This piece was originally published in the 2022 edition of The CURRENT. Check it out in-store & online at Trouts Fly Fishing.
I often find myself in a conversation, be it face-to-face or over the phone, about specific rigging techniques or specific places to fish. I am happy to impart any nuggets of information that I have gleaned over my limited fishing experience. I do, however, wonder what my fishing experience would be like if I had only fished based on what I had been told. We all develop a set of tricks and a list of familiar places we can go to tilt the odds of netting our quarry in our favor. Gathering these strategies is rarely a practice or spot handed directly to us. It is true that we can improve with education. The most valuable education that sticks with us the longest is failure. We learn because we problem solve and explore when we are not getting our desired results.
I want to lift the veil and open a conversation about the specter of failure. It is an important part of our process. It is not the reason we spend time on the water, but it is a catalyst for our increased enjoyment and enthusiasm. Each discouragement pushes us to learn. What did we do wrong? Why aren’t the fish looking at my fly? Where can I go to find big fish? All these questions come from a non-success.
In my past life, I was a chef. I was trained in culinary school. The program there was to first make us recipe dependent, and then move us to a phase recipe independence. We first had to grasp the fundamentals, but we could then use that understanding to learn how to manipulate foods to achieve our desired results. There is a lot of trial and error in that transition. We had to learn how to properly tune a stove to cook duck breast and that marinating shrimp in a citrus product will result in fishy flavored erasers if you intend to cook them.
Angling can be similar. Our goal is to be self-sufficient. Getting there requires advice, education, and, above all, trial and error.
Discussing failures and seeking answers to our questions is admirable. Everyone I have ever fished with has been skunked… on more than one occasion. We all come to some magic realization point about a specific tactic. I’ll go through an example to illustrate exactly what I mean.
The first day I ever fly fished I was completely on my own on the Fryingpan River. There is no doubt that I crashed my way through vast swaths of trout stacked up. Trout that were eager for me to feed them. Just the act of me getting into the water ruined my chances. This is to say nothing of my nonexistent casting ability. I was fishing at the mile marker recommended to me, with the flies I was told to use, tangling my rig, snagging trees, and chopping wood. It must have been a sight. I know now what it looked like, but at the time, the only thing I knew was that I couldn’t catch a fish. I wasn’t reaching my goal. To top it off, I was told by the people that I purchased my rod from that I shouldn’t remove the plastic wrapping from my cork until I had caught a fish with the rod. That would be, “bad juju.” Get the picture?
To aid in my quest, I sought professional help. I hired a guide for a full day. When we got out, he laughed and removed my cork’s protective wrapping. He had me set up and taught me to fish the areas I was about to walk through before I stepped in. We were on fish in no time.
He would say things like, “Let me see that. Your fly isn’t riding high enough,” or, “Let me change this bug it’s too dark.” He also commented at one point, “I think we need to drop to 6X.” It was Greek to me, but we were catching fish.
I did learn things on that excursion that still stick with me. I still fish my way through the water. I still carry floatant with me. I learned things to look out for. I did not however learn how to apply these lessons or when to make changes. That much took time on the water. Now, if I see fish rising to my fly and turning away, I make sure that the bugs I am fishing appropriately match the hatching insects. I make sure that my flies are sitting nice and high on the surface. I can better identify differences in color and size of bug life, and I can see when my fly is beginning to sink. Those things took the process of failure, identification, adjustment, and success. I had to fix my way through my problems on the water.
There are so many things that I have figured out this way. The list is too long to address them all here. Many of them are second nature now. It’s a constant journey of discovery on the water for a person that embraces the failures, many failures in my case. The exploration is one of the things I love the most about the sport.
Hunting down new places is just as rewarding.
There is a special bond we share as anglers. We all have “secret” spots. When someone shares a honey hole with you, they are sharing a piece of their passion. It is given with respect. There is nothing wrong with getting some advice normally held in the vest. Asking for it is another story. Looking for some help on google maps with where to park and areas to wet a line through is fine. Just don’t expect someone to share their area with no competing anglers and giant dumb fish.
Go find those spots. You may have to go to another state. You may have to pull up a map and look for alpine lakes. It is certain, however, that you will have to go out and try new water. It is certain that you will have tough fishing days. You will most definitely get skunked. If you continue to explore and improve, you will find a place that you get to share with only your nearest and dearest. It will be YOUR spot.
Ask anyone chasing permit about failure. That can be the catch of a lifetime for some anglers because the failure rate can be so high. Success is only rewarding because of failure.
Continue to seek tips and ask questions, but more importantly, get out on the water and learn how to apply all the information you gather. We should all be more open about what we have done wrong. Come into the shop unafraid to tell us about the problems you are having with your rig or gear. We have solutions because we have experienced those frustrations before. It’s up to you to explore and change things up based on what you glean. Fail, identify, adjust, succeed. Beginner to master, we are all equalized by failure. Be open about it.
To that end, if you would like to hear more about any of the lessons I have learned, or you want to laugh with me about the goofy things I do on the river, drop by. I will be able to tell you about something new I have realized I have been doing all wrong.
For more from our shop magazine, The CURRENT - Check it out in-store & online at Trouts Fly Fishing.