I’m now in my mid-forties, and here’s a quick summary of what I know about life. . . .
In my mid to late teens, I knew everything. It seems that many teenagers latch on to this defense mechanism. As life opens up and opportunities abound, it’s one way to deal with the flood of the world’s collected knowledge crashing in on you.
You’ve got a lot to learn, kid.
That’s alright. I already know everything.
In my twenties, I’m not sure if it was work, college or relationship failures that opened my eyes most to the fact that I really did have a lot to learn. All of it made me feel lost sometimes, but that uncertainty could always be fixed with knowledge. I’m a researcher. And while I was in my twenties, the internet began growing into an endless database, just when I needed it most.
In my thirties, my wife and I had our two boys. And there’s nothing like marriage and raising kids to keep you in check, to force the realization that your ideas are not always best and that your knowledge-set is incomplete. It seemed that everything I knew was suddenly open for a challenge.
And then, somewhere around the time I turned forty, there was another change. I grew more self-assured. But it wasn’t the baseless arrogance of a teenager anymore. This time, the confidence in my own ways came from experience. It was an embedded conviction about who I am and what I know, founded on a lifetime of learning, on being humbled and being wrong, then studying, exploring and discovering things all over again.
With each iteration, our wisdom grows deeper, rudiments are ingrained and the inspirations for new theories are mined from a deeper quarry. Life builds up, and after a while, you trust what you find inward more than constantly searching outward.
There’s no greater paradigm for all of this than fishing. For me and for so many others, the constant of a rod and reel in my hand, through each decade, has reflected it all — youth, middle-age and (some kind of) wisdom. And while no good angler believes much in absolutes, the theories we hold, based on good common sense and decades of insight, can become pretty damn solid.
So, no matter your age, I ask this question about your fishing:
Who knows better than you?
Consistently good trout fishing is so elusive that the mysteries seem unsolvable, even after thousands of miles traveled and a thousand more trout to the net.
If you do find it easy, then you’re probably fishing a setup. (Club waters, pet fish and starved stockies don’t count for much.). But you might have a group of wild trout dialed in for the better part of a season. Maybe it’s a midge hatch every summer morning, or a streamer bite on fall evenings, for one hour on either side of dusk.
But it will end. That’s what’s so special about chasing trout. Like the wings of a mayfly spinner, predictability is a fading ghost.
So then, anglers cling to the stories and accounts of others. We believe in the experts. We want masters of this craft to exist, because then we might learn their answers.
But again, who knows better than you?
I ask this not of the beginner, as the answer there is obvious. Instead, I ask it of you, the angler who hikes far and fishes further, who chuckles at gear reviews covering new products released just a few months ago. You’re an angler who studies deep and plans your next headwaters trip to a local river as a journey for discovery. You’re the fisherman who ties the next batch of Pheasant Tails with a new twist, attempting to accommodate your last struggle on the river with a solution. You solve puzzles. And you’re open to getting skunked in an effort to test something new.
So who knows better than you?
Should you trust the local fly shop manager? Should his position behind the counter mark him as an authority on the subject? Call it 50/50. Because sometimes, the best bullshitters make the best salesmen too.
Every industry has its range of self-made experts who’ve simply seen a gap and decided to fill it. I’ve heard tales of authors, propped up by the biggest publishers in the industry, who couldn’t fish a lick, once they were outside of private waters. And it’s well known that many fishing writers are better with weaving words than with tying knots.
READ: Troutbitten | What To Trust
What about the YouTube celebrity who catches fish after fish with each new video? Movie making is two parts magic and one part audacity. Never forget it.
All sports encounter this confusion of true expertise. But fly fishing is an exceptional oddity. While golf and even B.A.S.S. tournaments have a system that may allow the best to rise to the top, trout on a fly is not similar. There is no money in competition fly fishing. So, are the winners the best anglers? Probably not. They’re the ones who choose to spend enough money and enough weekend hours competing, paying travel expenses and entrance fees into a notoriously imbalanced system because they either enjoy it or they wish to make a name for themselves. Fair enough.
