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As of July 25, 2023, 55 million Americans are set to live in areas expected to have dangerous levels of heat. When you look ahead at your forecast, the heat index is a measure of how hot it “feels” outside. It is a combination of air temperature and humidity. What many may not know is that a heat index is how hot it feels when in SHADE.
You may be asking yourself, what does any of this have to do with fishing? Well, much like yourself, fish adjust to high water temperatures to seek out better conditions. Humans will seek out the sun, cool water or air conditioning when temperatures become too unbearable. Like us, fish behavior changes as the heat is turned up and the water becomes too hot.
The impact of heat on fish behavior depends on the species, their natural habitat, and the rate at which the temperature changes.
Behavioral Changes of Fish When it Gets Too Hot
Fish may seek out cooler, shaded areas or deeper waters to escape the heat. These locations provide them with relief from higher temperatures and reduce the risk of overheating.
In many cases, fish may exhibit reduced activity during hot periods. High temperatures can cause a decrease in their metabolism, leading to reduced energy levels and lethargy.
Changing in Feeding Patterns
Fish might alter their feeding habits when it gets hot. Some species may become less active feeders during extreme heat, while others may increase feeding activity as they seek energy to cope with the stress.
Movement to Deeper Waters
In natural bodies of water, fish may move to deeper areas where the water is cooler and more stable. Deeper waters are less affected by surface heating and may provide a more suitable environment for some species.
Fish that typically school may form tighter groups during hot weather. By staying close together, they can benefit from reduced energy expenditure and possibly find cooler spots as a collective.
Reduced Oxygen Tolerance
Warm water holds less dissolved oxygen, which is essential for fish survival. Some species may exhibit signs of distress or struggle to survive in low-oxygen conditions during hot periods.
These are general rules for fish behavior when water temps start rising. Different species will obviously behave in different ways across the country. Different water types also alter behavior. Let's take a closer look at some popular game fish in the United States.
Specific Fish Behaviors When the Water Gets Hot
Reduced Metabolism: In warmer water, the metabolic rate of bass increases, leading to higher energy expenditure. To compensate for this, bass may reduce their overall activity levels and move more slowly. Their feeding frequency may also decrease as a result.
Shallow Water Habitat: During hot weather, bass tend to move towards shallower waters, especially if these areas offer cover, such as aquatic vegetation or submerged structures. Shallow water may be warmer than deeper areas, but it provides better access to food sources like insects, crayfish, and small fish.
Early Morning & Late Evening Feeding: Bass may become more active during the cooler periods of the day, particularly early morning and late evening. During these times, they are more likely to engage in feeding behaviors, taking advantage of cooler water temperatures.
Decreased Oxygen Levels: Warm water holds less dissolved oxygen, and this can be challenging for bass. Bass may seek areas with better oxygenation or become more sluggish when oxygen is limited.
Movement to Cooler Areas: If water temperatures become excessively hot, bass may move to deeper waters or seek out areas with cooler inflows, such as streams or springs, in search of relief from the heat.
Reduced Activity: Like many fish, northern pike may become less active as water temperatures rise. Warm water can increase their metabolic rate, leading to higher energy demands and potential lethargy.
Seeking Cooler Water: Northern pike typically prefer cooler waters, and during hot weather, they may seek out areas with more shade, vegetation cover, or deeper water where the temperatures are cooler. These areas offer them relief from the heat and can be more suitable for hunting and ambush tactics.
Deeper Water & Thermoclines: In lakes and reservoirs, northern pike may move to deeper areas where the water is cooler, especially if the lake has a well-defined thermocline. The thermocline is a zone of rapid temperature change that can provide a more stable and cooler environment for fish.
Changing in Feeding Behavior: High water temperatures can influence northern pike's feeding behavior. They may become less active feeders during extremely hot conditions or adjust their hunting patterns to conserve energy.
Movement to Inflow Areas Inflow areas, such as streams or springs, can introduce cooler water into a water body, attracting northern pike during hot weather.
Walleye & Crappies
Deep Water Refuge: Walleye are known for their preference for cooler waters. When the water gets hot, they often seek refuge in deeper areas where the temperature is lower. Deeper water also provides them with a more stable environment and better access to prey.
Night Feeding: Walleye are crepuscular feeders, meaning they are most active during low-light periods like dawn and dusk. During hot weather, they may adjust their feeding patterns to focus more on nighttime feeding when the water is cooler.
Avoiding Shallow, Warm Waters: In lakes and rivers, walleye might avoid shallow areas exposed to direct sunlight, especially if the water is warmer there. They prefer areas with vegetation or submerged structures that provide shade and cover.
Thermoclines: In bodies of water with well-defined thermoclines (zones of rapid temperature change), walleye may use these layers to regulate their body temperature. They might stay within or near the thermocline to find the temperature range they prefer.
Movement to Cooler Inflow Areas: Walleye may move towards cooler inflow areas, such as incoming streams or springs, which can introduce cooler water into a water body during hot weather.
Changing Your Own Behavior
Perhaps more important than the change in fish behavior, is a change in your behavior and safety measures. As temperatures soar across the United States, so do the number of heat related injuries and fatalities. Never underestimate the power of the sun and always take precautions to avoid serious injury:
Pay close attention to any warning signs you may be experiencing a heat-related issue. Here are some symptoms to look for when the temperatures rise:
If you see or experience any of these symptoms you need to leave the water immediately. Be mindful of your body and take the higher temperatures seriously. Both you, and the fish you are targeting, must adapt your habits as the summer turns up its heat to the highest setting.
Catching fish when the sun really dials up the heat in midsummer is one of the hardest challenges most anglers will face. When things are unseasonably hot, the difficulty is turned up even more. Anglers need to be mindful of their own habits and be adaptable to their targeted species habits. Stay on the move, try new tactics and look for fish to be in new areas.
Ask Questions, Share Strategies & Keep Trying
Whether you are new to summer fishing or a seasoned pro, the transition to hot water can be surprisingly difficult. If you are like the author of this blog, you may find that your favorite hot spots 'shut off' overnight one day. This is a clear sign that water conditions are changing and the fish along with it.
Kayak fishing can take you to all sorts of new spots that many boats can't reach. This is an asset in the summer when fish may move to areas that are only accessible by fishing kayaks. But, with that transition, your fishing strategies need to adapt as well.
One of the biggest mistakes anglers can make is being stubborn. Ask for help on sites like our public fishing forum, the Kayak Anglers Resource. Sharing knowledge (like in the discussion, Fall Fishing Tips) is how we grow our sport. If you find something that works for your area, share it. If you have questions about specific areas or fish species, ask those questions! There is a learning curve to every season of fishing, but you don't have to learn alone.