Reflections On Not Catching Fish

What does having a successful days fishing mean?

How do you define a good days fishing? Is it hitting your bag limit, or catching a personal best?

What does success look like for you?

I have noticed recently a number of articles that either directly, or indirectly deal with these questions.

Now, perhaps it’s becuase I am a relative newcomer to fly fishing that this is something new to me. Is it because I haven’t been reading the literature long enough to see these meditations emerge before?

Nonetheless, these articles raise some really interesting questions on what it means to be a fisherman, and what fishing is actually about.

In a blog post on the Orvis site on defining success on the water, Vince Puzick asks what a successful days fishing looks like:

A friend of mine shared some sage wisdom: a successful day on the river can be defined by how much fun the angler had. Sometimes I need to check my own expectations when I am out enjoying this adventure called fly fishing.

Puzick goes on to define success as more about personal growth:

Another element that shapes my definition of success is how I have grown as a fly-fishing angler… Maybe it’s relaxing and letting the rod and reel do the work they were designed to do. What are you doing today that you may not have been able to do five years ago?

As a relative beginner to the sport I am often confronted with fishing sessions that result in no catches. So I have had to cultivate the ability to appreciate more than just the catching of fish (if I relied on that for my enjoyment I’d be a very unhappy fly fisherman!).

So the places I fish become more important. the beauty and environment within which I find myself.

In reflecting on a special place that he fishes in Eat, Sleep, Fish, Steven Murgatroyd argues:

Sometimes I think that catching a fish is incidental to having a good time by the river. Then I have a blank day and realise that it’s not. It seems that whilst I’m not fooling the trout, I am fooling myself. However, just one fish hooked, though not necessarily landed, will usually be sufficient to keep me content, at least for a while. Often, having caught that one fish I will stop or at least take a break from fishing. I need to.

I need time to reflect on what has just happened. To contemplate the magical experience that has occurred, to be careful not to take it for granted. [My emphasis].

In the same addition of ESF, in an article on fishing in the summer and the challenges that can present to catching fish (especially when you’re a guide), Pete Tyjas says:

I don’t count a day as successful or not by the amount of trout I have caught and I suspect that if you are reading this you probably feel the same.

Perhaps river fishing, or rather catching fish on rivers, is harder now. Has this contributed to an acceptance that fishing is increasingly defined not by the catch, but rather by the experience.

At the same time, however, as Steven Murgatroyd makes clear above, catching a fish is what it’s all about. If being in beautiful parts of the country and enjoying the scenery was all there was to it, then why not just go for a walk, or camp?

My hunch is that we fishermen can be divided into (at least!) two categories:

  1. Those that primarily fish in order for the experience – where catching is a bonus to the overall experience.
  2. Those that primarily fish to catch fish – that’s the measure of success for a fishing trip.

I realise these kind of categories are always somewhat reductive and easy to refute. Inevitably we’re all a combination of these extremes.

Yet, we might think about catching fish a little like earning money. If we focus only on the money, and accumulating more and more of it, that’s all that comes to matter. Money becomes everything and the act of earning it becomes devalued.

Yet, if we earn money while also striving to enjoy what we do, work to do the best we can and appreciate the environment and colleagues we share that time with, then money is a part of a more holistic experience. It is still important (essential even), but it’s not the only important thing about what we do.

Okay, so I’ve laboured the point a bit. But hopefully you see what I’m getting at.

Catching fish is what fly fishing is about. Yet, it’s only a part of the overall experience of fly fishing.

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