Fly fishing is a game of luck more than most anglers care to admit. Skill definitely plays a part but more often than not success (as defined by catching fish) amounts to being in the right place at the right time. As John Gierach wrote in his 2011 book No Shortage of Good Days,
“One of the things you eventually learn as a fly fisherman is how to accept luck and generosity as if you deserved both.”
Some anglers refute that claim – one of my best fishing buddies says he hasn’t been skunked since the turn of the century – but they either a) don’t fish that often or b) are extraordinarily lucky.
Since anglers need luck to be successful, we’ve become a rather superstitious bunch. I was recently on a major Western river shortly after a single-fly tournament and overheard a few guys in a shop talking about “the lucky fly” that’d won them second place. I didn’t bother to ask which fly they used because the only important thing was that the fly was lucky. Luck won them second place in the tournament.
I know a few folks who regularly participate in tournaments like the one mentioned above, and they all have their unique routines designed to give them an edge (i.e., better luck) over the competition. Lucky flies, lucky waders, lucky socks, lucky boxer shorts – I’ve heard or seen it all.
My talisman is my hat. For about as long as I can remember, I’ve made sure I had “my lucky hat” before setting foot in any body of water. I started fishing at a pretty young age – fly fishing runs in the family – and my dad has pictures of us standing together in a stream, holding brown trout and grinning like idiots. In all the photos I’m wearing a hat.
I didn’t really have a choice in becoming a perpetually single wanderlust-filled trout bum. My grandfather tied flies commercially for 27 years (including some of the prettiest streamers for salmon I’ve ever seen) and my dad fished so much when my mother was pregnant with me that she had a recurring nightmare of going into labor and giving birth to a fish.
What I did have a choice in, though, was my lucky item.
From the age of about nine to 15, it was this incredible hat from L. L. Bean, outfitted with lights in the bill. I felt like the kid at elementary school with light-up shoes, except in my case my light-up apparel served an actual purpose.
Then junior year of high school arrived and my entire life changed. I had my driver’s license, an old ’97 Chevy pickup, a job bagging groceries, and an admirable neglect for doing homework while still passing classes. Naturally, I spent more and more time on the water.
One afternoon when pre-calculus seemed more boring than usual I found myself walking the trail along a small creek on the east slope of Mt. Nebo. I rounded a corner and laying there in the trail, as though it were manna fallen from heaven, was my next lucky fishing hat.
It was a battered leather fedora, dusty and beat up enough that I felt sorry for the old cowboy who’d dropped it. Then I decided his misfortune was to be my good luck and I threw the hat on my head.
The afternoon of fishing that followed was one of the best afternoons of skipping-school fishing I’ve ever experienced.
For the next three years, that hat saw me grow from a fingerling into something resembling a man. I bought a Camaro, kept the truck, and fished more than I ever had. The blessings of a great job and cheap rent allowed me to be on the water so often I should’ve been a guide. In a single year I put 45,000 fishing miles on my Camaro.
A handful of years after graduation, my buddy Colby and I were at Sportsman’s Warehouse the night before a big fishing trip. We had plenty of flies to catch fish, but we had to go to the nearest fly shop and make sure we had everything we needed. After all, there’s nothing worse than arriving at a lake and realizing the fly you thought about buying last week but didn’t because you “had enough” is suddenly the only fly that’ll work.
That’s when I saw it. A hat rack, tucked between two rows of clearance shirts and jackets, caught my eye, and perched atop the rack sat what is now my lucky fishing hat.
It wasn’t anything special. A simple wool crusher, it had a wide enough brim to keep the sun off my neck and face, was waterproof, and when I looked in the mirror I had one of those dayum I look good moments. So of course, I had to buy the hat, right? I couldn’t not get the hat, especially the night before a big fishing trip. Just like junior year of high school, the Fishing Gods put a talisman in my path and I’d have been a fool to ignore it.
Since that night, the hat has watched me grow from a boy to a man. It’s seen me sport a gnarly beard, a ridiculous brown suit, and according to my fishing buddy Pat it’s the reason I haven’t had a successful date in two years. On the other hand, I’ve caught some once-in-a-lifetime trout ever since this hat and I met. The only thing that’s happened when I’ve met various girls over the years is a larger-than-usual decrease in my bank account (fly fishing is cheaper than dating, period) and an alarming drop in the amount of time spent fishing. It’s pretty obvious the hat is worth the luck and fish it’s brought me.
I don’t plan on a new hat anytime soon; then again, I hadn’t planned to ditch the leather fedora for a wool crusher, so I guess my lucky hat choice is less up to me than it is to whatever the Fishing Gods put in front of me. Regardless, I’ll have some sort of lucky hat when I’m chasing trout, because going fishing without a hat feels like showing up to school in your underwear. It”s just uncomfortable.
While there’s definitely skill in knowing how to match a hatch, play a large trout on light tippet, or cast on crystal-clear water without scaring every fish within 50 yards, it’s luck that puts you in Oregon in March during a rainstorm that spurs a five-hour blue-winged olive hatch. It’s luck that sees you in Colorado in February, freezing to death until the adrenaline of hooking a 27-inch rainbow warms you up. And it’s a series of lucky events that convince you a certain item is lucky, which, when viewed from a moral perspective is a rather sly way of staying humble and not thinking you’re actually good at this whole fly fishing thing.
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Spencer is an outdoors columnist and novelist from Utah. His debut novel, Learning to Fly, is for sale now on Amazon. He’s also a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Connect with him on Twitter or Instagram @Spencer_Durrant or on Facebook @spencerdurrantauthor.