Fly fishing is starved for true experts, because there’s no good system for finding them. So too, some of the best anglers I know want nothing to do with merging their fishing into a career. They simply wish to fish.
Author, expert, designer, presenter or champion — the internet allows for the creation of identity, and rarely is that identity the full truth.
So who knows better than you?
Learn From Them All?
Looking back to my twenties and thirties again, I went through long phases of research, where I bought all the magazines and books, and I watched films about fly fishing in every style.
Learn from everyone — that was my goal.
But even back then, I turned off the flow of information for long lengths of time. And instead of looking elsewhere for the answers, I looked inward. I’ve always had a trust for my own experiences on the river. I think we all should. Otherwise, what are we learning out there?
Now in my forties, I’ve grown into another kind of seeker. While common wisdom suggests assimilating the ideas of others, to learn from the best, sometimes I don’t want my own thoughts or ideas cluttered or squashed by the methods of anyone else, because they might not know better than me anyway.
Sure, I’m forever curious about the way other people fish. But I also know what a dead drift looks like — unmistakably. I can tell you where a nymph is in the water and if it has drifted across seams by the end of its course. This knowledge is something I stopped questioning, years ago, and it provides real insight into what works and what doesn’t.
I know there’s no perfect fly or leader formula. And I know that fishing well requires an attentiveness and skill that sometimes I just don’t have. It’s on those days that I fall back to the muscle memory of casting, stripping and drifting. And instead of trying to push forward and learn more, I simply relax into the experiences I’ve gained, trust myself and hope for a willing fish.
Who knows better than you?
For your waters, for your situation, for your goals — for your gear, for your abilities, your desires and your needs . . . no one. No one knows better than you.
And as a dedicated angler, seasoned by success and hardened by failure, you’ve earned it — you owe it to yourself to cease the endless doubt of your skills and your choices. Because no one knows your waters and your fishing better than you.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
Excellent article, Domenic.
Why put pressure on yourself to live up to the expectations generated by others advice? I use to do this a lot. I remember reading an orvis report on the battenkill in VT. It said something like “small bugs are the norm use small nymphs” I tired and failed. Once I put on a #8 pats I caught a really nice brown and then continued to catch them. I should have known better but I let those conflicting thoughts take over. Really relatable read Dom.
Nice article as usual.
I’ve reached a stage where I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my abilities to catch wild fish on unfamiliar waters. I credit the knowledge learned from your site with a large part of that confidence. Learning to read the water to locate holding lies and eliminating barren water has improved my efficiency as well.
Troutbitten is the best resource I know of for fly fishing.
Nice piece, and yes we all end up learning the “hard way” via trial and error. However, with Troutbitten we can skip some steps.
Learned a lot from this site and have adapted it to smallmouth fishing in central IN, where we have no trout.
You always have a well thought out point of view, and worth a read.
My regards to you, from Derbyshire.
So well put as always. I find myself going through mini-phases of research, application, and development into many different aspects – from tightline tactics, to sinking leaders, to the best situational dry fly, leader formulas, etc..
I love learning from other people. But I really love learning from myself. And combining someone else’s experience with our own firsthand experience, builds a skillset that is both insightful and concrete.
It also helps to think outside of the box, when, well, you are outside of the box.
This is so great and so true:
“I know there’s no perfect fly or leader formula. And I know that fishing well requires an attentiveness and skill that sometimes I just don’t have. It’s on those days that I fall back to the muscle memory of casting, stripping and drifting. And instead of trying to push forward and learn more, I simply relax into the experiences I’ve gained, trust myself and hope for a willing fish.”
