“Fish Ears”

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Can Fish Hear?

Question: “Are fish able to hear or otherwise perceive voices above the water?”

Answer: The standard question about fish and sound goes something like this: Do fish hear sound?

The standard reply goes about like this: Fish are very sensitive to sounds made in or on water but not to sounds made in the air.

It’s a solid, useful answer.

But your question, though plainly related to it, Wayne, isn’t the standard one. It’s interesting, though. . .

It’s also outside the boundaries of my expertise. (The word “expertise” makes me cringe a little. An expert?—who. . .me? But how can I substitute any other word in an “Ask the Experts” column?) Wayne, what you and I need is a fisheries biologist. Luckily, I have one handy. Thanks to having worked for four years on the book Morris & Chan on Fly Fishing Trout Lakes (now back in print, by the way) with Brian Chan, former fisheries biologist for the remarkable and justly famous Kamloops Lakes region of British Columbia, I can ask him fish questions when I have them (fishing questions too, especially about trout lakes—the man’s a wizard on them). So, here’s what Brian’s e-mail reply says regarding your question, Wayne: “Short answer is No.”

You can’t accuse the man of pussyfooting. But I assume you’d like a few more particulars. So, here’s Brian again: “They [fish] have an inner ear and a lateral line to detect sound.” Later on he explains, “The body of fish is the same density as water, so sound waves pass through their bodies. Their inner ear contains calcified bones called ‘otoliths’ or ‘ear bones’ in cavities near the mid-brain. When a sound wave passes through the body, the otoliths, which are denser than water, move and displace sensitive hair cells in the inner ear, which is interpreted as sound.”

See? Told you he was a fisheries biologist.

Brian then goes on about how dropping something heavy in a boat sends out sound, into the water, that fish easily hear. And now we’re close enough to my range of experience and (cringe) expertise that I can add that the crunching of gravel under a wading boot in the shallows is heard by fish too. Water is, after all, very dense, so that (Brian again) “sound travels more than four times faster in water than in air.”

Still, no one’s quite said yet that sounds in air are strictly impossible for fish to hear. (Brian sort of said it in a round-about way with his “No,” but he did, after all, describe that as a “short answer.”) So, at last, here’s your question directly answered (by Brian): “I would think someone would have to yell right at the surface of the water in order to create a sound wave that would be detected by a nearby fish.”

This brings up a question for you to answer, Wayne: Do you ever lower your face almost to a lake or river and then yell at it? No? Good—that’s an indication of sanity. Sanity, at least to the point of not screaming at inanimate substances or objects (other than computers and old cars), is a fine quality in a fly fisher. Though, some would argue, rare.

You asked a question that made me pause and consider, Wayne, and I hope that, with Brian’s help, I provided you a satisfying answer. Still, at the end of it all, this fact remains: it’s the sounds you make on or in water that really matter in fishing.