I Often Cheer for the Fish
The trout is sipping mayflies off the surface. The angler wades carefully into position, ties on the perfect fly, and metes out some line. He times the rises… one to the left… now to the right… then, just a few feet lower in the run. He girds himself against the gentle breeze, winds up a cast as he’s done thousands of times before, and drops that fly gently, right in the bucket. Alas! The trout rises and chomps that bug, audibly, like the lid of a music box snapping shut. Lift! Set! Game on!
The trout fins angrily upstream, promptly swirls around a rock, and spits the fly like it was never even there. To make matters worse, soon thereafter, it jumps twice, perhaps taunting, its gilded body shimmering against the fading sunlight. That was a 20-incher at least!
The angler slumps and mutters “frick-a-frack” (or something similar with the same consonants). He feels total failure, and part of him wants to break his rod in half, right there. Out-foxed yet again. This can be a cruel sport indeed. He wonders why he puts himself through this torment, over and over.
I know the story well because I was that angler.
I used to get tied up in bunches when I missed a strike, or a fish broke me off. I took it personally. Many, many times, I’d go to sleep at night, haunted by thoughts of “the one that got away.”
And in truth, the more I fished, the more I realized that I remembered the fish that got away more than the ones I landed. Maybe, just maybe, that was a gift, and not a curse.
Oh, I’ve caught and landed more than my fair share, to be sure. I honestly cannot remember most of the fish I’ve landed. But I think back and remember with vivid clarity the first tarpon I hooked and jumped in the 10,000 Islands in Florida with Captain Al Keller… it eventually spit the bit. I once watched a massive native leopard rainbow absolutely inhale my mouse fly in Alaska with my buddy Tyler Palmerton, but I punted that one also. I witnessed a bright golden dorado streak no less than 30 feet across a jungle river in Bolivia, smash my fly, and jump several times… only for the line to go slack. I’m still sorry, Rodrigo Salles, for messing that one up.
So how does an angler manage through the conundrum of hits and misses, and thoughts of what might have been?
It’s simple. You learn to cheer for the fish. At least sometimes.
“You win some, you lose some” is an age-old adage that applies to all sport, and without that it wouldn’t be “sport” in the first place, would it? It’s why I consider fly fishing “sport,” and it’s why I sometimes resent methods that lend themselves toward instant gratification.
I know I’ve talked about ”failure being an option… and that’s just fine” in the past, and I certainly stick with all that. But it’s even deeper when it comes to respecting the sheer resiliency and the cunning the fish we chase instinctively possess. They’re amazing creatures. It’s not only OK for them to win sometimes, we wouldn’t really love them as much as we do if they didn’t.
So now, of course, I bring my ”A” game to the river, or ocean, every time I go fishing. And I want to make the cast, set the hook and land the fish, every darn time I’m out there.
But on those occasions (I’d say ”rare” occasions, but that would be a bald-faced lie) when a fish eats my fly, fights a bit and eventually jumps and spits it out, probably with a wink, I don’t slump or curse anymore.
I now smile and wink back.
And that’s so much more rewarding. At the end of the day, I don’t think fly fishing is a game of conquest. I think fly fishing is really a game of opportunity.
And the more we anglers appreciate opportunity, more than the numbers we net or the hero photos we take, the better off the fish will be, and the more fly fishing will become the brand of fly fishing our ancestors enjoyed, and hoped we’d appreciate as well.