When I Don’t Catch Fish, Who Cares?


Not long ago I fished with a famous guide who often helps outdoor writers gather information for stories. The first morning was great—lots of fun. I got a story and some good pictures for a magazine article about this particular pattern. The next morning the weather changed, but we didn’t.

Doing the same thing in the same places, we only managed to catch a few short fish.

“Do you write about days like this too?” he asked.

“Well, I allude to them once in a while, but I really don’t write about them.”

I didn’t say anything else. But I was wondering who would want to read about that and how would that help anyone?

I don’t get this question often, though I have heard it a time or two from other guides. It bothers me every time I hear it because the implication is that the outdoor media sometimes gives the wrong impression about fishing.

Nothing works all the time, every time, and no one catches fish all the time under every single condition. Some people, indeed, do get the wrong impression, and that can be tough on guides.

During my years of guiding, occasionally, someone would show up expecting to catch good fish on almost every cast. Invariably, they didn’t know much about fishing, but because they were “paying big money” to fish with a guide—also an outdoor writer—they expected the action to be similar to one segment of a TV show for their full eight hours that they were to be on the water. The problem was, even if we had a great day, they were disappointed. I doubt anyone wants to watch someone fishing for hours without a bite, just as no one wants to read about only the times one doesn’t catch fish or all the lures and methods that were tried that don’t work well.

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So, I write about what works, and I especially like to write about what I think will work for the average fisherman who doesn’t have the experience of a tournament professional. Beginners are usually the group with me when I’m guiding, and I’ll write about what works well for them because I figure that if one can catch a bunch of big fish with something that works, many can do so.

When you get right down to it, much about fishing is theory. I’ll never forget how my old friend, Robert Montgomery, put it. He worked for an outdoors magazine, and at the time we were float fishing for trout on the North Fork of the White River.

Robert said: “A fishing theory is something that works often enough to become a theory, but never often enough to prove it.”

There are so many variables in fishing that nothing is certain, and the difference between catching a bunch or a few often comes down to subtle variances in presentation, which can be extremely difficult to relate in any kind of media. In fact, a subtle difference in presentation is sometimes difficult to teach even to someone standing right next to you.

During guiding, the people who expected the most were usually those with the least experience and ability. I could put them on fish and catch a couple of fish to prove it, but it often took a lot of time and patience to teach them the variances of each presentation, how to detect a strike, hook-setting, etc. Writers, too, can become the subject of ridicule when someone tries what is suggested but they do it at the wrong time, in the wrong place or with the wrong method. I’ve devoted my entire life to sport fishing, and I know as much about it as most experts, but the only thing I’ve learned for certain is that about the time I think I’ve got them figured out, the fish do something different, especially in the bigger lakes.

I never “make anything up,” but I will admit that I accentuate the positive. If you want to hear about the negative, watch the news. Fishing is a never-ending puzzle, and a constant challenge. That’s why, as they say, it’s called “fishing” instead of “catching.” Besides, if I could catch fish like they do on a TV program for eight hours straight every time I went out, crochet would probably be a more exciting pastime. The truth is I catch few fish much more often than I catch a bunch; I catch little ones much more often than the big ones. That’s what makes it so much more interesting and fun when I do catch quality fish with some consistency.

And that’s something to write about.