In Defense of Catching and Counting Fish — Why numbers in the Net Matter

by | Dec 12, 2021 | 9 comments

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.

Ep 8

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 . . .

Thanks, Thoreau

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.

READ | Troutbitten | Two Sides to Every Fisherman

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.

Dumb Luck?

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.

River is watching you.

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Angler Types in Profile — The Numbers Guy

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.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. Dom,

    Great article. After many years of fishing, starting with panfish, then moving to bass, I was first enamored with numbers then on to size. When I took up trout after my son was born, I quickly figured out it was a different animal. With trout, my worries were focused on not getting “skunked”. So, get the first in the net and then focus on my style to get more. Didn’t always work, but it was fun.

    I enjoy pretty much all trout fishing offers, whether in the stream or floating the Bow River. I’m outside with friends enjoying nature’s beauty. It’s good, just have to catch that one trout though!

  2. Numbers (10, 20, 30, 50+ fish days) has always and will always be the result of a fine-tuned NYMPHING game in trout dense waters. The wide variety of “nymphs” appeal to trout of all sizes and they elicit takes from virtually every behavior: feeding/hunger, curiosity, reflex, territorialism, and more. Not to mention having the capacity to access every water depth in the river, an advantage over other methods if “numbers” is the goal.

    The dry fly angler is much more dependent on eliciting true “eats” from feeding fish, or at least trout that are looking up in anticipation of a meal. The DFO angler tends to go put hoping for a (at best) a good hatch and happy surface feeders or at least, a day of hunting for those individuals that go unnoticed by most. If we count anything, it is the numbers of bugs we see and the number of true eats we can elicit. Of course we know how many trout came to the net at the end of the day, but no need to bring a mechanical counter because the fingers on one hand, maybe both, is all we ever need.

    On most days, the streamer guys seem to be happy to count looks, chases, swipes, and the occasional hook up.

    I once read that in order to bring the nymph angler intent on “vacuuming the stream” back down to Earth, all one had to do was to tell them that only trout 16″ and larger could be counted. Ha!

    To each his own, as one man’s ceiling (dry fly eats) is another man’s floor (nymph eats).

    • I disagree about the dries. I have a lot of great days, just prospecting with dry flies, where they clearly outperform nymphs. Essentially, my approach to the water is to do what is working best — most days. And plenty of times, that’s a dry fly approach.


  3. Counting has always been something we start out doing when we were novices. Then it may have progressed to keeping a journal on the vital statics of the day which would include numbers and size of fish. And it is still a validation that you are doing the things necessary to catch fish. What I don’t like is the attempt of being dragged into a competition. Numbers should be a indicator of competence, not bragging rights especially since two anglers may not be fishing the same method. This year I devoted my Largemouth bass fishing to poppers. And boy did I learn a lot. Broke preconceived notions I harbored for years and validated other methods I had read about in the past. My partner wanted numbers. That is fine. I wanted to learn. That’s where counting is mixing apples and oranges.

  4. Hi Dom, I have another variation of Thoreau’s quote, can’t remember how long ago I heard it or who said it, but it sums up my mature fishing philosophy-
    “The joy is in the fishing, not
    the catching”.
    I also firmly believe that just like in the mechanical business I helped run for 40 yrs and preached to Svc techs, “The learning Never stops”. Same goes for Flyfishing. Thanks for all your great lessons- and Merry Christmas! Rich H

  5. The Tug is the drug. ( for me anyway)


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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