Fishing Isn't Luck

Fishing Isn't Luck

The other day, a friend blindsided me by saying something along the lines of "I don’t really get it. Isn’t fishing just luck? Like you stand there and if a fish swims by you catch it?"* Now, to anyone who regularly casts a line, the answer to this is a very obvious “no.” But it turns out this is actually a common sentiment among non-anglers. Someone who has spent little to no time fishing might very well believe that catching fish is no different than playing the slots.* Of course, anyone who’s been skunked while old-timer Bob pulls in his limit can attest that there is quite a bit behind this silly activity that we call fishing. So, I thought it'd be worth thinking through: what is it that makes fishing a skill? While writing, I realized that understanding the specific details of what makes fishing skill-based as opposed to luck-based is actually a great way to analyze a fishery and become a better angler.

*Years ago, my girlfriend made the mistake of pursuing a similarly egregious line of questioning. She now at least pretends to believe that the vast amount of time I spend on the water is in some way a skill-based pursuit.

Fish, like many creatures in the animal kingdom, primarily spend their days eating and trying not to die. To catch fish, anglers must trick them into biting some sort bait/lure/fly. In the process, they must avoid triggering a fish’s natural reaction to perceived threats. Proof that this activity is skill-based can be broken into two categories: knowledge and technique.

Generally, fishing knowledge boils down to one thing: can you think like a fish? To achieve this, there are two big questions to answer: Where are fish located? and What are they eating? Of all the questions anglers will be asking, consider these “The Big 2.” The answers to these questions will depend on a ton of variables. What time of year is it? What time of day is it? What is the water temperature? What does the structure look like in this body of water? How deep is the water? How clear is the water? What is the primary food source? Before stepping foot near a river, the best anglers understand how these variables impact fish behavior, and likely have a good idea about each of their values.

Through research and first-hand knowledge, an experienced trout angler might assess a situation like this: It’s late afternoon in October on a freestone river with deep cut banks and slightly stained water. This river holds a mix of brown and rainbow trout. Based on these situational variables, a knowledgeable angler will then put forward a highly educated guess on answers to The Big 2.  Trout are likely holding under cut banks. Given the darker water and late afternoon light, these fish will be more willing to venture away from safety for food. With cold fall weather rapidly approaching, big browns will likely be looking for a big meal before winter arrives.  

At this point, anglers have to match their knowledge of fish with their knowledge of gear. What flies to use? What size tippet? Mono or fluro? How long of a leader? How heavy should the flies be? Is an indicator necessary? What weight of rod? What size of reel? What type of fly line? Which knots to tie? A knowledgeable fly fisherman will know the answers to these questions; a beginner probably won’t.

In simple cases (like the example above), you could trace the reasoning behind each decision a fisherman makes. But at the highest level, sometimes the line between knowledge and an almost inhuman intuition is blurred.  Like other games of skill, world-class anglers rely on detailed pattern-recognition that they’ve built through years and years of experience. A grandmaster in chess might look at a chess board, recognize a pattern from one of thousands of games they’ve seen before and choose a promising move to continue the game. The grandmaster is not only integrating their current knowledge of the situation, but combining it with their knowledge of thousands of chess boards over the years. Likewise, master anglers can take a look at a stretch of river and might immediately spot where the largest fish is holding, know what the perfect cast will look like, and execute exact presentation required to catch that fish. Their pattern recognition is so detailed, so precise, that they likely won’t be able to verbally explain how they know what to do.

Knowledge from books and time on the water will give you a huge head start. But, unlike chess, fly-fishing is a physical sport interacting with the very real natural world, and relies on actual technique to “work.” Know where fish are holding? How deep they are? What they’re eating? What size bug they’re eating? Have your rod rigged correctly with the right flies? Have some strong intuition based on hundreds or thousands of days fishing? Great, now you have to physically catch the fish. And that involves imitating a natural food presentation, which requires technique. Knowing what to throw is somewhat worthless if you can’t present it correctly.*

*This, of course, has plenty of exceptions. If you’re at the right depth and the fish are actively feeding, there are plenty of situations where you’ll catch fish, even with poor technique.

In the world of fly fishing, technique covers an incredibly broad skillset. Can you get a drag-free drift on the edge of an eddy? Can you keep your flies deep in the strike zone while swinging for steelhead? Can you roll cast two weighted flies and an indicator under low-hanging branches? Can you drop a fly on a dime 50 feet away in the wind? Can you mend around boulders? Skilled anglers can do all or most of the above, and are then able to successfully catch fish in a variety of conditions.

Great anglers have excellent technique and deep wells of knowledge and tie the two together. Over the course of an hour, their skill might not be immediately evident. But over the years, season after season, river after river, great anglers consistently get fish in the net. And it’s not because they’re lucky.

Now, it’s time for one giant caveat: catching fish does NOT require any of the above. I’ve seen first-time anglers accidentally flick a wooly bugger under a bridge and come up with an 18-inch trout. I’ve seen people limit out after consuming much more than the legal limit in beer. Some people are lucky. Some people fish purely to relax and drink a cold one, and would prefer to not think of a single thing while doing so. But for those who are serious about fishing, who spend their weekends and their nights chasing fish and obsessing over fly patterns and remote rivers, skill is central to everything they do.

Ultimately, angling is based on skill, not luck. But there’s still another facet that makes fishing one of the ultimate pursuits: for all the knowledge, technique, and endless variables I’ve listed above – those can change with different species of fish. Catching sailfish on a teaser is a hell of a lot different than euro nymphing. Learning and mastering even a fraction of the knowledge required to be proficient in multiple types of fishing is a life-long endeavor well worth chasing.

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