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Numbers Game - A Discussion on Fishing Psychology


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Ronan's report

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

The other day I called my great friend Justin to thank him for his Christmas card, which happened to contain some very cool fly tying materials and a CD of photos from his recent steelheading adventures.

I got to hear all about their trip and get Justin’s interesting take on the rivers, the fish, the people, and the events that made the trip so special. As is often the case, we found ourselves in an interesting discussion – this time about fishing reports, and the psychological effect of numbers.

On the heels of a pretty astonishing day of fishing on my trip home for Christmas, I found myself sharing a story of my own. Justin knows the section of river that I fished very well, and when I threw out a pretty big number estimating how many trout we’d hooked he was instantly given a good idea of what sort of experience we really had. His reaction was what I expected – he was stoked, and wanted to hear more. I told him about how impressed I was with the quality of the fish we saw, especially the rainbows which all seemed to be packing a good bit of extra heft in their bellies and shoulders. I told him a few of the subtleties in technique that I felt were responsible for our success on the river.

I don’t know how the topic turned, but somehow we got talking about what a number really means in fishing, and how we need to be careful how we throw numbers around. Between friends, or fishing partners, like Justin and me, who know each other’s water and fishing ability, experience, style, and personality, a number is an easy and fast way to get your buddy stoked and your point across. But too often, I think numbers are assumed to have a universal meaning, and are therefore thrown around more carelessly than they should.

If an expert trout angler throws a big number, say 35 fish, at a beginner who is just learning how to control their nymph drifts in chilly winter currents, the effect could be very detrimental. Same goes for a visiting angler who isn’t familiar with the water and the few key lies that are holding fish at this time of year. A beginner or visitor simply won’t have the understanding that comes with hours, days, or years on the river. By trying to measure their success or developing expectations based on the experts big number they will surely disappointed. With confidence shaken, they will likely hang their head and not fish as well or look a the river with an open mind as they would have had they never heard that big number. If I happen to be on the receiving end of a fishing report that contains what seems to be an impossibly big number, and I don’t know the person who is giving it, I might quickly think that this person is either a pompous jerk, a liar, or worse. What if the number is second hand? Then the possibility for misinterpretation is even greater. “My buddy got 35 fish on River X yesterday.” With nothing but a number on which to base my impression of the angler and angling, I’d be lost and left to invent the reality on my own, for better or for worse.

Steelheading is a subset of flyfishing where even small numbers can raise eyebrows, build stoke, or destroy hope and confidence. It is also a type of fishing that seems to be more psychologically demanding due to the smaller numbers of fish and the fact that they are often accessible to fly anglers in few, very specific locations on the river. The beginner angler or the visiting angler is at a colossal disadvantage compared to the angler who has been building their skills for decades, and learning the intricacies of water level, run timing, and steelhead lies on a section of river for many years. The angler who keeps their fly in the most likely lies for the longest time usually finds the most steelhead. But steelheading also seems to be a streaky game, where you might have the hot hand today, or this week, but can lose it just as easily.

As our discussion unfolded, Justin told me a great story about a mutual friend of ours, let’s call him Dave, who had the hot hand for a couple of days on their recent trip. He was having amazing success and was starting to get on the cocky side of confident. When a couple of other mutual friends met them on the river one day and asked how the fishing was, Dave shot back quickly with a number that almost seems laughable in steelheading. It was the truth. The effect was horrible, the exact opposite of the effect when I threw a number at Justin to describe my recent fishing day. The other friends had been on a bit of a slow streak, not touching a fish in a few days while exploring new water. Their hope and confidence were already at the very fragile end that only someone who’s gone a long time without a steelhead can understand. Dave’s number was the final straw, and they were mentally beaten that day before they even made a cast. They may have just reeled up and gone back to the hotel. Everything worked out over the balance of the week, but Dave learned a good lesson about the meaning of numbers.

It's a lesson that we all probably need to be reminded of once in a while.

Next time, before I drop a number, I’ll try to think of everything else that leads up to how the person/people I’m talking to or writing for might interpret that number. I‘ll probably think of what might happen if my number gets passed on to someone I don’t even know. I’ll remember that if I tell someone at the wrong time, or if that person doesn’t have the experience required to have the proper or intended perspective, then that number might just do more harm than good.

Happy New Year everyone!

Take Care and Fish On,

Pic Of Day

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