This section is from the book "American Game Fishes", by W. A. Perry. Also available from Amazon: American Game Fishes: Their Habits, Habitat, and Peculiarities; How, When, and Where to Angle for Them.
THE subject of the mental and emotional capacity of fishes is the cause of much curious comment and speculation among angling naturalists, who do not willingly consent that the class Pisces shall be placed upon a plane of intelligence below that of the insects. The belief that fishes possess qualities which reach a standard beyond the instinct of self-preservation has recently gained in strength and interest, owing to the increased facilities that fish-culture has given us for observing their habits. Seth Green, the Nestor of fish-culture in America, believed that fish talked to one another; and the idea is by no means an extravagant one.
It is conceded by naturalists that certain insects and many of the lower animals have the power of imparting mutual intelligence by processes unknown to us. The little ants hobnobbing with each other, the cooing dove wooing its mate vocally, the hen clucking her brood under protecting wings, are familiar instances of vocal intercourse among insects and birds; and no one who has watched the minnows of a shallow pool, or those in an aquarium, has failed to see equally sure indications that fishes have a way of their own in communicating with each other. They dart up to one another, put noses together for a moment, and then dart off with an air as much as to say, "All right."
"Old Eschylus, in one of his poems, calls fish 'the voiceless daughters of the unpolluted one;' but many of the ancients and moderns testify to the utterances of fish. Pliny, Ovid, and others tell us of the Scarus and its wonderful powers of intonation. In the days of old Rome certain fish were said to have a regular language, 'low, sweet and fascinating, ' and the Emperor Augustus pretended to understand their very words. We have all heard, or heard of, the various sounds of the Gurnards, of the booming of the Drum-fish, the grunt of the Croaker, Weak-fish and others. The Grunt-fish of the Gulf of Mexico is said to express discontent and pain, and when touched with a knife fairly shrieks, and when dying makes moans and sobs disagreeably human. Take it all in all, we cannot but believe that fish have the power of making intelligent communication to one another, mouth to mouth, and we have frequently noted, or thought we did, a kind of knowing look about their eyes which led us to credit them with looking unutterable things."
The scientists tell us that in many fishes no trace exists of an organ of hearing; that the tympanum, its cavity, and the external parts of the ear, are entirely absent; that in others this organ is only imperfectly developed, and that in the remaining few, such as the shark, the shad, herring, and others, there is an odd connection between the organ of hearing and the air-bladder. With these crude facts before him, the ichthyologist leaves the angler to work out the answer to the question, "Can fish hear?" which is a most practical one to the careful angler, in his pursuit of the educated game fish of our inland waters. We sum up briefly the conclusions of an old Black-Bass angler on this subject:
Fish hear no sound originating in the air.
Place a cannon upon an India-rubber carriage, sufficiently large and elastic enough to deaden, when fired, all concussion upon the ground, and Mr. Fish, after the explosion, will be as placid in his pool as a gourmand after dinner.
But, step as lightly as one may upon the margin of a stream, and the fish will scatter like shot, from the shallows where they are feeding or frolicking. The larger the fish and the lesser the depth of water, the greater and wilder the scattering will be.
Security seems to lie with them in the relative depth of the pools, as the step of the angler only disturbs them in a foot or two of the water. A fish lying in a hole three or four feet deep, close to the banks, is undisturbed by any ordinary concussion.
Again, any concussion originating in or upon the bed of the river or below the fish, does not appear to disturb them. This was verified by this old angler one day upon a large Bass which he saw lying motionless within a foot of the stake to which the camp boat was tied. The water was about four feet deep. He struck several successive hard blows upon the top of the stake, which protruded about two feet out of the water, without causing a flirt of the fin in the fish below.
Our angler at once concluded that the Bass could not hear the noise made by footsteps upon the bed of the river when wading in the stream and, as the jolly fins could not hear the conversation originating out of the water, anglers may indulge in social chat and pleasantries whenever inclined, taking care, however, to be always on the safe side, by not becoming too boisterous in their discussions or hilarity.
"Boys," said a fly-fisher on one occasion, "what fools these bait-fishers are to put their comfort in a straight-jacket when they go a-fishing. Some old fellows won't let you whisper in the boat, and are as querulous and over-cautious as my grandfather was whenever he had an attack of the gout. He would lie flat on his back in bed, with his gouty foot propped up on a pillow laid across a chair, placed bottom upward, and in this position would center and strain his eyes and fears upon the knob of the chamber door, which was no sooner turned upon its axle than he was heard crying out with prospective pain, 'Watch out for my foot!'"
"It is just so with these old bait-fishers. A motion of your lip, although voiceless, and they would cry out (if they dared), 'Watch out for my coming bite!' They are right in thinking that the least motion of the boat is apt to frighten the fish, but 'I won't go home till morning,' by a dozen bass voices is less disturbing to a pool or a bank than the twitching of a toe on the bottom of a boat."
Anglers generally agree on the subject of the sense of sight in fishes. A fish can see in water but not out of it.
The shadow of a split-bamboo rod thrown across a pool will create in a fish the same skittishness as would be caused by an elephant browsing upon the bank.
A passing cloud over a shallow and pellucid pool protects the angler and puts another fin or two in his creel, where a moment before each cast of his drove the fish to deeper pools or behind protecting rocks.
An old angling friend once said to me that fish were like ostriches in some of their ways, notably in that they seemed to feel safe when their noses were hid behind a tuft of grass or in the crevices of a sunken rock.
"Fish facing the sun, and forget not this rule, even when the twilight is over the waters, by casting toward the west," was the law enacted by his knowledge, based upon experience, of the effect of shadows upon the wary fins, who are more startled by unusual appearances on the surface of a pool than they are by strange things below.
Vision and hearing, in fishes, being the senses most important to the angler, in his water sports, those next in value are smell and taste. The possession of these by fish seems to be a disputed point. They have evidently taste in a modified degree, as they will reject the artificial lure if the barb of the hook is not immediately imbedded in their flesh, but on the other hand, they will take a leather or rubber imitation of the natural bait with as much gusto as a live minnow or bug-hence the question is a see-saw one.
Of course, among angling naturalists, the gift of the senses is, or at least they think it should be, confined to game-fish, as they cannot imagine any dispensation of providence that places the ignoble Catfish or the snaky Eel upon the same plane with the Salmon, Trout and Bass.
Fish, no doubt, in common with other animals, have the instinct of danger developed almost to the quality of reason; and it is no bar to the truth of this to argue that, because a fish will take the bait with a half dozen broken hooks in its mouth, it follows a brutish appetite that is blind to danger; for, look you, be ye an angler or a butcher, that stomach of yours is death to you every day of your life; that smoking dish, be it a red herring or canvas-back duck, is causing you to make rapid strides grave-ward, and you know it; and yet you gorge yourself every day upon your favorite dish.
It ill becomes a man to argue that, because an animal cannot control its appetite, it has not the lordly gift of reason. To sum up:
Can a fish taste? Certainly-he spits out his artificial bait.
Can a fish smell? Aye, there's the rub; yet why the anointed lures so prized by old anglers and many modern ones?
This fact, however, is sure: fish are susceptible to anger and jealousy; for we have seen them fight, and we all know how tiger-like in combat Salmon and Trout are, on their spawning beds.
By William C Harris.