Glen “Stewie” Stewart
Glen Stewart, or “Stewie” as he is better known in freshwater fishing circles, is a dedicated recreational fisher with an equally dedicated band of followers who appreciate his unassuming, subtle influence and his sharing of insights and innovations, often well before they become “a thing”.
A regular contributor to NSW Fishing Monthly Magazine for over 15 years, Glen also contributes written and visual content for a number of leading fishing and hunting social media titles, nationwide.
He spends countless hours — and travels even more kilometres — in the pursuit of our beloved freshwater fish. An enquiring mind and a dogged pursuit of greater understanding are his driving forces — and his desire to encourage, inspire and challenge others to be thinking anglers is his gift to the Australian fishing community.
Glen ‘Stewie’ Stewart’s sharp-eyed observations concerning heavily-pressured fisheries and how to best handle them have great relevance in practically every fishing scenario you care to name.
In a perfect fishing dream world, every cast would be made into waters unseen and untouched by humans. It’s the sort of utopia that comes up in campfire conversation from time to time, accompanied by phrases such as “imagine what it was like” or “gosh, it would be nice to travel back in time”. I’m sure you could add a few of your own?
Sometimes all it takes is time to sit and observe. Like most things in life, the more you do it, the better you become. Small things matter.
Unfortunately, un-fished waters are extremely rare the world over these days. In fact, in all my travels, I don’t think I would have ever have cast a lure or bait into waters that have never been fished before. Having said that, I’ve got no doubt some of my presentations in lightly-pressured waters may have been the first seen by fish lucky enough to inhabit them.
The stark contrast in attitude and behavioUr between fish of the same species that have experienced different levels of fishing pressure — sometimes even fish living in the same postcode, just minutes or hours apart — hits you like an anvil. I’ve had fish actually swim out from cover to look at the boat, or repeatedly attack lures, despite just being hooked and dropped. Catching fish in such lightly-fished waters can sometimes produce numbers that defy logic and far exceed the averages in pressured water close by. However, such sessions are the exception rather than the rule for most of us today.
A lot more of the author’s angling decisions these days on busy waters are made once he’s considered a baseline of human angling activity, past and present. Some of these decisions can be made before you even leave home, with a little research.
Set a goal of not fishing in any water you’ve already fished, seen fished or heard talked about before… Head for no man’s land!
Extended stays on lightly pressured waters also give you a great insight into how quickly behavior changes due to your fishing-related activities, especially within the confines of a small river or stream. Larger, older fish that only yesterday threw all caution to the wind in the hope of an easy meal are all of a sudden following and looking but not eating. Smaller, younger specimens can be a little slow on the uptake, but even they soon learn to shy away.
This changing behaviour differs slightly between species, but it’s widespread enough to generalize about. It’s a form of “associative learning” that — when seen within the confines of such a waterways — makes you think about what might be happening on a larger scale in more popular, hard-hit fishing destinations.
It’s interesting watching the actions of other anglers on these waters. It’s surprising how many times a prime-looking location gets fished during the course of a day. I remember watching such a location on Lake Mulwala during a lay day around camp, I was totally blown away by the amount of boats that covered the area. I started taking notes and probably missed the first half dozen boats in the morning, but it worked out to be 14 boats over a six hour period. That’s a whole lot of underwater associative learning going on!
It got me to thinking: The next day I set about approaching things a little differently, I set a goal of not fishing any water that I had already fished, seen fished or heard talked about before. I was headed for no man’s land, which is relatively easy in Lake Mulwala. My results were in stark contrast to my efforts pre lay-up. Taking the path less travelled paid dividends.
So, what is “associative learning”?
It’s a learning principial that states that ideas and experiences reinforce each other and can be mentally linked. When it comes to fish the “ideas” bit is probably a bit over the top, but experiences — both good and bad — well, that’s definitely plausible.
Dogs are trained using associative learning principals: good experiences, bad experience’s, pressure on pressure off. It’s amazing what behavior they can learn by this process.
Now, I’m not for a second putting any fish even close to the learning capabilities of the humble hound, but I believe the basics are relevant, especially under constant bombardment and pressure from unnatural noises in close proximity, linked initially to food that fights back… That bit is important.
