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Make no noise when stalking finicky fish

This is the time of year when fish get real finicky and being quiet matters the most. While we know noise bothers fish, there's little research on the subject, but lots of conventional wisdom.

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Anglers pack it up after fishing Diamond Lake on Jan. 29.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — This is the time of year when fish get darn-right finicky, and the anglers, well they can get ornery.

We learned that as we drove out to a location on local waters last Saturday that we thought would be away from the crowd. A few others had thought the same. We gave their fish houses a wide berth as we drove through the snow.

The angler who emerged from his house and responded to our inquiry on what he was seeing could only grumble that too much noise from traffic on the lake was scaring the fish.

He rounded up his buddies in a couple of nearby houses, they packed up and drove off, intending to drive out on a different lake, they said.

But he’s right. We all know that the noise we make can affect our fishing success.

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“I’m a big believer in that noise thing,” said Jason Schmoll, of J & J’s 71 Bait and Sport in Willmar.

In fact, he and bait shop partner, Jason Estum, are doing their own research on it. Last weekend, for example, they used batteries instead of starting up the generator for the fish house for the sake of being quiet.

Their past experiences on the ice have shown them over and over that noise matters. When they plow a path out on Eagle Lake to plop down the ice fishing house, they know the fishing will be slow for a few hours, said Schmoll. But in most cases, the fish do move back in, he added.

While there’s plenty of conventional wisdom about how the noise we make affects fishing, there’s surprisingly very little research on it, according to Steve McComas, owner of Blue Water Science in the Twin Cities and known to many anglers for his columns about lake ecology as the Lake Detective.

Most of the research out there is focused on marine environments and how noise from shipping traffic affects fisheries, according to McComas. There’s not a lot of work focused on freshwater fish, and what is out there is not necessarily looking at the issue from the angler’s perspective. He’s aware of a relatively recent research paper from Canada that looked at how human-caused noise raised heart rates in largemouth bass.
McComas spends a lot of time scuba diving in Minnesota lakes, including under the ice. He knows the underwater world is not as quiet as we’d think. “You can hear a boat from a long way away,” he said. “That sound does move through the water.”

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It may seem quiet down there, but the noise we make on the ice carries loud and clear under the water. While we know it affects the fish, there's very little research on the subject for anglers.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

Sound travels faster in water than in air. Fish not only hear, but feel sound. Their lateral line is sensitive to the vibrations that are sound, and they feel it from a long distance, he explained

“I think over time, they probably get used to it,” said McComas, speaking in general about the noise we make driving on ice-covered lakes and drilling our fishing holes. He likens the first reactions of fish to sudden sounds as being no different than when you startle a rabbit. Their antennas are up for danger.

We know that sound can have powerful effects on fish. McComas pointed to work by University of Minnesota researcher Pete Sorensen to create underwater “sound barriers” to stop the movement of Asian carp. “I don’t know what the music is,” said McComas, laughing. Obviously, there are sound wavelengths that bother fish.

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He does not know if fish species react differently to sounds. He suspects that panfish are more skittish, simply because they have to be on guard for predators. Eating and not getting eaten are the two biggest drivers of fish behavior, McComas pointed out.

Does size matter? Are smaller fish, even top of the food chain predators like northern pike, more likely to respond in flight mode when human-made sounds occur? McComas believes so, but he is not aware of any conclusive research.

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<br/>Ice fishing houses on Diamond Lake on Jan. 29.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

Schmoll said his experiences suggest that fish like crappies are more sensitive to sound than walleye.

Yet crappies seem very capable of adapting to sound, as is evidenced on Foot Lake. They concentrate in the deeper pools of water, and stay there, not troubled by the frequent traffic, drilling and steady throb of generators from the ice fishing houses poised above them.

Maybe it’s not so much a matter of getting acclimated to sound, but the clarity of water. Schmoll said crappies and other fish seem more sensitive to sound in lakes like Eagle and Green with clear water than in lakes like Foot.

The noise factor also raises the issue. As the ice fishing season progresses, the bite seems to shift more and more to the night time hours when there’s less noise from human activity.

We tried some panfishing on Lake Minnewaska on the Glenwood side last Sunday, and found the waters clear. The bite was slow but consistent, until a snowmobile rumbled over to a nearby house. The driver let his machine idle as he visited, and our bite stopped cold until he drove away and the motorcycle-like throb of the machine was gone.

There’s no doubt that the movement of cars and trucks over the ice matters too, no matter how quiet their engines might be. McComas said commercial fishers in southern Minnesota prefer that there are no cars on a lake when they net for carp since the traffic may move the carp.

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While crappies seem to be among the fish species most sensitive to noise by activities on the ice. Yet on Foot Lake, the crappies seem to have acclimated to the traffic and ice auguring as they continue to be caught in areas with lots of fish houses and activity. File photo from Foot Lake in December 2021.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo

He knows of the reverse too. When their sonar shows the carp moving away from the nets, he's known commercial netters to hop in their cars like cowboys rounding up cattle to herd the fish back.

With a finicky bite as it is, the take home message rings loud and clear: “This time of year I’d definitely stay quiet out there,” said Schmoll.

He’s even heard stories from anglers who believe the sound from their Vexilars can affect the bite.

Of course, you can’t stop the sounds of people from coming to you. Schmoll and his fishing partner try to keep their fish house away from the crowd. As soon as they leave it somewhere, others are sure to pop up next to it. And sure enough, the walleye bite seems to slow.

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Anglers pulling a wheelhouse got help from their friends last Sunday on Lake Minnewaska when they got stuck in the snow. The fish bite definitely slowed from the noise made while the vehicles tugged away to get free.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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