Evolution Holds the Key - by James Harrison
Editor of the sadly short lived, but highly acclaimed magazine Freespool, James is known for taking a stance on modern carp fishing that has, at times, put him at odds with the carping establishment. His no nonsense approach gets right back to first principles and he thinks from the carp up. He’ll freely challenge carp fishing folklore with an open mind. In the first of two articles he takes a carp eye look at the world and attempts to rationalize how carp feed. What he’s learnt on the banks of Europe’s toughest lakes should help you as you tackle our pristine fisheries and their wild fish.
I'm well aware that my approach to carp fishing differs greatly to many others, particularly in the UK. I’m also acutely aware that often what I write goes against the grain of the vast multitude of carp articles, books and DVDs. I do feel the weight of opinion against me, and yet I have great confidence in what I believe, and here’s why; I have evolution on my side, and my thoughts on the subject are broader than those who limit themselves to writing articles that merely look to perpetuate existing ideas and plug tackle. I’m in the position to be able to look at the ‘bigger picture’. However, I am always open to new ideas and opinions, but until such time as we can talk to carp to find out what’s really going on, I’ll rely on logic and my own study of them to form the basis of my approach to carp fishing.
I feel we’ve almost forgotten about the carp these days, and what it is capable of doing. We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that they can see hooks, line, work out how to deal with certain rigs, and make the decision that certain baits are dangerous and therefore should be avoided, resulting in them being ‘blown‘ for the angler. If these notions were all true, then our pursuit and subsequent capture of them would be heralded as an achievement. However, if you study a carp properly, you start to realize that their actual capabilities differ greatly to what carp magazines would have you believe.
The evolutionary process gave carp certain abilities to survive and fulfill their needs. At no point has angling been a factor in this process, nor will it ever be. Therefore, the only defense a carp has against the angler is its limited ability for some degree of associative learning. It is possible to train all animals to a certain extent, even ants. In most cases training experiments are conducted with food. For instance, a well-known Russian psychologist, Pavlov, trained a dog, via associative learning, to salivate at the sound of a metronome, even when food wasn’t present. Initially, the dog was exposed to the sound of the ticking metronome, and then the food was immediately presented. After a period of time, Pavlov was able to just turn the metronome on and the dog would salivate, thinking it was about to be fed. The continuous conditioned stimulus provided a conditioned response. So, this begs the question, to what extent can carp learn to be aware of the dangers of getting caught by the presence of line, leads and hooks, and therefore create a conditioned response?
I’d say, on average, that a carp gets caught about five times a year here in the UK. That’s five negative experiences in a whole year – is that enough for a carp to learn anything? If Pavlov had only activated the metronome five times in a year, do you think that the dog would have displayed a conditioned response? Of course not, because the conditioning stimulus would not be continuous and would therefore be meaningless to the dog, and the same applies to carp. I think the only plausible negative association that a carp might possibly make is with bait. It’s feeding, eating something then it gets caught, albeit occasionally. Surely its first reaction, if indeed there even is one, is, ‘I’m not eating that again’. So how specific could that negative reaction be? In order for a bait to ‘blow’, you’d have to say it would need to be very specific to that bait. The carp would need to remember the exact chemical signature of the bait at the point it got hooked. Even if this was possible (because baits, and particularly boilies and pellets, are constantly breaking down, and their chemical signature is changing all the time) the signature would never be repeated. That suggests to me that it is impossible for a bait to ever ‘blow‘. If you then consider the evolution of the carp, in terms of its natural instincts to find food in the first place, you end up asking the question, ‘can carp actually decide not to eat something they are instinctively programmed to be attracted to and eat?’ The answer is no they can not.
At no point in the evolutionary journey of the carp has it been necessary for it to go against its instincts regarding food. If a carp’s body tells it that it needs certain amino acids, carbohydrates or vitamins, then it will eat any source of those elements it comes across. How else could a carp eat a balanced diet to survive? I actually think a carp becomes more sensitive to the elements it is missing in its diet too - so it can find those missing elements more easily. Unlike a human, a carp’s dietary requirements change through the year, to reflect its yearly life cycle. Human’s live a day-to-day existence, whereas a carp’s is year-to-year. When choosing a bait, this gives you two choices. Either tailor your bait to each season, or much easier, go with a high-quality HNV bait that contains everything a carp needs. That way there will always be something attractive to the carp in your bait.
My proof reader, Emma, read the first draft of this article and for some bonkers reason decided to write her own regarding whether or not fish feel pain. She’s not a fan of fishing and was very concerned that the fish got hurt. However, she is a very intelligent girl and did some research. Her initial opinion in relation to my Pavlov analogy was that if fish felt pain, the negative association carp would make with being caught would be a much more powerful association than Pavlov’s dog’s positive experience of being fed. This led to her to conclude that it would take far fewer negative experiences for carp to learn to avoid rig products and certain baits, which seemed plausible. Here are a few of the key aspects of her article:
“The best way to explain the pain factor is to compare human beings and fish. Human beings obviously have bigger brains than fish. Our brains possess a highly developed neocortex, which is responsible for interpreting sensory information. For example, cortical damage may cause blindness in a human being. This is also the part of our brain that is responsible for pain responses. Significantly, the fish brain did not evolve to have a neocortex and the complete removal of a fish’s cerebral hemisphere will not change its sensory-dependent behavior. If the neocortex is necessary for pain sensation, then it is reasonable to assume any animals lacking in this, including fish, will not feel the negative psychological experience of pain.”
