When Fish Take Flight: Reasons Why You Saw a Fish Jump Out of the Water

We’ve all been there.

On a calm, picture perfect day on the lake, nothing gets an angler’s heart racing like a SPLASH! You look behind you, and all you see are ripples. In a moment, the lake is calm again.

But you know what happened – a fish just jumped. Your crew of anglers in your boat is left wondering why.

The truth is, there are many reasons why fish jump out of the water. The most common ones are because they are chasing prey, or being chased by a predator. Spawning is another reason why fish jump out of the water.

Understanding the reasons will help improve your time on the water.

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Here’s the thing – a lot of factors can affect the quality of fishing on a given day, and when you see a fish jumping out of the water it offers you important clues.

Of course, there are other factors to consider. If you are fishing saltwater, understanding what tide is best to be fishing during is very important.

If you did well at high school science, you may even know about something called barometric pressure. It’s another factor affecting the fishing that you should know about.

But back to fish jumping out of the water.

I’ve seen (and heard) fish jump and stood there wondering why many times. And I know there are many other anglers wondering the same thing – so I want to help you understand why fish jump out of water.

carp fish jump out of the water

Why Do Fish Jump Out of Water?

It’s a timeless fishing question.

While there are many reasons that fish jump out of water, let’s start with the most common ones.

Danger Lurks

A fish jumping out of water can be in danger. Serious danger.

If you were a fish, and a much bigger fish were chasing you, trying to make you its dinner, where else would you go?

In fact, some predators even “push” their prey towards the surface, knowing that fish that are being forced to jump will be spending precious energy that will make them tired and easier to catch.

There are a lot of things that eat fish. The obvious one is a bigger fish.

But depending on where you are, the predator could be almost anything. In freshwater areas, beavers and muskrats are common fish predators.

In the ocean, mammals such as dolphins often chase their prey to the surface.

In both saltwater and freshwater areas, turtles feed heavily on fish too.

Even some species of birds that dive under water to chase their prey could be the reason why a fish jumps out of the water for safety.

If you see a fish jumping, it might be jumping for its life.

Winner, Winner, Fish for Dinner

Now consider the opposite situation. Even fish, spending their whole lives underwater, know that there is a whole other universe out there above the surface.

It’s full of small, tasty foods for them. Just look at the lake on a calm night and try to count all the bugs swimming.

For bigger fish, the buffet is endless. A large fish could jump to catch almost anything. A frog swimming on the surface could become dinner. A small baby duck could be cute – and tasty. Even a bird or a bat swooping too low could regret it.

So when you see ripples on the surface from a fish jumping out of the water, it may be with a full belly.

Searching for Oxygen

Everyone needs oxygen – even fish. And it’s big trouble when they can’t get enough.

The science here is pretty simple. The top of the water column has the most oxygen. So a fish struggling to get enough oxygen may be pushing aggressively towards the top of the water, and end up jumping as a result.

Some fish have even evolved to be able to breath out of water. If you live in certain parts of Asia or Russia, you may see the Northern Snakehead fish. It can survive on land, and even travel across land.

While rare, this is another good reason why a fish struggling for oxygen may want to jump out of the water.

These reasons can also have implications for when fish are in captivity, as pets or as bait fish. But we’ll talk about that a little later in this article.

salmon jump upstream in river

Jumping Over Cliffs

I mean that as a joke – kind of.

You have probably seen iconic photos of the salmon spawn. Majestic salmon leap in the air, clearing a small waterfall.

Sometimes, a lucky bear is waiting right there for them to catch some sushi.

But in all seriousness, navigating around objects is another reason that fish jump. Can’t go under it, can’t go around it? Just go over it.

This reason why fish jump out of the water is closely related to the next reason…

Mating Season

When salmon jump up stream and over waterfalls, they’re not doing it for fun. They’re traveling to their spawning grounds.

Think about the life of a salmon.

They usually hatch in rivers and streams, migrating out to oceans or other large bodies of water to grow to adulthood.

Then, when it’s time to spawn, they travel in reverse – back up the same rivers and streams they hatched it.

That’s a lot of travel.

And they’re bound to run into some spots where it’s necessary to jump out of the water along the way.

Carpe Diem

Another species of fish that offers a good example of these reasons that fish jump out of the water is the carp.

Carp fishing can be really exciting, and we have guides to show you how to get started.

Carp can jump out of the water for all of the following reasons: spawning, feeding, a lack of oxygen, and more.

Unfortunately, generally speaking, when you see jumping carp it is a bad sign for catching them.

There’s also another reason that carp jump out of the water – I promise, it’s really funny.

They have gas.

That’s right – carp get gas, just like humans!

