According to Wikipedia, sensitivity training is a method of behavioral modification that makes people more aware of their prejudices. Lately, I feel like I should be a little more sensitive.  No, I don’t think I need to nicer to the trollers or more chivalrous to the ladies. I’m doing pretty good with those things. I’m thinking of the sensitivity I get when I have a jigging rod in my hands.  When it comes to fishing, I want to be completely in-tune with my touchy-feely side.

Due to the big crowds around the warm water discharges this spring, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to watch other light tackle fishermen in action. I’ve seen some very good anglers out there.  On the other hand, I’ve noticed a few guys who have struggled. Other than disregarding the basic principles of stealth, the biggest mistake I see fishermen make is not feeling for their lures to touch the bottom when they’re jigging. 

Perhaps you’ve noticed that there are a few fishermen who seem to consistently catch big fish every time they go out.  I know from experience that there’s nothing more frustrating than looking over to see the boat beside you reeling in one big fish after another while you’re casting the exact same lures but only catching dinks .  The reason some anglers consistently produce trophy stripers while others strike out usually involves sensitivity.

When considering sensitivity, most anglers think first about their fishing rods.  A good quality, highly sensitive rod is essential to light tackle success.  I’ve written several articles about the importance of proper rod selection, so I won’t go into the details again. (You can find more information here.) I’ve also written about how 10- or 15-pound-test braided line is an essential element. Assuming all things are equal equipment-wise, there’s still another aspect to consider that will increase your chances for consistent trophies.  It’s called tuning-in.

Unless Chesapeake Bay striped bass are blitzing or feeding very aggressively, they’re usually relating to the bottom this time of year.  That means they’re facing the current and staging behind some sort of cover while they wait to ambush bait.  The bigger, more experienced fish are much more wary than the little guys, so they’re almost always holding tight to rocks or other debris on the floor of the Bay.  You might get lucky and get a big fish that is suspended once in a while, but to catch them consistently you need to be feeling the bottom every time you jig.  That’s important enough to say twice.  You want to feel the bottom every single time you snap your rod.

When my dad was teaching me to fish he would say over and over again, “think down the line.”  By that, he meant I should focus my thoughts on my lure as it makes its way through the water. It’s a sort of tunnel vision that forces exclusive concentration on the action of the bait.  When I’m in the zone jigging and really concentrating, I can’t do anything but.  I tune-out to everything around me and tune-in to my lure. I don’t speak or even listen to anything but the sound of my line moving through the guides on my rod. My fishing partners usually do the same.  We have a lot of fun joking and kidding around on the water, but when the big fish show up and we know strikes are imminent, the boat gets as quiet as an Easter Sunday sunrise.

Fishermen who jig a lot develop an uncanny sense for what’s going on at the other end of their line.  We sometimes refer to that awareness as touch, as in, “he’s got a good touch.”  Similar to how blind people heighten their remaining senses to a degree the sighted could never imagine, experienced fishermen learn to “see” the bottom with their lures. When I tell people I can tell the difference between an oyster shell and a razor clam just by the way my lure ricochets off them, or that I can anticipate a strike by the disturbance in the water around my lure, and distinguish between a bread truck and a semi on the bridge above me just by the vibrations they make in my rod, they look at me like I’m crazy.  Fishermen who have developed a good touch don’t.  They completely understand.

Some situations make tuning-in difficult.  High winds, strong currents, opposing tides, and big waves make it a lot harder to feel the bottom on every drop.  You can usually compensate for tough conditions by making shorter casts or by increasing the weight of your lures.  Don’t go too heavy though.  The perfect balance is weight that is just heavy enough to allow you to feel the bottom, but still light enough to keep the lure fluttering through the strike-zone for as long as possible. Anglers with a better developed sense of touch can usually get away with lighter lures, another reason they catch more fish.

While there may be some degree of natural talent involved in developing a good touch, I’ve been fortunate in recent years to watch several fishermen learn how to tune-in. The results are amazing. It isn’t that hard, it just takes patience and practice.  With a little effort, anyone can do it.  Once that touchy-feely light bulb goes off  in your head, you’ll start catching fish like never before.

I only fished once this past week – an early morning run to the mid-Bay with Jamie and Phill.  Both those guys are as tuned-in as they get.  It’s a real pleasure watching them fish.  Since I had to work that day, we only fished for a few wee-morning hours.  Fishing was pretty good.  We caught-and-released at least a dozen stripers over 30-inches and had several more over 40- using 1.5 or 2-ounce jig heads rigged with 7-inch soft plastic baits or 10-inch BKDs.  I took along an ultralight rig and some shad darts and caught plenty of blueback herring, hickory shad, and even one white American shad that might have gone 6-pounds. That’s a decent morning, but in all honesty it doesn’t measure up to some of the days we’ve had recently. That may sound unbelievable, but I have many witnesses. Spring 2011 has been good for light tackle anglers in the Chesapeake.

Due to muddy run-off coming out of the upper-Bay rivers, the water around Kent Island has been very stained.  I haven’t ventured out at all close to home. I’m hoping things will settle down next week so I can look around north of the Bridge and explore some areas in Eastern Bay.  Water temperatures are still holding in the mid-50s which is still a little cool for consistent action at the post-spawn hot spots. The trollers are picking off a few fish here and there at the usual places, and I’ve heard several reports of rockfish caught on bloodworms off the docks on either side of Kent Island.  There are still lots of pre-spawn fish around. Fishermen who are willing to put in long days soaking bait are turning up a few big cows in the headwaters of the Susquehanna.  I hope to work in a trip to the Flats if the water clears next week.  Obviously, there are plenty of fish around, it’s just a matter of finding the time to go out and tune-in on them. I hope you can get after them soon because it’s a sure bet that if you don’t use that sense of touch, you lose it. Sensitivity training classes on the Chesapeake Bay are now in session!

