Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The strange lives of bass

Some of you might know that I work at a small, out of the way animation studio in the country. Right outside my window is a beautiful vista, complete with a nicely stocked bass pond.

Watching the birds and following the signs of spring as they've gradually unfurled has been a great distraction over the last couple of weeks, and now that the weather is finally becoming reliably warm getting out for a walk (and hopefully soon also some terrain training) is a daily ritual.

Well, let me tell you about this bass pond...

There's a pretty healthy population of largemouth bass, and an even bigger population of various sunfish. Pumpkinseed and bluegill seem to be the most prevalent. No, I haven't done much fishing, but I may this year just because it's been a while since I've wet a line.

Anyway, there is one large-ish bass my bosses have named Freddy. Freddy lives under the dock, and is missing most of his tail fin. He's also fairly tame, and enjoys a snack of cat kibble from time to time.

But that's not what I'm writing about today. Today I saw the strangest thing I've ever seen bass do. Along the shoreline, where it's nice and warm (but still devoid of weeds, being early spring and all), smaller bass and sunfish like to sit and warm themselves. So do the minnows they snack on.

Under normal conditions, bass are ambush predators. They hide in cover or rest suspended in deeper water and strike at unsuspecting prey fish. That's important.

Today, I watched smaller bass -- sometimes alone, sometimes as a group -- rush at schools of minnows and then suddenly stop short of striking. It thought this was bizarre so I observed. Well, damned if they didn't pause a moment, and then strike one at a time.

Follow me on this. What they were doing was rushing towards a school of minnows and the stopping. The startled minnows fled into shallower water, but were trapped against the shore. From there, the bass could just dart in and grab whatever minnow they wanted.

No word of a lie, these bass were actually corralling the minnows against the shoreline for easy pickings. Yikes!

Since I've never heard of bass either a) working as a team or b) strategically corralling their prey, my only conclusion (until I hear otherwise, of course) is that this is an adaptive behaviour...something they've figured out, and then taught to others. We know they remember -- Freddy, for example, always returns to his territory under the dock, and knows the sound of footsteps will get him some kibble, even though it's been half a year since he's been hand fed. The rest of the fish know when a human silhouette appears on the shore there's a chance someone will be dumping a bucket of minnows (my boss keeps the pond stocked with bait fish as well, to feed the bass), and flock closer to the shore.

But this was a complete surprise. I find animals fascinating, because the more we learn about them, the more we realize how adaptable we are. If they're so remarkable as to develop a new hunting strategy in the absence of good cover, how remarkable must we be in overcoming obstacles that block our success? I think I'm going to mull this one over for a while.

And get my tackle ready for the season.


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