I caught a dozen wild brown trout the other day on the Arkansas River, which is usually an average outing for me on that particular stretch of water. Then why did I feel so disappointed on the long drive home? It’s not because the fish were fairly cookie cutter (12-14 inches). I do not discriminate in that way. It’s not because the fish didn’t fight hard, because they were actually hot as hell once they took the fly. The weather was great, the crowds were fairly low, and I didn’t even lose a bunch of flies or fight constant snags that required me to retie.
No, in fact nearly every box was checked off when it came to being a really decent day of fishing in the beautiful state of Colorado. But, nevertheless, I was a little bummed as I rolled up I-25. The reason had nothing to do with the fish I had caught. It had everything to do with the fish I had lost.
I counted 20 fish hooked successfully and not brought to net. That, to me, is maybe the worst scenario in fishing. The days you have your opportunities, when the fish are eating and you have the river figured out, but you do not capitalize on those opportunities, are truly hard to handle.
I know that sounds a bit elitist or egotistical, but let’s call it the way it is. Once you have learned the basics of fly fishing and begin to be able to catch fish on a regular basis, you begin to set your standards higher. And you should. This is how everybody gets better at anything – if that is your goal. However, once you have had multiple 50+- fish days, once you have landed multiple 20+-inch trout, once you become adept at the sport (define that as you may), your standards are bound to get higher.
I guess it comes down to this – I would rather get skunked having never had a strike than get skunked having hooked and lost fish. Now, even catching one fish is better than getting skunked. However, if I also had five other opportunities and lost them all, that is only slightly better than having not had a strike all day.
Sometimes the river is just not fishing well (read my take in “Man That Was Some Bad Fishing”). You can walk up and down and see other anglers staring into their fly boxes looking for answers and almost everybody has that head-hung-low shuffle. When you ask others “how you guys been doing?” the answer is rarely motivating. On those days, if you are staring a Donut in the face, you can at least take solace in the fact you cannot change nature and just enjoy being outside. But when you have the opportunities because the fish are receptive and you have know what they want, you want to capitalize.
When I lose a fish, it is because the fish was better at being a fish than I was at being a fisherman. The fish has won. I lose. I know, I know. Fishing isn’t about winning or losing. The physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits are not connected to whether or not you catch fish. I get it. And I agree.
But, come on. I love to catch fish because it is a really cool physical challenge with a very skilled combatant. I do not look at the fish as the enemy, but I do see it as an opponent of sorts. If I can outwit this very skilled animal and then withstand its powerful, athletic maneuvers, that brings me a sense of pride and accomplishment that seems to be stem from something imprinted into our DNA.
It is why we call it “fighting” or “playing” the fish. We are in a battle, however sporting it may be. We do not count coup as fly fishermen. We take pride in bringing a fish to hand. It means we can, we did, we could. It suggests we are capable whether we harvest the fish or not.
When I have the chance to catch 30 fish and lose two out of every three, I have not had a good day as an angler. I was not up to the task. The fish were better at being fish. If I get skunked because I could not seal the deal and the fish have bested me, that is a far worse day than if I was never in the game. Maybe that’s not the best attitude to have, but it is the truth.