Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury MN

If nothing else, the river will teach one humility, “brutally and repeatedly” as one of my fishing partner’s says. Another friend says, “It’s not that I am opposed to learning, I’m just not that good at it.” I don’t know about you, but every once in a while I have to plead guilty to that statement. I have been a slow learner on humility. Let me share some of the situations that have helped me get this lesson firmly embedded into my psyche.

Picture of my son with his 4.5 lb., 24” brown
Picture of my son with his 4.5 lb., 24” brown

In 1997, our family decided to take a two-week camping trip to Yellowstone National Park. The only reason I remember the year is that our oldest son was 16 and could help with the driving. We left after work on Friday night and arrived early afternoon on Saturday having traveled about 1,100 miles.

I had managed to sell the idea that the kids were old enough to enjoy seeing the natural wonders in the park. I had been there twice before and was looking for a good reason to return. Of course, I did not dwell on the fact that it offered some fantastic trout fishing as well. No matter, that was going to become imminently clear as time wore on.

The weather was almost perfect. It rained nearly every night for the entire two-week stay, but only a couple of times during the day. By the fourth or fifth day, the normally crystal-clear rivers looked much like coffee with cream. Undaunted we continued to fish each day.

On this particular day, it rained steadily the entire day. We decided that donning raincoats over our waders and fishing would be more fun than sitting in the tent rereading the content labels of our food stash. The three boys were casting various spinners. I stuck with my fly rod and flies.

The fish were clearly not on a feeding binge, but the boys managed to pick off a brown trout every so often. Nothing of any size, but enough to keep everyone engaged. I tried all sorts of different flies with the same result – nothing. Undaunted we continued to fish.

My oldest son is an optimist and continued to cast quite fervently. Eventually his optimism was rewarded by a solid hit. He set the hook and the water exploded as the fish initially thrashed on the surface. It looked like he had hooked a small alligator. Then it turned and surged to the bottom. Fortunately, my son is a fairly experienced and managed to land the 24”, 4 ½ lb. brown. The fish was considerably larger than my biggest.

His nearly ear-to-ear smile in the picture above clearly summarizes the thrill and excitement of the moment. But, that was not what struck me. Moments after releasing the fish, he looked at me and said with a firm tone, “That’s not fair.”

Confused, I asked, “What’s not fair?”

Without any hesitation, he said, “You have been trout fishing a lot longer than me. You should have caught that trout.”

That statement put a glow in my heart. He was sincere, caring, and showing humility. I was a proud father at that moment. I reassured him, “It’s ok, I enjoyed watching you catch the fish. I hope someday I can catch one like that. But today was your day.”

Success in fishing often follows the quote from Lefty Gomez, a baseball player: “I would rather be lucky, than good.” Becoming good at anything is a worthy goal. However, someone who is lucky can be better at any the moment. Or, another way to put it is, “luck often trumps skill.” I find that an inexperienced angler often catches the biggest or the most fish. If you can’t cheer for them, you miss the moment. To me, part of the joy of fishing is being able to enjoy someone else’s success with them. That requires humility.

The river also teaches humility in a crueler manner. I have been trout fishing for nearly 50 years. Every so often, I think I have everything figure out. Especially after an exceptional outing. A couple of months ago I set my all-time record for trout in one day, catching 63 fish that day –pretty amazing. I was feeling smug about that, but, reality reared it’s ugly head about a month later when I returned to one stretch that earlier yielded 30 fish. This time I caught two trout and one of them was a 4” new-of-the-year fish. Time to go back to the drawing board.

A similar thing happened a couple of years ago. My wife was being a good sport and going with me a couple of times the past two summers. Despite numerous close calls she had yet to land her first mid-teen trout. The night before I took a good friend to one of my favorite evening stretches. We fished side-by-side. My friend worked from the middle of the river to the shallow side while I worked the middle to the deeper side. Fish were rising everywhere. A decent cast to a rise almost always resulted in a take. We both caught 5-6 nice fish in the low to mid-teens and numerous other trout.

The next night I got home from work. The weather was just like the previous night. I thought this was the perfect chance for my wife catch her first nice trout. So, I convinced her to go back to that stretch with me. Everything seemed just right. The weather was perfect. Warm enough that a long sleeve shirt was enough to stay warm while not over heating when walking to and from the spot. We arrived at the stretch and it was immediately apparent things were not the same. There were no fish rising. Undaunted I was confident we would find and catch a nice fish. After all, last night was like falling off a log.

Not so this night. She worked hard. We covered the water thoroughly and caught two small trout. Needless to say, my wife was pretty dubious about my claims for the previous night. On the bright side, it was a great night and she enjoyed our time together despite the lack of results.

