Matching The Hatch
Matching the hatch is a popular phrase that has been used by fly fisherman to describe the process by which they select certain fly patterns. While this procedure is generally used for trout fishing, I believe the same principles apply to fishing for sunfish as well. There are many types of insects and other aquatic life that spend most of their life cycle either in or around the water, and this makes them perfect forage for sunfish.
I recently experienced a terrific example of using the matching the hatch philosophy while fishing Lake Dunlap; a river lake located just outside of San Antonio in New Braunfels. I was fishing with my friend Chuck and one of the first things we noticed while walking down to our first location was the amount of mayflies that were in the area. They were everywhere you looked; along the docks and boathouses, in the bushes and trees, and many dead in the water itself. Even with all these visual clues, I started fishing with worms (my personal favorite bait) as usual and the bite was fair. A lot of the time, though, the fish were approaching my bait, studying it, then turning away. Very frustrating!
A mayfly landed on my hand and it triggered a memory of something my daughter Rebecca did. A dragonfly landed on her hand when she first started out fishing. She managed to catch it and I jokingly told her that it would make good bait. She surprised me by sticking it on the hook and throwing it out there. Not more than a second or two after it hit the water, her bobber went down and she reeled in a nice sized redbreast. Meanwhile, my worm is sitting out there unmolested. She continued catching and using the bugs she found around the water and proceeded to out fish me by a large margin. Something I hadn’t thought about in some time.
Back to the recent trip on Dunlap with Chuck. Well, I grabbed the mayfly and threaded it on my hook. I threaded on the hook through the thick part of mayfly’s body, much like you would thread a cricket. I pitched my line back out there and the results were amazing. Not only did the fish not hesitate; it attacked the mayfly with enthusiasm. I set the hook and reeled in the biggest redbreast sunfish of the day. I thought this might have been a fluke, so I caught another of the thousands of mayflies around, threaded it on, and the result was the same: no hesitation on the part of the fish. I continued this for many more fish and tried going back to worms. It was like night and day. Where I was getting a bite on every mayfly I used, the worm would produce maybe half of the amount of strikes.
Here is a picture of how I hooked them
The hatching of mayflies, stoneflies and other aquatic insects usually happens in spurts with many insects emerging at once. Their adult lives are short-lived, especially with mayflies, so taking advantage of the hatching period is important. Obviously, the best time use similar looking baits is during this major hatching period. That does not mean a big bluegill or other sunny won’t bite a mayfly while no hatch is going on, but you will have much better luck if you fish during these periods. However, the larvae of these insects may live in the water for up to 4 years or more. Fishing with the larvae of these insects can be effective year round for this reason. Although much harder to come by due do the fact they live underwater, artificial lures resembling the larva can be effective.
Matching the hatch isn’t exclusive to aquatic insects. The same concept can be applied to terrestrial insects, fish, and other aquatic life. While the use of minnows and frogs is usually thought of while fishing for other larger predatory species of fish like bass and crappie, many sunfish will aggressively feed on newly hatched fry and tadpoles as readily as any bug. On Lake Calaveras, southeast of San Antonio, one of my favorite baits to use is little slivers of cut shad. Shad is abundant on the lake and is the main forage source in the lake. Terrestrial insects that live near but not in the water are easy prey when they fall in. Look for overhanging bushes and tree limbs. Sunfish will sit and wait near these areas and wait for grasshoppers, caterpillars and other insect to fall. A good place to fish is under trees with the tell-tale “webs” of webworms and tent worms. They are hard to miss. It will look like a tree has been taken over by a giant colony of spiders.
The main advantages of matching the hatch are quantity and familiarity. There will be a lot of bait in the water and fish will be aggressively feeding on it. Insects, fish, and amphibians usually lay eggs in the hundreds or thousands to ensure some of the young will survive until they can reproduce. Since the hatch is native to the area, the fish will readily identify it to eat. There are some disadvantages to trying to match the hatch as well. The hatches are generally short-lived, so it may provide difficult to fish this way on a consistent basis. A lot of the insects are fragile, and they will usually only last for one bite which means constant rebaiting. Generally speaking, you will have to catch your bait to use as well. I think the end result of using natural bait found around an area outweighs some of the disadvantages. So go out, look around and give a shot. Flip over some rocks or logs. Look in the trees and bushes. You might surprised by what you find. (Just watch out for poisonous creepy crawlies).