Defining success in any endeavor, let alone fly fishing, is a terribly subjective discussion because every angler has a slightly different idea of what being “successful” means when it comes to the art of flinging flies.
Now, I’m by no means any good at fly fishing – I’m decidedly average. I actually got skunked last Sunday on the Lower Provo River in Utah. And yes, I’m willing to admit that right here in print (or, print’s 21st-century equivalent, at any rate).
But for the sake of this post, let’s roll with a fairly agreeable definition of fly fishing success – catching a few on the vast majority of your fishing outings.
I’m not an expert on fishing. I spend around 175 days a years on the water, and I’d say I get skunked at least 40-50 of those days – if not more. But over the past few years, since I’ve started writing professionally about fly fishing, I’ve noticed something about the days that I get skunked. The vast majority of the times when I leave the water empty handed are the same days when I walked into the river not realizing I’d left something important behind – my confidence.
Confidence is the number-one secret to being a successful angler. I’m 100% convinced of that fact. And not the cocky, I’m-gonna-catch-every-fish-in-the-river-and-have-amazing-Instagram-pics confidence. I’m talking about the honest belief in your skills and ability as an angler.
Take this past weekend for example. I’d been in a fishing funk of sorts for a good two weeks with only one solid day on the Provo River with Mysis Mike to point to as an instance of not getting skunked. My fishing mojo wasn’t helped at all by the fact that it’s been really warm here in Utah lately, and the first blue-winged olive hatches of the year have started popping up around the state. For the past two weeks, I couldn’t seem to cast correctly (although I think that had more to do with me switching back to fishing my 5wt after using my 3wt IM6 for the past month), get a decent drift with a dry fly, or keep a fish on the line on the rare occasion that I hooked up.
My confidence was shot. To pull a quote from my upcoming fly fishing book (Of Fish and Men, slated for a mid-April release),
“When you start doubting your ability to fish is usually when you stop catching them.”
It’s arrogant as hell to quote myself – I’m fully aware of that – but every once in a while I write something halfway decent and I felt that quote was the most succinct way of stating my thoughts about the correlation between fly fishing and confidence.
Now, back to this past weekend. The forecast called for clear skies and high temps – the perfect conditions for an early-season mayfly hatch. I loaded up the trusty fishing car with my 3 and 5wt Winstons and set off in pursuit of rising trout.
The first creek I visited is a body of water I’ve nicknamed “The River of Eternal Rises.” It earned that nickname due to the fact that even when it’s 6 degrees outside (yes, I’ve fished the above pictured creek in that weather) I have always seen at least one trout rise on every visit.
I saw a few scattered risers here and there, but they didn’t want my new quill-bodied mayflies. I hooked into something that felt sizable on the size 18 zebra midge I’d dropped below my dry fly, but the fish came off after a few seconds of shaking its head.
I took a break for some lunch, and as I sat in my car eating a dry sandwich, I realized my confidence was at an all-time low. I hadn’t caught much of anything in what felt like forever, and on the one river in the state that’s as close to a sure thing as I’ve ever found for dry fly fishing, I got a giant middle fin from all the fish in the river.
So I turned to one last location – a tiny creek tucked away in a narrow canyon few people visit. The creek is stuffed full of the prettiest Bonneville Cutthroat trout I’ve ever caught, and I’ve never failed to catch fish there.
After 10 minutes of casting and no bites, I was starting to seriously wonder what I’d done to anger the fishing gods so much that they took away my catching ability.
Then, just as I was about to call it a day, a sevenish-inch cutthroat smacked my size 16 elk hair humpy.
I caught another dozen or so before the day warmed up and the melting snow muddied up the creek. I drove away with a smile on my face, and more importantly, my confidence restored.
In fact, I was feeling so good about catching a bunch of dinky cutthroat that I stopped at one last river before heading home. I fished for two hours, managed to hit a blue-winged olive hatch just right, and catch a couple of nice browns before finally leaving the water for good.
I promptly got skunked again the following day.
Confidence is key – but you do need a fair dose of luck from time to time. As John Gierach wrote, “Fly fishing for trout is a sport that depends not so much on catching the fish as on their mere presence and on the fact that you do, now and again, catch some.”
Catching some now and again is enough for me. It’s those long stretches (the “longest silences” as Thomas McGuane would describe them) in between catching that sometimes last for weeks that get me down. But that’s human nature, and part of the appeal to fly fishing is casting off human nature and trying to immerse oneself into the natural world in such a way that fish either don’t realize or don’t care about your presence. Pulling that off requires confidence, and even during the longest of silences you can’t lose that one skill that each and every angler – from Lefty Kreh to the kid who just bought a $10 Eagle Claw glass rod at Wal-Mart – can have in equal measure.
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