In the zone

Up your odds by knowing how far a fish will go to hit your lure

The majority of anglers aren't even aware of one of the most important principles in fishing: namely, fish the strike zones. And many of those who are familiar with the concept fail to adapt their presentations accordingly. Those who do change, however, catch fish -- big time.

You see, fish will only swim so far to attack a lure. When conditions are perfect, they'll zip across a shoal, point or bar to clobber a crankbait or spinner. Or they'll rocket 15 feet or more off the bottom, leap into the air and inhale a topwater on re-entry.

When conditions are less than ideal, however, you'll feel as though you need a crowbar to pry open their mouths. And a fish’s strike zone can change daily, or sometimes even hourly, depending largely on water clarity and temperature, the time of day, weather conditions and fishing pressure. Understand how these factors affect the strike zone and you're on your way to catching more fish.

Fish in clear water can see great distances and typically have extensive strike zones. Their survival often depends on spotting prey from afar and then executing a successful stalk. For fish in stained or muddy water, on the other hand, the strike zone is usually small. Even if the fish are feeding aggressively, you may still need to drop your lure right in front of them so that they can see it and take a bite.

Extremely hot or cold temperatures also limit the strike zone. But water temperatures that are at, or near, a fish's preferred range tend to increase the size of the strike zone, regardless of the other factors.

Similarly, a fish's window of opportunity expands early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when there's low light. It gets smaller at midday, however, when the fish tend to shy away from exposing themselves. Several days of hot, humid weather, though, tend to increase the strike zone, and it's typically the largest just before a midsummer thunderstorm. But the strike zone quickly narrows after a cold front passes, making fishing conditions brutal.

As for the wind, when it lightly ruffles the surface of the water, most fish feel secure and comfortable and tend to move shallower to feed, creating a larger strike zone. Flat, calm conditions, however, tend to put the fish on guard, especially when the water is gin clear.

Fishing pressure, too, can drastically shrink the size of the strike zone. On popular lakes, rivers and reservoirs close to urban centres, as well as heavily developed waterbodies with considerable boat traffic, the strike zone usually diminishes.

An understanding of how each of these factors affects the size of the strike zone can also help when it comes to selecting the right lure and presentation. When the strike zone is mammoth, you'll catch more and bigger fish casting and trolling large artificial lures than you will by still-fishing diminutive jigs tipped with live bait. By the same token, that tiny jig and live-bait combination is usually the ticket when the strike zone shrinks.

In fact, that's exactly how Outdoor Canada field editor Rocky Crawford won an unprecedented fourth Chevy Mercury Bass Tour National Classic two years ago. He pitched a vertically falling jig-and-pig to the deep, dark shady side of isolated boulders while most of his competition fished fast-moving, horizontally presented crankbaits, spinnerbaits and topwaters. Rocky realized the combination of fishing pressure, weather and water conditions was closing the strike zone and he took advantage.

Keep the strike zone in mind and you can, too.