It’s a different story completely when it’s food that is free and easy. The underwater viewing chamber of one of the trout lakes in New Zealand is a real eye-opener in this regard. Feeders activated via coin operation bring free-ranging trout from everywhere. I reckon they can almost hear the coins dropping! Similar could be said for fish cleaning tables up and down the east coast of Australia — easy meals based on positive, repetitive food-related experiences. Ditto the oyster farmer working his racks: bream surround the boat waiting for an easy meal. The same fish will be quick to shy away from your tinnie or bass boat as you sneak in to present a few lures.
Repetitive and positive food-related experiences — generated in this case by coin-operated feeding stations under the harbor in Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand — are a prime example of wild fish learning by association. These trout could hear the coins dropping and it was a definite audible trigger to what was about to happen!
ZONE OF ACCEPTANCE
We all have one of these. It’s often called our “personal space”. This zone of acceptance is like a rubber band: it expands and contracts relative to many different factors, both internal and external. The underwater world and the fish we chase are no different. Just being aware of this simplified explanation is a start.
Awareness is key, not only to what’s happening in the here-and-now, but also previously and in future days. Heavily pressured water on a Sunday afternoon fishes a very differently to the same stretch on Wednesday morning.
Multi-day competition fishing results over the years are a great yard stick for this phenomenon. Generally speaking, catch rates drop quite a bit the second and third days, despite participants having a broader base of knowledge to work with as the event progresses. The winners’ circle is usually occupied by those willing to adjust their presentations to suit not only the given natural set of circumstances, but also the un-natural pressure applied by such a throng of fishers and their related activity.
On busy waters that I fish regularly, even just on a recreational basis, adjusting to this un-natural pressure has become much more important to my entire thought and action process over time.
Being a keen observer of nature plays a huge role in this. The above-water activities of herbivores and game birds is of great interest to me. I’m a hunter, so getting close for a clean kill or a great photo is very important. Reading the body language of an intended target and, indeed, the actions of every small critter around you becomes critical to success. The negative actions of one individual can affect the “vibe” of everything else in close proximity.
Downsize everything: lures, leaders, main line, terminals… it all helps when dealing with pressured fish.
Micro-changes in weather — both seen and felt — can also play a critical role in the actions of the prey we pursue. Wind direction and strength, the sun coming out or disappearing behind a cloud… the zone of acceptance expands and contracts with these subtle changes — relevant, of course, to the season in question.
These observational skills are innate in all of us, but have largely been lost in a world of modern living, where the need to be so acutely “situation aware” is mostly no longer essential. But tapping back into these skills has led to an amazing amount of animal interactions over the years for me.
The underwater world is no different, although a little harder to fathom (pun intended!). But small above-water signs are nearly always present: a feeding pelican that spooks and departs upon the approach of a boat, ducks or coots that nosily scatter off your favoUrite bass pool when they see and hear you. These are all signals and signs to a watery world that danger could be lurking.
The increased use of technology — specifically modern depth sounders, which make it possible to “read” the body language of fish we can’t even see with our eyes —will be game changing. At this point, I’m not sure that all users of this tech’ have made the sizeable mental jump from visually seeing fish on a screen to establishing if we have invaded their zone of acceptance, but it’s definitely coming.
Of course, in all of this, you have to keep things in perspective, especially relative to outliers or contradictions, of which there are many. Feeding frenzies, breeding cycles, starvation, migration patterns. Sometimes it wouldn’t matter what you cast or how close you got, the fish would still eat… But these times are indeed rare.
Quality screen time should not, in the author’s view, come at a cost of factors happening outside the confines of that liquid crystal display. A much bigger picture is in play here.
ESTABLISH A PRESSURE BASELINE
This is much easier on water and a species you know well, but it can be transferred to places further afield, too. Some of this baseline work can be done before you even leave home.
Are you going in what’s generally considered peak season? What’s been the go-to lures for the last three or four seasons? What general areas are hit most often? By asking only these three questions, you are already establishing a pressure baseline.
Peak season is good for a reason. Avoiding it is hard, but slight adjustments can be made. Not all of us have the liberty of avoiding weekends and school holidays, but this is one such adjustment.
Popular lures have a sound, shape and action footprint that is learnt via the associative process I discussed earlier. Sometimes all it takes is a change to a silent model, the removal of treble hooks to swinging singles, or indeed working lures totally differently to the way “the masses” normally do it… Thinking outside the box.
Popular areas that get hit most often are generally visually enticing to the angler from above the waterline, especially when it comes to structure-orientated species. By adjusting slightly to areas not as visually exciting from above, you’re already making the move away from pressured fish.