“So how can we relate this to fish being aware of hooks? I would argue that if a carp doesn’t process pain stimulation in a similar way to a human being, then it isn’t really going to care about hooks, or even notice them. The carp will simply go about feeding in the manner that it always does, and will, in fact, be oblivious to the potential danger that a hook may present to it. Even if a carp does remember being previously caught, it will not have the negative pain-associated memory that will make it try to avoid this happening again. The likelihood is that it will only remember its out-of-water experience, nothing prior to that.”
“So to all those who suggest that a carp actively searches for hooks, and does its utmost to avoid them, I would argue that you are wrong. It would only do this if it felt pain. This is the only logical conclusion that can possibly be reached.”
Initially she didn’t like my Pavlov analogy as the dog was being rewarded, whereas the carp was being ‘potentially’ hurt. Emma argued that a painful memory is more likely to be remembered than a pleasurable one. However, now that she believes that fish do not feel pain, she can see the merit in my analogy because there is no painful, negative experience for the carp as it is caught. I also put it to her that pain is used to train dogs, rightly or wrongly, but I still think 5 whacks on the nose a year would not change a dog’s behavior. If she fed her dog, Cassie, steak at every meal time, and every couple of months stuck a hook in Cassie and dragged her about (actually Cassie would probably drag her about), do you think Cassie would never eat steak again? I think she’d be cautious for the first few days afterwards, but may then remember how good the steak was and take the risk - especially if she was hungry. Eventually Cassie’s confidence would build until she was no longer cautious.
Anglers have always assumed that the carp sees getting caught as a negative experience. The truth of the matter is that evolution may not have provided carp with that kind of perception at all, in terms of pain and possibly even awareness. Although carp often appear to ‘sulk’ after being caught I think this is just recovery behavior. Some carp have even been put back after capture and immediately started feeding at the feet of the angler on the bait he has dropped in. For me, there is more than enough scientific evidence that carp are unable to make any association with fishing tackle.
Moving on from associations, but also very significant to how we could go about catching carp, the evolutionary process also gave the carp two different methods of feeding, which have been identified by scientists – not carp anglers. A carp either grubs around with its mouth close to the bottom, taking in small amounts of food and debris when feeding on small, scattered items, or it opens its mouth fully for maximum suction when feeding on larger or more densely spaced items. To my knowledge a carp CAN NOT regulate its suction to any fine degree outside of the two feeding styles. Why would it ever have needed to? The argument suggesting otherwise is merely used as justification for someone’s rig article. I’ll stick with the scientists if you don’t mind.
I’ve read many features relating to carp sucking baits from a distance, and this is usually accompanied by the writer concluding that the carp is testing for rigs. This is an easy assumption to make as that is what it looks like. In my opinion, all the carp is doing is trying to get the food it is detecting into its mouth. Remember it can’t really see what’s going in its mouth due to the position of its eyes and therefore its field of vision. It also probably still doesn’t even know that the round ball a few inches in front is the food source it’s detecting. Think of a carp finding food like an airline pilot landing on instruments only, when the pilot can’t see the run way. The carp is gliding in on a chemical ‘wave’, like the plane is gliding in on a set of radar signals. What may happen is that as the carp gets closer to the bait, it is unable to pin-point exactly where it is due to all its senses being stimulated, so it just mouths the general area in an attempt to get the bait in its mouth. This then gives the impression that it is ‘testing for rigs’. I know which theory seems more plausible to me.
My way of thinking isn’t going to result in a fandango rig. What this led me to do was reassess how I approached my carp fishing. Once you really understand the mechanisms a carp actually has, you can build a much better approach to catching them on a regular basis.
The carp is essentially a filtering machine, taking big gulps of the lake bed, filtering out the nonfood items, trapping the food items and then eating them. In turn this means that the carp doesn’t really alter its degree of suction. So why the hell do we fanny around with little hooks for big carp? As a carp gets bigger it develops more and more suction. The basic rule is that a carp can suck an object from the same distance as can be measured from its lips to its pharyngeal teeth. I’ll never forget at one of the Sandown Carp Shows one year I was on the Atomic stand. A guy came up and asked, “Have you got any scales?” Thinking he meant scales to weigh fish I said, ”No, try the Reuben or Fox stands.” He then corrected me and said that he wanted normal scales so that he could ‘weigh the hooks’. I turned to Jim Carpenter, who had as bemused face as I did, then I asked the guy, “Why do you want to weigh the hooks?” To which he replied, “I want the lightest hooks possible so that the baits behave the same and the carp won’t get suspicious when they suck the hook bait.” In some respects I couldn’t argue with his logic, but what would be the actual difference in weight between hooks of a similar size? And, if what I suspected to be true, that a carp has only two levels of suction, then hook weight would be irrelevant. What of the shot on the hook rig that is deliberately weighted to promote the hook dropping in the bottom of the carp’s mouth?
Coupling what I believed the carp could do naturally with all the underwater footage of carp ‘getting away with it’, suggested one thing to me - I needed bigger hooks. Watching various ‘top anglers’, thinking that a bit of bent tubing or a sliding ring would make the difference to their attempts to catch anything just went to show how little some of these so-called ‘top anglers’ actually know and think about carp fishing. Do you really think changing from a size 6 to an 8 is making a big difference - wake up!