Carp have an air bladder that helps them remain at a certain depth without exerting too much effort. When it gets too full, sometimes they jump.

Now you know. When you see a carp, maybe it has to fart.

Fish Being… Fish?

Think about it.

Humans live on land, and jump in the water for fun.

So why wouldn’t something living in water – like a fish – want to go in the air for fun?

While many of the reasons above are the most likely explanation for the fish jump you just saw, you cannot rule out the possibility that the fish is just jumping for fun.

After all, who could blame them?

fisherman holding net and fly fishing in river

Special Circumstances

I mentioned earlier that there is a special circumstance. That’s when fish are not in the wild, but intentionally being kept in captivity.

This can be in an aquarium, as a pet.

Or… it could be in your bait bucket, waiting to be hooked onto your line to help you reel in the big one.

Here Fishy Fishy

If your pet fish jumps out of the water, it’s not only annoying but also dangerous. If you’re not home to put it back in the water, your pet could die.

There’s an easy solution. It seems so obvious, I don’t want to say it.

Put a lid on your fish tank.

But also look at the other common reasons why fish jump out of the water. Make sure that your pet fish has enough to eat, so that it doesn’t need to go “hunting” for spiders or any other insects it may see through the glass of its tank.

And definitely make sure it has the right level of oxygen in its water.

Baiting the Big One

Another situation where fish can quickly run out of oxygen is in a bait bucket. Think about it – many small, stressed out fish, fighting for a limited amount of oxygen.

Now, you may not care about your bait.

But the fish you’re targeting do. Bait fish that are well taken care of will be more lively in the water and attract bigger predators for you to catch.

There are some easy solutions. Consider getting a bubbler for your bait bucket to add oxygen.

Or, do it old school – just add new water every so often. If it’s cold out, you probably won’t need to add new water that often. On a hot summer day, consider fully changing the water in your bait bucket a couple of times per fishing trip.

Now, we have talked a lot about the theory of why fish jump out of the water.

Let’s spend a moment talking about what it means for you, as an angler.

man fishing in the morning fog from boat in calm river

Can I Catch Jumping Fish?

The short answer – maybe.

There are a lot of different reasons why fish jump out of the water, so it can mean different things for your fishing trip depending on the reason.

If a fish is escaping a predator, it probably won’t be thinking about eating.

But if a fish is jumping out of water to catch its dinner and missed, you could make its job really easy.

By putting your bait right beside it.

I have definitely caught fish by casting right where I saw one jump. It probably missed a bug on the surface on the water, and was just as happy to see my worm land beside it.

What Bait to Catch Jumping Fish

Ah, the ageless question.

What bait should I use?

In many ways, you’ll want to target fish that are jumping out of the water with the same classics that always work.

Plugs, jigs, spinners, spoons, plastics.

We’ve all heard of them. All fish like them. Even jumping fish.

But what can we do to maximize our chances of catching a jumping fish?

I’ll tell you a secret.

If I see a fish jump, I always cast at it.

Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes, I get a quick hit right away.

It’s always worth trying. Because when a fish is jumping, there’s a reason. It might be a reason that causes the fish to take my bait.

It might not. But it’s still worth trying.

When There are Many

But let’s say I’m not targeting a jumping fish because I happened to see it jump randomly. Let’s say there are a lot of jumping fish.

In this case, I’ll want to tailor my strategy to catch a jumping fish on purpose.

What do we know about jumping fish that suggests to us how to catch them?

For one thing, they are close to the surface. In fact, they may have gone after an insect or frog on the surface when I saw them jump.

So a topwater bait that stays on the surface is a great option to temp a fish jumping out of the water.

You may also want to try an insect – a live or plastic worm could imitate the insect that the jumping fish was going after.

There’s another category of fishing that offers a unique opportunity to target fish jumping out of water.

Fly Fishing

A lot has been written about it. Some of it you can read right here.

Fly fishing is often done in rivers and streams.

You will recall that one of the reasons fish jump out of the water is because they are spawning, traveling up and down rivers and streams.

Fly fishing is a great way to take the action to the jumping fish – on their home turf.

When Opportunity Jumps in Front You

Here’s the bottom line – there are a lot of reasons why fish jump out of the water.

We have reviewed many of them. They might be being chased. They might be chasing something.

They may not have enough oxygen, or they may be heading home to spawn.

With this many potential reasons, it’s impossible to say for sure what a fish jumping out of water means for your fishing trip.

Here’s my number one tip: Just take a cast at it.

If you don’t catch it, you’re no worse off than before. And you just might catch it anyway.

But here’s my number two tip – it’s really important.

Have some fun!

Seeing a fish jump and hearing the big splash is really exciting. It keeps things interesting.

And that’s half the battle of fishing, right?

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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