It’s worth noting that popular, attractive spots may also be areas of regular replenishment of fish stocks. This usually has something to do with underwater topography, both natural and man-made, the movement of water over and around these spots, and a constant supply of food. Bridges are a perfect example. Rock bars and main lake points another. Fishing these early (be the first one there) is often key. You could also fish them from shore. It’s amazing what the absence of noise from an approaching boat can do for such a spot.
Micro-changes in weather — both seen and felt — can also play a critical role in the actions of the prey we pursue.
By contrast, a lure retrieved back towards the shore is being further restricted and more obviously “corralled” with every turn of the reel’s handle. The narrowing of natural elements forces a reaction from both prey and predator. A sweep of a long swimbait rod to the left or right — with two or three metres of line outside the tip — is something I do at the completion of almost every retrieve. It’s a totally natural reaction from a baitfish that’s being pursued, and a definite trigger for any following hunter. Watching a metre-plus cod eat a swimbait literally at your feet while doing this is not uncommon… but always totally unforgettable!
By having your clod-hoppers firmly planted on mother earth, you’re eradicating those unnatural noises generated by a boat while also presenting a lure that looks increasingly trapped throughout the retrieve, rather than escaping into open water. It’s an obvious win-win.
Multiple opportunities on big cod sometimes arise within a few casts of each other during these land-based sessions. Just recently, my nephew and I experienced one such memorable alignment of the planets, with four cod landed (three of them well over the metre mark and the other in the high 90s), all within a 50 metre stretch of bank. It doesn’t get much better! I’d damn near put my house on the possibility of that happening while floating in a boat through the same feeding zone as near zero… We may have ended up with one fish, at best.
The fishing tournament stage these days is usually occupied by those who not only adjust to the natural set of factors surrounding them, but the “unnatural” ones as well.
ADJUST ON THE RUN
Adjusting on the run by quickly responding to angling pressure is a skill that improves with practice. Depth of water is usually my first adjustment. Generally speaking, fish of almost any species seek greater depths when harassed by anglers. How many times have you heard the speech in the winner’s circle on tournament payday “on day two we caught them deeper than on the first day”? I’m generalising again, but gosh, you hear it so much! Another is “we had to fish tighter to structure on day two”. Obviously, relevance to species is crucial here, but I’m sure you’re starting to see — like me — common themes that prevail under such intense angling scrutiny.
Choosing to fish in weather conditions most others avoid is another great on-the-run adjustment in response to increased angling pressure. Wind is the bane of most angler’s lives — whether boat- or shore-based. But I can tell you straight that I love the stuff. Not only do you get most wind-blown shores to yourself, but the stirring wave action masks boat noises and makes it harder for fish to detect your presence. Decreased visibility can be a double edge sword if sight-fishing, but it works both ways and you can typically get much closer without being detected. Dissolved oxygen levels are generally higher on wind-blown shores, while food is disturbed, disoriented and concentrated, making for easy pickings. Longer downwind casts can be made and favourable drifts can be set up. In short, wind can be your friend!
The other positive in choosing to fish in windy weather — especially when it comes to our native species — is that the barometric pressure is generally moving up or down, sometimes quite rapidly. As a result, bite windows can be quite intense, especially in comparison to the relative stability of calm conditions either side.
Finesse fishing, down-sizing or even up-sizing are other key component to adjusting on the run. However, in my experience, finesse is usually king. Downsize everything: lures, leaders, main line, terminals… it all helps when dealing with pressured fish. By doing this, subtle taps and knocks on your normal go-to presentations can be converted into solid hook ups in most circumstances.
Fishing technology has come a long way in a very short period of time. The ability to watch, in real time, the body language of the species you’re targeting is now possible, even if not everyone has twigged to this yet.
WALK TO THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT DRUM
It can be quite demoralising to rock up to a waterway you know well and see intense fishing-related activity. We all have a fishing-related selfish streak in us, especially as we grow older (old bull/cow syndrome?). It has certainly been this way for me.
The positivity gained from just knowing you are walking to the beat of a different drum is game changing, even on its own… before you cast a line. When you get on a roll and start catching fish on pressured waters, all those other boats, people and fishing-related pressure start to disappear from your mental picture.
That warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing that the adjustments you’ve applied have put you — quite literally — on your own little piece of fishing utopia is priceless.