous from a musky’s perspective, each of which links to the principle of boat traffic as a learned behavior.


In the first scenario, the wake of the craft produces a wake and the subsequent wave-action scatters baitfish. It is likely that the baitfish were being stalked by a fish higher in the food-chain, waiting for an opportune moment to strike. Here, the passing of the boat provides a change in the system, and that much-anticipated opportunity presents itself. This transfers up the food chain, with muskies eating the forage fish that reacted to the baitfish movement which were initially scattered by the boat.


My second hypothesis is similar to my first, differing only in causation. Rather than the wake of the boat and subsequent wave-action moving baitfish, we assume that instead the food, such as phytoplankton, is being moved. This attracts and groups baitfish. Their feeding triggers the feeding of predatory fish, with their own selves being the delicacy. This food-chain reaction continues through the line. Again, we note the change that is directly attributed to the vessel.


My final hypothesis, which may occur simultaneously with one of the above hypotheses, looks at the pattern from an environmental perspective. Here, we see elements of the “change” recreational crafts provide. For instance, wave-action scatters light rays, which in turn breaks up surface clarity. With the displacement of sediment and other particulates, expect water clarity to be altered. Oxygen levels will also be increased somewhat. So, we see favorable conditions similar to that of wind-induced chop.


The introspective component of remaining focused in spite of the presence of pleasure craft defines this pattern. Understanding the relationship between pleasure boaters and weather will link this pattern together. Most pleasure boaters surface during the warmer months, primarily making this a summer pattern. At these times, muskies are prone to congregate in open water where cooler water temperatures and better oxygen levels provide a more comfortable environment. These areas house more forage fish during these warmer periods, so consider the offshore bite.


Further, pleasure boaters typically emerge on “perfect” days when the sun is bright and the air is warm. Though there are exceptions to the rule, these generally are far from peak conditions for fishing, particularly in the summer months. With this in mind, anticipate muskies’ mood to be negative to neutral, only increasing in activity during short windows around solunar phases or, as discussed, when the passing of a craft stirs the water and breathes life into the lake.


Fishing in the company of boat traffic can be a hassle at times. But if you carry a level head and remain attentive you can have success in spite of their antics.


"Pleasure Boat Paradox" was featured in the August/September 2015 issue of Musky Hunter magazine

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