I believe there are stages to a fly angler’s fishing career, periods of time when those who chase trout with a fly rod do it for different reasons.
Novice anglers strive to catch fish, working to figure out a game they have never played. The act of consistently hooking up with rainbows can seem utterly perplexing to those who haven’t caught fish on flies before. There often seems little reason for success or the lack of it. Most novices are thrilled to have a fish or two on a trip.
With time, however, order descends on the chaos and a novice’s eyes and ears begin to understand what’s happening on the surface of a lake and beneath it. With that understanding comes more consistent rewards.
Stage 2 anglers want to catch lots of fish — a couple or three in a day is no longer good enough. Now, dozens of fish are required to mark success. The higher the count goes, the better.
Anglers in this career period feel good when the day’s count hits double digits, as the number becomes a measure of their skill, proof to themselves or others they know what they are doing.
Next comes the quest for big fish. Numbers matter less,
Mystical five-, six- and seven-pounders are the goal. Eight and nine pounds — even better. More than 10 pounds is a dream.
With time, however, the zeal for the pursuit of big fish fades as well, bringing anglers to what might be the last stage of their fishing career and, perhaps, the most meaningful of them all.
After anglers have learned to catch fish, then lots of fish and finally big fish, fly fishers will come to seek out something entirely different, something that in many ways is unrelated to fish at all — quality experiences.
The hunt for quality experiences encompasses many aspects, from the choice of the lake to the company in the boat, as well as the nature of the day’s action.
Sometimes quality fishing will be found even when the fish are in short supply. Maybe the weather is perfect, the lake empty of other anglers, the company good and the scenery sublime.
Then, it seems to matter less that few fish take the bait.
There are no definitive milestones that tell us when we move into a new phase of our fishing lives — only we know. I’m not sure what stage I’m in, but I suspect I am coming around to Stage 4. I know I am valuing more and more the quality of a day and I don’t care as much about the number of fish caught or how big they might be.
I hadn’t thought it until recently and perhaps I would not have clued into it all, but for a couple of different experiences I had on our local lakes this season.
On one trip before heat domes and wildfires made trips to backcountry lakes more difficult, I found a new thrill after setting aside my rod loaded with my favourite chironomid and trusty strike indicator.
Even though trout were taking my suspended bead-head black-and-reds every other cast or so, I got bored catching the same group of 12- to 16-inch fish in the ways I have always caught them.
I pulled up anchor and found a new location in deep water, a spot on the lake I have never fished before. I rigged another rod with a sinking line and a pattern I had never fished before. I felt a surge of excitement when I caught a fish. It was a first, and first experiences are always powerful.
On another trip this past spring on one of our bigger, more popular lakes, I watched an angler sit in his boat over a small shoal in a tight little bay from 8 a.m. to noon. He never moved except to cast and recast his line. He caught a boatload of fish, dozens even, on almost every cast. Several other anglers crowded in around this fellow’s honey hole and many of them also caught fish.
I’d been cruising around the area looking for active fish, but hadn’t found any. Despite that, I felt no urgency to join the fray, even though the fishing appeared smoking hot. There was a time I would have rushed over and joined in the crowded action. I don’t feel that need anymore, nor see the reward.
Lastly, just a month or so ago, I had one of my best fishing days ever chasing wild trout on a small river with a good friend. The fish weren’t big, but the location was spectacular.
We were on a three-day trip. Our phones didn’t connect to networks and the sense of isolation felt sublime. The weather was great and even the bugs weren’t bad (well, not too bad). It was a combination that future trips will find hard to beat.
I expect I’ll continue to get pickier about my fishing trips as seasons pass and perhaps it means I will fish a little less. I understand more those seasoned old veterans who don’t bother stringing a line in April when the fishing is marginal and our ice-free lakes are super busy. I know better now how they can be patient and wait until May and June, when more lakes open, the crowds disperse and the weather improves.
I understand how they can leave a lake when things are cooking, content in the action they had. The quality of fishing can’t always be measured in numbers, either of hours on the water or the number of fish caught.
Sometimes, leaving with more means counting less.
Robert Koopmans is an avid angler and hunter who spends as much time as possible in B.C.’s wild places. He also hosts the Hunting & Fishing British Columbia podcast (find it on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.