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The Overlooked Asset
When fly fishing, your prime assets are not the hardware you are using or the new, neat casting style you learned - it is something far less physical.
Ask any group of anglers what they believe to be the most essential component of successful fishing, and one would most likely hear dozens of different answers. Ask the same question to a group of flyfishers, and the number of answers would be even greater. The replies would likely range from various forms of equipment, technique, fishing conditions, and so forth. Are any of these replies wrong? Of course not. Each individual has his or her own strengths that he or she can rely on in a given situation, and the angler has come to realize these strengths through an extended learning process. They have come to rely on these areas because they have resulted in success.
Not equipment, not technique
For myself, the most important component of successful fishing, and flyfishing in particular, affects the previously mentioned areas and many, many more. It isn't a certain piece of equipment, although it influences the use of equipment. It isn't any given technique or environmental condition, although it improves all techniques and removes elements of doubt in adverse circumstances. With it, one can cast farther and more accurately, fight fish better, read new waters with a greater sense of comfort...and this is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What I am describing here is an intangible, an attitude that all flyfishermen should strive to incorporate into their craft. I'm talking about fishing with confidence.
Reaching a certain plateau of confidence can be much easier than most people realize. There are a few steps to take a flyfisher in this direction; a few are obvious, but a few are much subtler. Let's take a closer look at each one and how they fit into the grand scheme.
Time on the Water
First and foremost, in order to become confident at flyfishing, one simply has to get out there and fish! This may seem ridiculously apparent to some, but it has never ceased to amaze me over the years how people complain about the difficulties of this type of angling after only trying it for a very short time (in a few cases, minutes!). It's very unreasonable to expect to pick up a new skill set and be competent with it in an abbreviated period of time. This does not pertain exclusively to flyfishing. Think about the skills and basic abilities required to walk for the first time, to ride a bike for the first time, to drive an automobile for the first time...the first attempts at these activities are rarely pretty, but the vast majority of people don't give up on their initial goals. If they did, most of us would be crawling around on all fours, even fewer would be riding bikes, and only a choice few would have the throughput to conquer the abilities needed to drive a car. It's simply a matter of priorities. Most of us feel the need to walk and to drive particular vehicles, so we have put in the necessary time and effort to afford ourselves these capacities.
Flyfishing should not be treated any differently. After reviewing the previous examples, it would be ludicrous to think otherwise. In order to progress in this pastime, it is plainly evident that an angler must work through trial and error and learn from mistakes. I am not suggesting that one dives into the pursuit blindly. There are countless books, magazines, videos, and people who can provide invaluable input for improvement. But only the practical application of this information can help one to learn what works best for him or her, and this process can only begin by spending time on the water. By doing this, a flyfisher can commence and continue to absorb know-how through personal circumstance. This inevitably leads to the next component of confidence building, an accumulation of individual flyfishing experience.
Experience is loosely defined as knowledge gained via direct observation of or participation in a particular activity. Let's delve into these two components separately so that we can compare each one's impact and overall importance.
The power of observation cannot be understated. As previously mentioned, there are a host of media available today in the form of books, magazines, videos, and websites that can provide an array of information on just about any flyfishing-related topic. I confess to being one of those who has accumulated a rather large library of books on the subject, who has a few magazine subscriptions, who owns an instructional video or two, and who visits relevant internet sites. Despite all of these resources, I still believe that the greatest amount of experience to be gained through observation is accomplished via personal interaction with other flyfishers. Like the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and seeing another angler perform can shed new light on old subjects and open one up to new avenues of thinking. When two flyfishers put their heads together, the combined knowledge is not equal two that of only two people. Each has his or her own set of skills and experience, but there is inevitably an area of overlap between the two. This area of overlap is strengthened a great deal when two people are drawing from it, so the combined knowledge and skill are probably closer to that of three or more people. To expand upon one's experience, it certainly pays to be open-minded with other anglers. As an added bonus, many great friendships are born of this process.
Unfortunately, experience gained through observation doesn't go nearly as far as most people think it will. In fact, without hands-on participation in the area of study, it won't go far at all. Practice of basic flyfishing skills and theory is necessary to challenge the experiences gained through media and other fishermen. What works for one angler may not necessarily work for another, and vice versa. I can easily recall the first time that a friend and I went flyfishing in salt water. Our heaviest flyfishing up to that point in time had been with 6-weight outfits, so we knew that we would have to make some adjustments with our new 10-weights and casting the larger flies. After some time on the water, we realized that a majority of what we had studied regarding the use of these heavier outfits applied very well to me, but not to my partner. He had a bad rotator cuff in the shoulder of his casting arm as the result of an old football injury, so the recommended casting strokes were very uncomfortable for him. After some careful analysis, he realized that a slight hitch in his casting motion allowed for comfortable casting without compromising accuracy or much distance. The casting that worked for me wasn't right for my friend, but hands-on practice yielded a very good substitute. The best part of this experience was that my buddy made the same change to his flycasting in all other situations, and has since become much less fatigued in his arm after long hours of fishing.
It's apparent that both types of experience are valuable, but it should now also be apparent that one suffers without the other. When combined, these two learning processes will inevitably lead a flyfisher to success. The definition of success varies from person to person, but once achieved it will begin to generate a very useful and powerful tool: confidence.
By now the role of confidence and its place in the World of flyfishing should be getting pretty clear. Let me use myself as an example. When confronted with a certain fishing scenario, I adapt and draw upon my past experiences that have worked in similar situations. I feel comfortable with the area and have faith that there are fish there to be caught. I firmly believe that every cast I make is going to induce a strike. Before you think that I'm being immodest, let me continue. By having faith in my presentation and believing that a fish is going to take each time, I'm very prepared for those times when the fish actually does strike. I'm focused, prepared, and rarely caught off guard. On those occasions when I do miss a strike, I find my error is usually one of a lapse in concentration. You can probably guess what I do with these mistakes. That's right, I chalk them up to experience!
I don't allow myself to blame my equipment for any poor fishing that I encounter. While I don't spend thousands of dollars on flyfishing equipment, the outfits that I have invested in all go through routine maintenance to maximize their use potentials. Small tasks such as line cleaning, knot checking, and hook sharpening further enhance the faith that I have in my gear so that I have a certain comfort level on the water. To reuse my example from above, when I miss a strike from a fish I'm almost certain that it isn't due to a dull hook or a poorly tied tippet knot. Well-kept equipment is a good shot in the arm for any angler's confidence.
By drawing upon experience, an angler can realize more success and enjoyment in this sport. This applies to newcomers as well as seasoned veterans. As confidence builds, he or she will believe that there's a bass beside every stump, a trout in every eddy, and a striper in every rip, and they're all catchable. And the great part about this learning process is that it's cyclical. By enjoying greater success and having more confidence, the flyfisher will want to spend more time on the water. And spending time on the water is where the whole process originates. What better reason is there to get out and fish? So maintain equipment, continue the learning process, have faith, and above all, have some fun!