How to become a better fisherman: learn to fail.

Failing in New Zealand. A particularly wonderful place to fail.
Failing in New Zealand. A particularly wonderful place to fail.

The biggest factor in me becoming a better angler over the last three years has been learning to fail.

When I started fly fishing three years ago I sucked. I could barely casts 30ft, I spent most of my time with my flies tangled in trees and stream-side vegetation. Generally it was a disaster for the first few months. If I hadn’t been intrinsically drawn to the artform there is no way I would have continued (advice to the novice- get some lessons, there are lots of great teachers out there- one of Aussie fly fishers “learn to fly fish” classes would have done me a world of good). But I just loved fly fishing so I pushed on.

In those early days there was still the ever present temptation to stop banging my head against a brick wall, to pick up the spin rod and actually catch some fish. Instead of buckling to the temptation, I simply got rid of it. I gave all my spin gear to dad and kept fly fishing.

What followed was a litany of failures. For a while, fishless sessions were the norm. For the first time in a long time I began to fail more often than not. In the beginning, there was a lot of passive failure. Simply giving up. As the day progressed and the fish stubbornly kept their mouths closed, eventually I would just stop trying. I’d give up. Sure, I’d still go through the motions, but I had essentially clocked out hours before hand.

Despite this, despite many a session aimlessly casting flies, no longer trying to catch fish. I kept fly fishing.

Eventually, through stubbornness, will or persistence, I started to get much better at failure. That is, I stopped giving up so easily. When things failed to go to plan, instead of just throwing in the towel, I started to rise to the challenge. I started to fish more and more casts over the course of a day. I tried more and more different flies if things weren’t working. I kept changing it up. Most importantly, I kept trying. I started to own my failures. From that, I started to learn a lot from my failures.

If you want to get better at failure, start chasing carp on fly. A lot of my early learning was done getting beaten to a pulp by my local carp. I learnt A LOT
If you want to get better at failure, start chasing carp on fly. A lot of my early learning was done getting beaten to a pulp by my local carp. I learnt A LOT

Sometimes, I’d even catch a fish. Sometimes the reward would come and make those failures worth every penny. I learnt more during some of those failures than I had fishing in a long time.

As good as it gets. New Zealand's successes were particularly sweet given the hardships we went through at times.
As good as it gets. New Zealand’s successes were particularly sweet given the hardships we went through at times.

It was at that point in my progression as an angler that I learnt an important lesson. Not all failures are equal.

Giving up. Thats a worthless failure. You don’t learn anything by giving up.

Failing while trying your guts out. That sort of failure is valuable. Really valuable. Its part what makes us better anglers. The truth is, there is often a lot more to learn during a bad session than during a good one. Bad sessions give you the opportunity to work through problems, to find solutions. They mean you are fishing outside your comfort zone. Its when we are outside our comfort zones that we learn the most. Battling through those hard sessions, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, is how we improve as anglers.

By taking up fly fishing, I had forced myself outside of my comfort zone and slowly, the broader rewards were starting to bear fruit. As I progressed as an angler, all the lessons I learnt while failing meant I no longer failed as often. In success, I started to realise the importance of all those early failures. That my attitude towards failure had changed and I was a better angler because of it.

Turns out, over that first year of fly fishing, I had gotten good at failure. I had learnt to almost “enjoy” failure. Not necessarily because its was fun, sometimes failure sucks massive balls, but because it was a challenge, a problem to solve, a chance to learn. Failure was valuable. That change in attitude meant I learnt faster, that I caught more fish.

In time this “appreciation” of failure built up a strange, persistent form of confidence. Eventually, even on the deadest, bleakest days, I was confident I would catch fish. Partly due to this change in attitude crafted through many hours of failure, more often than not, I did. By focusing on how to fail well I had stopped “failing”. Most importantly, when failures happened, and they do, to everyone, I brushed them off, I bounced back. In the past, it hadn’t taken much failure to dent my confidence, but my new confidence was a far more resilient kind. It stuck around, it took a beating and popped back up. It was confidence forged in failure.

By appreciating and “embracing” failure, I fished for longer, tried for longer, fished more casts, gave up later, learnt more in the process and ultimately caught more fish.

Of course, I still give up. I still throw in the towel and go into auto-pilot. I still find myself utterly defeated and completely lost for answers from time to time. Of course, I still love sessions fishing in the comfort zone, sessions where you can turn your brain off and just fish, assured of success. I still love easy successes. The major difference is that nowadays, I’m far more open to fishing out of my comfort zone. I no longer dread fish-less sessions. Nowadays, when things aren’t going to plan, I don’t just give up. I try to rise to the occasion. I try to fish hard. I try to learn from the experience. I try to succeed. I try to fail well.

Defeated. It happens.
Defeated. It happens.

At least for a while.

So, as mad as it sounds, if you want to become a better angler, be it a fly fisherman, spin fisherman or bait fisherman, learn to fail.

Stop getting hung up on the fact you might donut and instead focus on fishing the s$%# out of it. Do that and you will catch more fish. And if you do fail, take comfort in the fact that at least you failed well.

Cheers

Hamish

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

One thought on “How to become a better fisherman: learn to fail.

  • April 3, 2015 at 11:17 am
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    My experience was quite similar to yours. I too got rid of all my spin stuff.It’s flyrods or bust for me. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment but I prefer to do everything for myself. I failed repeatedly in my first trips to the stream but I eventually figured it out. Taught me a lot about patience. Trying to catch carp in moving water on a fly is a loooong lesson in patience.

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