“Chinese Fish Are Smarter Than Foreign Fish”
I grew up not far from the shores of one of America’s Great Lakes, Lake Michigan. Starting from an early age my big brother Bob and I would often ride our bikes to the lake shore and fish for perch. Thus began a lifelong interest in fishing.
To me, fishing is as much about getting close to nature, and understanding the world beneath the water, as it is about catching fish. I find it very relaxing. If I catch fish, I may keep one or two for the dinner table, but release most of them to swim away. If I don’t catch fish, I still catch the contentment of being on the water and forgetting about worldly cares.
Many years ago I started reading and collecting books about the fishes of China, including volumes published by Chinese provincial publishing houses on their local species and distribution. I also read a magazine called “China Fishing.”
Fishing is an enormously popular hobby in North America and many other countries, as it is in China. In the U.S., there is a magazine devoted to fishing for only one species of fish, called Bass Magazine, which at one point had a circulation of 600,000 copies. Bass can be found in most American states.
There are big difference in fishing customs around the world, largely depending on which species of fish are available. In China, most freshwater anglers go to man-made ponds which charge fees based on the number and weight of fish caught; and many of the commonly available species are members of the large and diverse carp family of fishes, or other bottom-feeding species.
Bass, trout, and some types of fishes found in China are predatory species, meaning they eat other fish, insects, frogs and other living creatures. Most carp are scavengers which eat a wide variety of foods, mostly from the bottom, rather than feeding mainly in a predatory mode.
I enjoy fishing for predatory species of fish, in which the challenge is to understand their diet in a particular place at a given season and then imitate it with an artificial lure. It is a more active kind of fishing, often involving hiking, wading, and casting rather than just sitting on the bank with a fishing pole and waiting for the fish to come to you. To be good at it, you need to understand something about local circumstances and aquatic biology.
In the early 1980s I had the opportunity to make a first visit to Heilongjiang Province in China’s northeast. I had been invited to travel around the province and write an article about trade, investment and tourism there.
From my reading about Chinese fisheries I knew that south of Mudanjiang there is a large alpine lake called Jingbo Hu where a variety of predatory fishes can be found, including the much prized guiyu or Chinese perch, which can grow up to about 40 lbs. in size. I had read that they are aggressive predators and also knew they are a delicious eating fish.
I requested that Jingbo Hu be included in my itinerary, and to my delight, it was; so I brought a 4-piece fishing rod and some artificial fishing lures of the type we commonly use in the U.S. to fish for bass. They are made of wood and plastic and resemble small fish. Almost all predatory fish eat small fish as part of their diet, and I figured guiyu would be no different.
Once I got to Jingbo Hu, it took some persuasion to get my local hosts to arrange a boat for fishing, mainly because they were concerned for my safety. What if there were an accident, the boat sank, I drowned, etc. This clearly might have negative repercussions on them as well as me! But in the end they were obliging and agreed, based on my assurances that I would be very, very careful.
My colleague and I, along with our local travel companions who arranged the itinerary, stayed in a very nice guest house by the water’s edge. It was a lovely spot. As it happened the manager of the guest house was also a keen fisherman, although used to a different style. of fishing than mine.
I was the first foreign guest to bring fishing equipment and he expressed an interest in seeing my foreign fishing gear before the fishing began. When I showed him the artificial lures, he politely said they would be useless here. Thus began a lively discussion of proven fishing techniques in China and abroad.
His basic contention was that Chinese fish were very smart, and would not be fooled by artificial imitations. He was, however, most agreeable when I insisted to try it my “foreign” way, and wished me luck.
The boat dropped my colleague and I off on a rocky point, from where the depth of the water dropped off sharply from shallow to deep. This is often a good kind of spot for fishing.
The boatman also took one look at my lures and expressed zero confidence that they would work here. Again, he said Chinese fish are too smart for that.
Now the question was: were there guiyu here, and could I trick them into eating my foreign artificial baits?
Within a few minutes I saw a guiyu following my fake minnow as I cast and retrieved it to shore, curiously eyeing these strange invaders. Soon after, I caught one, and then another, and another.
The theory that a predator is a predator is a predator had been proven, once again demonstrating the wisdom of Sun Zi’s comment “Know yourself and know your enemy, and in one hundred battles you will win one hundred victories.” (Although I consider fish my friends rather than enemies.)
My colleague and I were confident enough that we’d brought a pan along in the event of success, so we made a fire by the side of the lake and cooked one guiyu on the spot for lunch. It was the most delicious fish I think I’ve ever eaten, although I learned the hard way that the guiyu’s dorsal spines contain a poison which can inflict a painful wound if you are stuck by them.
Returning to the guest house later that afternoon there was considerable excitement about the success of our foreign fishing ways, as well as great relief that we had not drowned in the lake.
Some years later I visited Lanyu Island off the Southeastern coast of Taiwan, a remote and beautiful spot. Once again I brought my fishing lures, and once again local anglers said they would not work. One of them had even lived and fished for a time in America, and went so far as to say that American fish were plentiful but relatively dumb compared to Chinese fish, which are not so plentiful but very smart.
Here we go again, I thought to myself, relishing the challenge of proving my theory again, which I did later that day by catching a nice big jack crevalle on a wooden minnow, much to the surprise of the locals.
The Heilongjiang trip was a memorable one, from Harbin to Qiqihar and Jingbo Hu, including but of course not limited to, the fishing. I wrote and published the article, which was well received.
But the best part of all was yet to come, because my colleague on that trip soon became my wife. She is the biggest and best catch of my life. In that kind of fishing, artificials don’t work.