There is a massive spectrum of fishing that is often grouped together into two broad groups of what is considered success, and what is considered failure. Often times success on one body of water hinges or is based on success experienced on another. How a day of fishing is perceived should be completely relative. There is no standard or precedence for a sport where the outcome is completely variable. This isn’t baseball or basketball, there are no points, and consequently no winner or loser.
My rule of thumb is to “fish the water” and “don’t expect anything more than the absolute worst.” That sounds a little pessimistic, but approaching it that way allows me to have “success” almost every time I go fishing. I say that in the most relative way possible. Assuming that I’ll catch lots of fish, big fish, or fish on dry flies is a dangerous thing to do. When assumptions like that don’t come true a solid day of fly fishing can’t be fully appreciated. Instead I enter every trip with an open mind that allows me to meet everything head on and experience it without comparing it to the past.
This ideology of fishing the water is based almost entirely on understanding where I am. Every stream, every lake, every body of water is different. That’s a big part of why fishing as a whole is so popular and addicting. There are some standards that are pretty acceptable across the board. Skinny creeks produce smaller fish than large rivers. High alpine lakes, where the growing season is short,produce smaller fish than lower elevation reservoirs. Famous tailwaters that are heavily pressured have smarter fish than obscure backwaters. Knowing details like that help me catch fish, but accepting them helps me have a good time doing it.
I remember taking a trip to the Appalachian mountains in the Pisgah National Forest when I was still a fairly novice fly fisherman. At the time I’d never even caught a brook trout so my Dad and I decided to spend a day on a little stream high in the mountains known for its breathtaking waterfalls and extensive network of hiking trails. The brook trout there were small, wild, and spooky. We spent a lot of time boulder hopping, crawling, and bushwacking to avoid spooking them. I’d never worked so hard for a handful of eight inch fish in my life. Often times they had trouble fitting the hoppers we were fishing in their mouths. There was a certain amount of disappointment from that trip that was largely based on a preconceived notion of what lay ahead.
Now I don’t know what my Dad was expecting. Personally when the guy at the fly shop told me they’d be small trout I imagined something akin to the twelve to fourteen inch trout I’d caught the summer before in Minnesota’s Driftless Area. That day of fishing was lost right then and there. Not when I was watching tiny trout swim away from me, or when I was losing hoppers in the trees left and right, it was when I began to expect something. Today crawling over boulders and shooting hoppers into smart trout with a bow and arrow cast sounds pretty awesome. It was a blue ribbon Appalachian trout stream and that’s how I should have treated it.
What I’m getting at is that there is no baseline for success in fly fishing. It is dependent on an inordinate amount of variables, only a few of which anglers can control. Accepting that fact, and basing enjoyment or success on the present not the past is when fly fishing stops being a hobby, and becomes a lifestyle.
Fish the water and don't expect anything.