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Just How Smart are Fish?

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Just how smart are fish? After all they do outsmart us anglers all the time... Just how smart are fish? After all they do outsmart us anglers all the time...

Having been outwitted by trout on more occasions than he cares to remember Simon Cooper ponders just how clever fish really are




I have never signed up to the belief that fish have a three second memory. If that was the case how is it that the trout in my lake start to follow me around each morning once I start feeding them over the winter?

They truly do follow me; whether alerted by my shadow or the vibrations of my footfalls I don't know, but they will porpoise along the bank beside me. A few months of this gets them in trim form for an impressive party trick with the fishing school pupils at the start of each season. As we assemble on the bank for the obligatory 'how to catch a fish' demonstration they swim in from all corners of the lake. It really does give you something of a Jesus complex…needless to say they are rarely hard to catch, usually first cast, which does no harm for your fishing kudos.

But are fish smart?

Most people think not, but as an angler who has been outwitted by a trout on more occasions than I care to remember I have always held to the belief that they must have some brainpower. If not, how thick am I? So it came as something of a relief to read the headline in the papers last week 'New research reveals fish are smarter than we thought'.

Scientists at Bath and Queen Mary Universities have proved that fish have 'parallel visual search'. Apparently that is the ability to pick out one object amongst many whilst ignoring others; a bit like you or me quickly scanning a supermarket shelf for a particular item. It has been assumed for years that fish without the frontal part of the brain in the neocortex were unable do this, instead obliged to examine every item in turn before making a choice.

This confirms, for me at least, much of what I have observed in feeding fish over the years. The activity is rarely random and there are frequently occasions when a particular fish will focus on a particular insect to the exclusion of all others. I'm sure you like me have been in that sort of spot, where a profusion of flies covers the surface but there is only one insect the fish wants to take, and most likely the one you can't identify!

Happily for the egos all of us who have ever been defeated by a feeding fish the co-author of the paper Dr Matthew Parker concludes, 'Fish don't deserve their reputation as the stupid branch of the animal family tree.'

If you wish to read more the paper Parallel Mechanisms for Visual Search in Zebra fish is available HERE on the PLOS ONE academic web site.



Flyfishing.co.uk is delighted to bring you Simon’s feature, which was first published in his ‘Fishing Breaks’ Newsletter.

Simon’s company, Fishing Breaks, based in the heart of the River Test Valley, offers some of the finest chalk stream fly fishing available in the UK – and a whole lot more. Check out their website HERE

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