After connecting the dots of these experiences, I learned my lesson for good. Every outing should be treated as a new beginning. No assumptions or promises based on previous results. It’s okay to start with the flies that worked the last time. But, if they don’t work after a reasonable amount of time (20-40 minutes, depending how patient you are), it’s time to start trying something different. In the end, the river and the fish decide what it will take to be successful (if at all). My job isn’t to predict what will work. As one of my friends says all the time, “you have to crack the code” every time you hit the river.

I find that when I approach each outing with the attitude of “cracking the code,” I am much more inclined to pay attention to the conditions and start experimenting sooner when my starting set of flies don’t work. Coming with an attitude of humility helps me be more open to changing and adjusting what I do until I “crack the code” for that outing. Those who refuse to humble themselves will rarely “crack the code” and often will catch few if any fish. The choice is always yours to make.

5 Comments

  1. Terrific commentary Joe. I too believe in and try to adhere to the idea that each given day represents a new need to decode the stream–each given hour for that matter, as things can turn off, or on, or change, just that fast.

    I find it hard to relate to your descriptions of failure though, Joe, which still seem to include the netting of at least a couple of fish. It may be the water I have access to, but I will admit that getting completely skunked is far from unfamiliar to me. Even one fish of just about any size can often turn an otherwise failed morning into a success I can savor. “At least I fooled one wild thing” becomes my consoling mantra.

    On outings when I come up empty, I just tell myself that cup of humility is getting tastier by virtue of its familiarity. I come up with some new theory or other that I can latch onto as a lesson learned, and then I spend the next few weeks pining away until I can get back and act on it. If it works, I build on it; if it serves up more failure, well, next time, and some new strategy.

    Again, thanks for sharing those stories and thoughts. In hang gliding we used to say, “Altitude is everything.” Well it’s true with trout too, minus the L.

    – Mike

  2. HI Mike,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, I am a little jaded. The rivers I fish are very prolific. To be honest, in the past 15-16 years I have been skunked 4-5 times. Three of those were consecutive in the pre-season of 2104 (March to the end of April). Those three outings were painful but led to an observation that “cracked the code” and lead to my blog on “bobber fishing” with flies.

    So I agree with you, failure can drive us to better solutions after you drink a cup or two of humility.

    Some even go so far as to say, “I don’t care whether I catch a fish. I just enjoy being in nature.” Apparently I have not arrived at that level of maturity yet. I still hate to get skunked – but I have made it a point to enjoy the beauty of nature while getting skunked. Maybe with a few more decades, God permitting, I will get to the point where getting skunked doesn’t bother me.

    All the best, Joe

  3. Well I dropped my expectations years ago, from “catching” to “fooling.” If I have something on, here or there, I can accept that. At least fooling them validates my learning, knowledge, choices, effort and presentations. It’s when it seems like the water is barren of all life that I go home thoroughly disgusted. Like you I can’t quite take the leap that zero is good enough.

    Of course even zero beats a day at work. That much I’ll agree with. : )

    – Mike

  4. Joe,

    Indeed Salmonids can be humbling. You related this: “A couple of months ago I set my all-time record for trout in one day, catching 63 fish that day –pretty amazing. I was feeling smug about that, but, reality reared it’s ugly head about a month later when I returned to one stretch that earlier yielded 30 fish. This time I caught two trout and one of them was a 4” new-of-the-year fish. Time to go back to the drawing board.” Salmonids are migratory by nature, and given the opportunity and space to move to better water or better feeding is something they do on a regular basis. The Madison River in Yellowstone is notorious for this. Miles of the river will be devoid of anything but dinks one day and loaded with big fish the next. Despite impressive numbers of fish per mile touted for the Firehole easily caught in June, go there in July and August and the river will be empty as most of the fish have retreated to cooler tributaries. I had a similar experience on the Madison this Spring. One day on the river just above Ennis Lake produced 26 16-20” fish. A week later, the same stretch of river was absolutely empty. Unless I’m taking someone to a stocked pond (which I never do), I never promise the same experience I had weeks or months before—the trout rarely cooperate in that.

  5. Hi Mike,

    Good point. No doubt this contributes to some of the difficulty of getting “reproducible” results on a week-to-week or month-to-month basis. However, on the Midwest streams I fish, there are fewer options for movement as the water is much smaller. Given that, it would be surprising for migration to explain the two nights in a row case with my wife. Unfortunately, without a shocking study on each day it would be hard to prove whether either case were true.

    The main points are “don’t count your fish before you fish” and be prepared to adapt at a moments notice. As Michael pointed out above, things can turn on and off in a matter of hours on a single day.

    Thanks for the comment and great point.
    All the best, Joe

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