Great article, gets you thinking about where you’ve been and where you’re going. One of the most rewarding discoveries for me was the realization that there is no one right way, no hidden formula that always works, no style or fly or dogma that must dominate always. I was surprised at how happy that discovery made me, instead of exasperation, the over-riding emotion was the freedom of a never ending journey. The joy is in the challenge of exploring, assessing, using the tools you have, learning in the moment, adding to your toolbox, and of course, in catching fish. I was surprised to find that my best day on the water in terms of fish to the net was sometimes accompanied by a slight letdown in how easy they came, it was no longer a hunt but a harvest. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it immensely, but there was missing that challenge that makes you dig in your heels and move another step and make another cast or try a different fly or technique. When that little change produces a fish, somehow the satisfaction of having learned and used that learning is even greater than the days when it comes easy. Loved the read. Reminded me of all that. You’ve captured well the joy that is one’s own journey in fly fishing. Thanks as always for all your great content and insight.
You make a great case for taking the time to keep a fishing log. Memory is notoriously unreliable, so if we are to learn from experience, it is hands down the best way to reflect and remember. I have been keeping a log for over 50 years with countless iterations. I have in recent years settled on a style of log influenced by Gary LaFontaine. Far from a traditional log, this style cross references fish caught with any number of important categories. As a DFO angler I record each catch of a wild trout 15″ and better cross referenced to the following:
River/reach, Month, Water level, Water temp, Water type, Fly pattern, Fly type, Bug imitated, Time of day, Light, Wind, Weather, and Moon phase. The results reveal patterns that otherwise would go unnoticed. And once the log is set up as a Word doc, recording catches requires just a few minutes using a color coded “X” for a fish from one of five length ranges. Clearly not for everyone, but this cross referenced log had paid off immeasurably for me. Your thoughts on keeping a log?
I’m impressed with your log. Would like to know more about it. Do you have file you could send along?
No problem, more than happy to send you a copy – I just need your email.
Rick – I started doing the exact same thing about 5y ago. I also make sure to note what failed and what lessons I learned from that session on the water. I have a separate log for trout, smallmouth, and the surf/salt. I can’t emphasize how much this has helped me dial in and recognize trends, improve my catch rates, and overall become a better angler. I’ll go back and read my log from several years ago here and there and remember important things about leaders I tried, rigging tactics, etc. that I had forgotten.
One of my most helpful logs is my LOST TROUT LOG. I use it to pinpoint the reason(s) I lost each fish that either unbuttoned or broke off – and the remedies for fixing my mistakes. Sometimes you do everything right and they just beat you, but more often than not it is angler error.
“Your thoughts on keeping a log?”
I think it’s great. I kept one for many years. But once I was on the water almost every day, I got out of it. I simply didn’t have the time to keep up with it. Also, when I started writing all the Troutbitten material, I ran out of time for keeping a good fishing log.
I need an assistant . . .
Yep, it’s sustainable fishing once a week which is the frequency I can do now with work and family. If I was fishing daily I don’t think it would keep it up, at least not daily.
Thanks Dom, for articulating these insights. It echoes a point Trevor brought up in a recent podcast — maybe the grievances one? — about trusting your own experience on the particular waters you fish. I appreciated that point.
Like many have probably done, I’ve spent a good deal of fishing time trying to fit the river in front of me to whatever schema or framework I’d most recently encountered in fly-fishing texts and materials, or in the words of people I’d assumed knew better. But that’s how you learn, I suppose, when you finally let your experience guide you to an objection: “Hey, that idea does not pertain here…” This is even more applicable when you don’t hire guides, and have few fly-fishing obsessed friends.
I read a quote long ago that was me when I was young but fits in nicely with your theme . paraphrasing …”When I was 16, I could not believe how dumb my parents were and when I turned 20 I could not believe how much they learned in 4 years”.
Fits my fishing now… and btw, your kids will go through this as well so hang on until you smarten up:)
As for experts… a mentor of mine said “they’re the people from out of town with a box of slides.” In this world now it’s those with a website… your site it the exception because you have no pretense of total expertise but let us follow along on your journey of exploration and improvement so we can do the same.
This is the best Troutbitten article I’ve read in 5 years! It’s all your fault Dom, that I’ve never been skunked in the Catskills and Upper Delaware since I’ve been following you. HEY NOW !
I enjoyed the article. But I think the comments regarding competition fly anglers is a bit unfair to guys like Devin Olsen and Lance Egan. I’d put them at the top of any list of the highest performing.
