Allow me to start with this point: I don’t count fish much. And most of my friends don’t either. When I do choose to keep an accurate tally, I do so because it’s valuable information toward the goal of improving or learning a tactic — because, ultimately, the real seal of approval comes from the trout themselves.
Furthermore, when I do count, that doesn’t mean I’m competing with anyone, because I can count my trout without giving a care about yours. And finally, when I count trout, I don’t lose track of the other things that are so special about fly fishing. Just because I know how many trout I touched doesn’t mean I can’t see the inherent beauty of the woods and the water, being grateful for the experience.
A few weeks back, I published Episode 8 of the Troutbitten Podcast, with the following title: How Many Trout Do You Catch? Expectations, the Liars and Reality. (If you haven’t found that already, give it a listen.)
It was a great discussion with my friends that centered around these key questions: What is possible on the water? What is the bar? And what are the factors that affect that bar or the range of possibility? Essentially, our argument is that it’s good to know how we might develop fair expectations out there. No one hits the river and catches a trout every two minutes. But we can probably do a lot better than a fish every hour or so.
I knew the podcast topic would be misunderstood by some, and I wasn’t surprised to draw a few comments against the idea of counting trout to the net. Truthfully, I think most of these commenters failed to listen to the podcast or read the companion article, instead grabbing their opinions from the title or a cursory listen to the audio. Because, in fairness, we addressed the same points that I did above. And we did it over and over.
No, counting isn’t the only thing. It’s not even the main thing out there. Catching a pile of trout is most often not the goal. But to deny that numbers in the net matter is disingenuous — and it’s kinda silly.
Everyone counts. Yes, everyone. Anglers have a round idea of how many trout they stuck. About ten, maybe fifteen. This is what we hear back at the tailgate. And yes, some guys like to keep a precise record — “I caught thirteen brown trout and two brookies,” they tell us. What’s the difference? Not much, because every angler has an idea of how things went on the water. Whether you count with precision or you know where you are in the ballpark, is it really that dissimilar?
Even if the number is three . . . well, you know it, don’t you? And would you rather that number was ten? Yeah, probably.
But, I suppose, it all depends . . .
Thoreau’s philosophical take on fishing has been brought up too many times in this discussion about counting, and I’ve seen it referenced no less than a dozen times in the last couple weeks.
“Many men go fishing all their lives without realizing that it’s not the fish they are after.”
That’s great, Henry. And yes, we know this. I think every Troutbitten reader, long term angler, or fisherman on his first pair of waders realizes that the trout are not the ultimate prize. It’s the experience. It’s the wild. It’s the chase. It’s the friends and family that we fish with. These are priceless things we fish for, every day on the water.
But Thoreau wasn’t saying that fishermen shouldn’t count fish, either. It’s nowhere in that favorite quote, is it? And it’s not in the hearts of most long term fishermen. Because it’s the trout that bring us back to keep learning. We want answers. It’s the puzzle, the mystery, and it’s knowing that better presentations catch more and bigger trout. Has your drift improved since last season? There’s only one opinion that matters. The trout have to say yes, and that’s what we’re after.
Likewise, I don’t know anyone who is satisfied with beautiful casting by itself. And I’m lost when anyone suggests that fly fishers should prize the art of casting above catching trout. Huh? To put it another way, there’s not a fisherman alive who would refuse a trout at the conclusion of that beautiful cast.
So we acknowledge that catching trout — and finding their approval — is the motivator. This is fishing, after all.
As we pursue trout and aim for perfect presentations that convince, it certainly matters if we catch one, five, ten or twenty.
One trout is luck. Three or four signals that we’re doing something right. And a few more trout starts to be enough data to dial in a tactic, or a water type, or a fly pattern. This is the true joy of fishing for numbers. With enough response from the trout, we can honestly learn the trout habits. We aren’t lucking into a couple fish. Instead, we’re refining a system that meets the trout on their own terms. What are those terms? Catching more than a few trout is the only way to find out.
One, Many, Big, Tough, One
When you start talking about numbers, anglers like to bring up another maxim of fishing. You know this one:
First we want to catch a fish. Then we want to catch a lot of fish. Then we want to catch big fish, then we look for the toughest fish. Then we just want to catch a fish again.
I think those stages are true. But after we’ve been through those stages, most of us jump back and forth between them again. I leave my home, sometimes, with one thing in mind — to go catch a big boy. Other times, I arrive streamside with no intentions other than to spend time on the water with my sons or my Dad, and to catch a few trout. But plenty of times, I’m back to trying to catch a bunch of fish again. And always, it’s because the goal is to improve my skills, and I want that feedback — I want a record of how well things went.
Now That’s a Good Drift . . .
Learning is the primary motivator for most long term anglers. And learning needs the positive reinforcement of a fish at the end of the line.
So don’t take the counting away from people, and don’t judge If numbers of trout in the net are their motivator. It’s fine. Let it be.
Show me a lifetime angler who’s never had any interest in how many trout they caught. They don’t exist. It’s disingenuous to pretend that numbers don’t matter — not just to some, but to all anglers at some point. Because numbers in the net is the only real guage we have out there about our skills.
For many, I think their resistance to counting is the same one that I have. Counting fish can be obnoxious. Too many fish counters use their numbers as an ego boost. Lying inevitably follows, competition and comparing become the motivators, and things spiral downward from there. But that’s not a fishing problem or a counting problem — it’s a people problem that really has nothing to do with fishing.
There are plenty of us who know the fish count when it really matters. However, that count is only for us, or for sharing with trusted friends as we gather more data, to learn, to refine and to improve our craft.
So . . . counting is part of the experience, as is the sound of cool water flowing and blending with the whispering wind at the peak of the pines. Yes, we enjoy all of it.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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