Matt Hougan certainly wasn’t surprised when a fish blew up on the Pop-R he had just cast beneath an overhanging tree, but he was surprised when the fish he reeled in turned out to be a tilapia.

“They’re herbivores, so what was that fish doing eating a Pop-R?” said Hougan, a sales representative for PRADCO Outdoor Brands.

As Hougan continued to fish from the bank, he heard a couple of other splashes from beneath the same tree. He began watching and realized that something was falling out of that tree and the tilapias were gathered in ambush position. He couldn’t tell if the tree was dropping nuts or berries, but it was obvious those tilapias - which normally roam lazily and graze on submerged vegetation - were keyed in on whatever was falling from that particular tree.

That was an oddball situation and isn’t a pattern to try match (especially with tilapia, which aren’t very strong and consequently offer little beyond a novel appeal). However, it provides an important reminder to pay careful attention to any clues the fish provide and to be willing to try things that don’t line up with your expectations when something you observe suggests doing so.

As an example, you begin a day of bass fishing with a Texas-rigged plastic worm because you expect the fish to be bottom oriented and relating to slower offerings. But then the first couple of bass you catch grab the worm before it ever finds bottom on the initial drop - take that as a clue. Try a more aggressive lure, such as a crankbait or spinnerbait. If the fish are more active than you expected and will readily grab that kind of lure, you can fish faster and cover more water, and catch more fish.

It’s possible they prefer the specific falling action of a worm, so if you try one or two more aggressive offerings and don’t get any action, you obviously want to return to the worm that was working. Depending on how the fish continue to behave, though, you might consider altering your whole presentation. If they continue hitting everything on the initial drop, don’t waste time working the worm all the bay back to the boat. Instead cast, let the worm drop, hop it a time or two, and then reel it back and make another cast. Again, it’s all about believing the fish and spending as much time as possible doing what they’ve shown you they prefer that day, as opposed to what you think you already know.

The same concepts apply in all kinds of waters and to fish of every shape and size. Continually watch for possible forage in an area, fish feeding nearby and localized conditional things - like muddy water coming out of a creek, wind sweeping a certain point or maybe a grass bank that’s likely to be home to a lot of grasshoppers. At the same time, watch for fish following your lure and pay attention to every detail whenever a fish does bite.

Most importantly, when you think you’ve figured out what is happening, take the time to test it, even if it doesn’t line up with what you already think you know. You might end up with a pleasant surprise and a new trick in your bag.