Wildlife: The juncture between biology and sport fishing

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No one has ever confused me with a skilled fisherman, but I've had my moments. In October 1994 in the Florida Keys, I caught two bonefish, a barracuda, a black-finned tuna and seven mahi-mahi (dolphinfish). In the wake of the Forrest Wood Cup bass tournament, I've recalled a few fishing success stories. Florida was great, but I spun my favorite fish tales in Oklahoma.

In the early 1980s, I taught a summer ornithology course at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station. Classes and field work lasted all day, but evenings were reserved for volleyball and fishing.

By the end of the first week of my first year, I confessed my lack of fishing expertise to Loren Hill, the station's director. At the time I didn't realize that he was the Loren Hill, noted ichthyologist and very serious fisherman. He invited me to join him on several evening fishing trips on Lake Texoma, and there he schooled me.

Dr. Hill's accomplishments are too many to list here, but perhaps his greatest achievement was to marry fish biology to sport fishing, particularly bass fishing. If you appreciate the importance of color, pH, and behavior to a successful day on the water, whether you know it or not, you probably owe that knowledge to my former boss. He studied fish ecology and behavior and applied what he learned to develop new tools for anglers. Among his first inventions was Snatrix, a flexible plastic water snake that proved far more irresistible than ordinary plastic worms. He modified his prototypes until they moved through the water just like a snake.

On his boat, he introduced me to the importance of color and pH to fish behavior. Experiments in the laboratory and field convinced him that color is critical to visual predators and that water pH often determines where in the water column fish would be.

On our first outing, we sped to one of Hill's favorite fishing spots, then drifted. First, he took readings on the pH meter at various depths to determine where a sharp shift in pH occurred. Then he used his patented Color-C-Lector to determine the best color for the water conditions.

"OK, Scott," he said, "I want you to tie on a chartreuse lure, cast it this side of that big stump, let it sink for a few counts, then begin a slow retrieve."

I'm good at following directions, so I did exactly as he instructed. About six seconds after my first cast, BOOM! Something big hit the lure, and a few minutes later I landed a four-pound largemouth bass. That night, in less than a hour, I caught a half dozen nice bass. Hill caught a few, too, but I think he enjoyed playing fishing guide as much as catching fish.

Over the course of eight summers, I got to spend a few nights each year with Dr. Hill on the lake. Some evenings we'd land a few big striped bass; some nights it was bigmouths.

These are bittersweet memories I share with you. Loren Hill died last summer on July 17. He was 68 when he lost his battle with cancer.

Scott Shalaway is a biologist and author. His other weekly Post-Gazette column, "GETintoNATURE," is published in the GETout section, available only in the early Sunday edition sold Saturdays in stores. Shalaway can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com and RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033.


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