Fish memory. Is there such a thing? We’ve all heard the myth of the goldfish’s three-second memory but can it be true? For those of us who have ever tried to fool a wary fish it is clear that it cannot be entirely true. A wary fish definitely has something telling it not to eat that worm/fly/spinner/bread – no matter how tempting it might be. If it’s not a memory of some description, what else could it be?
Back in 2008, a scientific experiment proved that fish are able to process at least some type of memory for up to five months. Researchers in Israel played a particular sound through loudspeakers to young fish at feeding time – a procedure they continued every day for one month. Before the end of the month, each time they played the sound, the fish would arrive to be fed. These fish were then released into the sea. Five months later, when the sound was played underwater, the fish returned. Even more impressive was an experiment at the University of Plymouth. Fish there were taught to push a lever, which would deliver food. The lever was then adapted so that it would only function at a specific time of day. Not only did the fish learn to push the lever ONLY at the correct time of day, but also they started to gather at the feeding station just beforehand, seemingly aware that it was nearing lunchtime!
The fish memory question, together with similar musings about their colour vision, often seems to come up in conversations between fisher-folk. And while I cannot claim to have all the answers, I have some examples of my own that I’d like to add to the discussion.
First of all, if fish have such great memories, how is it that I have caught the same fish not twice but three times on the same day… sometimes on the same bait!?
My son James once caught the same pike, which he called ‘Lumpy’ – clearly identified by a small lump on its lower jaw – three times in a single morning some years ago at Northampton’s Billing Aquadrome. In the same era, before I had learned that the half blood knot is useless for braided lines, I broke on a decent carp. Just a few hours later, in the same small lake near Huntingdon, James landed a 17lb common carp, and in its mouth were two identical hair-rigged boilies, side by side. You would think that, if that fish had any sort of memory, it would have been wary of eating the same bait so soon after being hooked?
Further evidence occurred two or three years ago when fishing pal, Bob Church, and I were pike fishing at one of our favourite venues in Bedfordshire. We were in a drifting boat together, Bob trailing out a livebait, while I fly-fished.
I hooked an obviously decent fish, which threw the hook after a short battle. A few seconds later Bob’s float disappeared a few yards away, and he struck into a big pike. In the net we estimated it as a ‘twenty’, but the scales showed 18lbs 8oz. After a gentle release we drifted on, and about 150 yards away downwind at the other side of the lake, my orange fly was aggressively snapped up by another good fish, which this time I was able to net. Guess what? It was that same fish! Not only had it failed to learn its lesson, but it seemed to have actually followed the boat!
On a different day at the same lake, Bob’s small livebait had hardly touched the surface when it was taken by a pike, then spat out again when approaching the net – but not before I was able to estimate it as a fish of about 14lbs, with a distinct large head and slightly lean body. The poor old bait was still in lively order, and was cast out again. The float immediately shot under, and this time we boated – THE SAME FISH! After weighing (14lbs) and a quick photo, it was returned, only to take that same bait again! This time it once more ejected the carp at the side of the boat, but then took it for a fourth time! It was becoming a bit like ‘Groundhog Day’, neither of us having experienced anything like it before. I should point out that again we had drifted over 100 yards downwind of the position where the first attack had taken place. It will severely test your powers of belief when I tell you that the poor old bait, now more dead than alive, was cast out again – and instantly snapped up by – yes, the same fish… for the fifth time! I netted it, for the second time, and put it gently back. I threw in what was left of the bait, and although we didn’t actually see it happen, I would bet my shirt that it was devoured by that pike!
You could argue that such fish have no memory, or perhaps they are simply ‘mug fish’ or ‘village idiots’?
Against this, and in favour of fish memory is the fact that carp baits ‘blow’, i.e. become ineffective, on almost all waters where lots of fish have been caught on the same flavour/coloured boilies. A change of offering invariably results in resumed success. Surely these fish have remembered that the original bait represents danger?
The strongest evidence I have seen, which isn’t too dissimilar to that experiment in Israel, is without a doubt my ‘tame pike’. This pike has never yet failed to appear when I visit my pal’s private fishery in Staffordshire. Even on occasions when it has been several months since my previous visit, she will emerge, in that same position, and wait to be fed. I have written about this fish before and I’ve shown video footage of it being fed should you wish to see it. She has grown in the last two years from about five pounds to an estimated 13 or 14lbs and arrives at her feeding spot usually around 20 minutes after my arrival. There are plenty of pike in the lake, but it is only this particular one which takes up position, fins twitching, staring up at me waiting (and expecting!) to be fed. Perhaps she is simply smarter than her counterparts, but it really has to be seen to be believed. I feel pretty sure I shall never witness such a thing again and friends who have been there at ‘feeding time’ can hardly take it in!
The only possible explanation, in my view is that ‘Pikey’ REMEMBERS that my arrival means that an easy meal will soon be forthcoming! As far as I’m concerned, that is conclusive proof that fish have memories, so I rest my case.