Posted Friday, April 22nd, 2011 at 5:17 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
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Responses to “Sensitivity Training”

  1. jumbo1 says:

    Shawn…that “How We Do” ruler has has quite a workout this spring…
    When the fishing zone is hot,some anglers are happy to catch small fish…like phil says “Who orders salad at a steakhouse”?….Go for the bigguns!…Enjoyed fishing this week, lots of laughs…But you’re right it is pretty quiet when we are all “in touch”..Coach (Rich) had an awesome spring, once he got the right rod with really good sensitivity, he definitely had the touch..
    Great read as usual..

  2. Colin Long says:

    Nice article Shawn..Im ready to tune into the flats hopefully next week. See ya on the water.

  3. Jay Thompson says:

    Shawn, I appreciate the regular updates. The articles make it seem so easy! I know the water’s dirty, but I hope to try my luck at Light Tackle University on Sunday using some of the tips I’ve learned here. I’m learning how to use this braid stuff, but I think I like it!

  4. Jeremy Gussient says:

    Very informative. I can’t always feel the bottom, but I’m getting better.

  5. uncle phill says:

    Great read! Shawn, you have so many talents; fishing, music, photography, but you writing is truly great. You are a master at double entendre, no doubt. Thanks for the kudos. Its always a treat to fish with you and also to read your multi-faceted articles. See ya soon.

  6. Colin Crozier says:

    Great read. Thanks.

  7. Bill M says:

    Things I need to remember when I get out. Thanks for sharing Shawn. Great stuff.

  8. Mike Burrows says:

    I had the please of fishing with you a couple times a few years back and you sent me down the path. I now completely understand although probably not to the degree you guys have acheived (not enough practice). It’s accounted for a lot of stripers I never would have caught as well as a lot of smallies too. Thanks for the introduction.


  9. RogerT says:

    Another great read Shawn.You guys most certainly have um tuned in.

  10. RiverCat09 says:


    Another great article! I just picked up a Shimano Calcutta and fitted it to a BPS inshore hi-modulus rod, and I have a stupid question. My buddy suggested that I put on mono instead of PowerPro because the braided line knots up so much.

    My stupid question: Should I swap out the mono for the 10 to 15 # Powerpro and just try and learn how to use it? I’ve seen my buddy’s bait-caster bugger up over and over again with the PowerPro, and it is very frustrating to him

    Thanks for posting and teaching me some more stuff!


  11. Shawn says:

    Thanks for the comments, Don. You might be getting the cart before the horse by jumping to a baitcaster before you get comfortable with braid. There is no doubt that, for jigging, braid is lots more sensitive than mono. There’s also no doubt that a baitcaster will help you keep your lure in the strike zone longer. Nevertheless, jumping up to a baitcaster with braid is a huge leap. My advice is to start out with 15 pound braid on a spinning outfit. Use it until you get comfortable, then switch over to your baitcaster. Don’t drag out that baitcaster until you’re in a situation where you don’t have to cast very far or in situations where you are just dropping behind the drifting boat and need to let out line to keep your lure on the bottom. I hope that helps with your question.

  12. Talledega says:

    I think I’m missing something. I was taught by a pro to cast out and snap my lure back in while reeling. How can you keep contact with the bottom if you’re reeling? What about trollers. They catch fish just as big as you do but they don’t ever touch the bottom.

  13. Shawn says:

    Hmmm. This might be one of those either-you-get-it-or-you-don’t kind of things. The guys who troll this time of year are usually catching fish that are moving alone or in very small groups whereas light tackle anglers look for fish that are more concentrated. Trollers play the numbers game by using many lines and covering as much water as they can hoping a lure gets in front of a fish. That’s okay for those who enjoy it, but it isn’t exciting enough for most light tackle anglers. One or two fish per person doesn’t constitute a successful day for most of us. We want more action. Oh, and yes, the trollers get fish *almost* as big as we do! yuk yuk 😉

    As for casting out lures and snapping them back in, there are times when that will work, especially in shallow water (like the Flats)or when you get lucky enough to find breakers or very aggressively feeding fish. As I’ve said before, it’s not too hard to catch fish when they’re turned-on and biting. The hard part is being consistently successful on bigger fish even on tough days. That’s what I’m writing about here.

  14. jumbo1 says:

    Unfortunately those trollers are putting a “hurtin” on the migratory fish these days…and then the MSSA slaughter is this weekend…talk about not having a touch…….trollin’..BLAH!

  15. Talledega says:

    I’m just trying to understand it all and I sure do want to get it that’s for sure. I guess fish don’t always bite the same way all the time. I’m going to work on this feeling the bottom thing, there’s no arguing with your success.

  16. Steve F says:

    If anyone fished with Shawn or around him just watch how he whips his rod when he’s jigging. I was 30 yards from his boat one day and I could still hear his rod whipping in the air. I just know that the rods I build have very good sensitivity and feeling the bottom is a must. Great read Shawn and hope to see you in E-bay very soon…

  17. RiverCat09 says:


    Thanks for the feedback on the baitcaster. I’m actually pretty comfortable with PowerPro on a spinning rod, but that being said, I think that I will keep the mono on the baitcaster (Calcutta) until I get really use to it.

    AS I recall, you were pretty much using your baitcaster as you described: dropping the bait over the side of the boat and paying it out. You were tearing up those small summer rock with it.

    The baitcaster should come in handy for me up at the bay bridge pilings and such.

    Thanks again!


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