Respectfully I think your reading of this is wrong. My observations of the fly fishing competition scene are fair. It’s not a system setup to NECESSARILY have the best anglers in the country rise to the top.
That said, my commentary should take nothing away from guys like Devin and Lance. They have clearly added to the bank of knowledge and are excellent anglers, no doubt. But I honestly don’t judge that on medals won. That’s just my take.
However, Devin and Lance may not actually know better than you. You should believe that. That’s the point.
This article made me think about some pretty important stuff. Thanks for the provocation. Specifically, I thought a lot about comps. I agree with you about the purported excellence of comp anglers. However, I think that, although Croston may not be the best fly fisherman in the world, comp angling in general has exerted selective pressures on the sport that have resulted in numerous improvements. It is undeniably true that FIPS rules are frequently arbitrary. There is no reason not to use an indicator, for example. But the height of a net in tennis is also arbitrary. Both sets of rules serve as constraints to make competitions relatively objective. And both sets of constraints enable a kind of free market, producing much innovation.
Last year there was a mini-comp on my home waters in which I competed. Some of my competitors were seasoned comp anglers, including on who is on the US team. This angler won the comp, not because she was lucky, but because she is really, really good. I doubt that she would be as good without the pressure created by the comp world.
Thanks for the comment, Alex. I always appreciate your thoughts.
I won’t try to debate comp fishing here. It’s not for me, but that doesn’t matter. If you or anyone else enjoys competing, that’s fantastic — whatever motivates anglers to be out there.
I’d like to quickly address two of your points:
“. . . comp angling in general has exerted selective pressures on the sport that have resulted in numerous improvements.”
I agree, some things are great — like tungsten beads and sighters. But I’m not so sure that all things seen as “improvements” are actually good for the industry or good for anglers. Many, many people fish under FIPS rules, unknowingly, thinking that it’s the FIPS restrictions that make tight line systems work. I’ve been through a lot of this before, but refusing to use split shot or indicators, going extra light with leaders and tippet, using flies that lack proportion, long spacing between two flies, specialized rods that are extra long and extra light are all things that have come from the comp scene. And I’m no so sure they are general improvements.
I have a couple articles about this:
“This angler won the comp, not because she was lucky, but because she is really, really good. I doubt that she would be as good without the pressure created by the comp world.”
That may be true for her, but not the rest of us. I’ve pushed back on this notion since 2014, the beginning of Troutbitten. There seems to be a misconception among some groups of people that if you are serious about fly fishing (especially the tight line game) then you will compete. Or, that the only way or even the best way to learn these skills is to compete. If an angler is the kind of person that needs competition to motivate them, then yes, I can agree with you. But there are many of us who are serious, dedicated, curious anglers who pursue these and other tactics without the prodding of competition at our backs. We do it for the discovery, for the problem solving and for pure satisfaction. Lastly, what we learn might be drastically different, and perhaps even more effective, than a competition scene that is bound by FIPS rules.
Thanks for the thoughtful answer.
I would really like to see a free-for-all, no rules competition (with the exception of no snagging, no cast nets, no dynamite, etc.) pitting the spin, gear, bait, fly people all together to see who could pull the most and biggest fish out of a particular beat/stretch of water. Will never happen but I think it would be fascinating to see/watch.
Would you really want to see a Blitzkrieg waged against wild trout in a relatively confined (wader friendly) ecosystem?
I assume this was tongue in cheek.
However, the advances in gear, lures, tactics, and techniques brought about by competitive bass fishing through B.A.S.S. tournaments truly revolutionized the sport. But a huge set of differences: the enormous size of the lakes and reservoirs could sustain an occasional tournament and the fish (aggressive bass) and the use of gear matched the vibe of a competition. Turning the contemplative sport of fly fishing for trout is just a bad fit for most of us.
great article.. when you mentioned chuckling at gear reviews, just so true, made me smile.
Excellent article Domonick. Beyond it’s fishing application it is one of life’s lessons well worth learning and teaching to our children.