ENGLISH PHILOSOPHER John Milton thought that luck was the residue of good design. Thomas Jefferson, a noted rationalist, once remarked: “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Larry Bird and innumerable golfers chime in on the relevance of constant practice to getting the lucky break. All of them would probably agree that those who don’t work hard, over time, are very rarely lucky.
It goes without saying that on most days conditions are just not conducive, that for every one day of good fishing there are four that would have been just as productively spent sitting and sorting through the old flies. And so of the many anglers over the years I’ve been lucky enough (there it is again) to guide and fish with, the ones that had those spectacular days — when the fishing was obscenely good and they did almost everything right and fished themselves to exhaustion — were the ones who had spent the most time on the water. To the unnannointed, it looks like luck.
Talk about all the parts and pieces that are assembled in a prototype of the “expert fly fisher” — dedication to the craft, patience, watchfulness, and confidence — and you’ll describe all those less-than-robotic qualities that are nevertheless as quantifiable as nuts and bolts. The photo of Del Brown that begins this article is quite telling. If you look closely, you can see that hole he had patched in his favorite fishing pants (just to the bottom right of the reel). It’s not that Del was unusually thrifty; after all, he fished more than 90 days a year with Florida Keys guides. But Del saw virtually every piece of his gear — including his clothes — as something worthy of attention. Del embodied a kind of post-Sixties mantra that I created for myself and any angler who could understand: ‘Be There and Be Square.’
The ways that an angler can err are infinite. The most common are not practicing, not focusing on your quarry, and being obsessed with something other than the moment at hand: your tackle, the barometer, the moon phase, your guide, your shoes — you name it and some angler has let it ruin their fishing.
Some of the most humorous situations in fishing arise from a long stretch of bad luck. The irony, though, is that it’s only funny when it happens to good anglers. That’s why John Gierach and Thomas McGuane can make us laugh at fishlessness and our neighbor’s sour report on his Bahamas trip just makes us grimace and ask for our sand-filled fanny pack back. Somehow the good ones make us feel that either better days are just minutes away or that the alternatives to fishing are too bleak to consider. (By the way, whenever you read about fishing that is “pretty good” and never absolutely, wretchedly awful, the author is prevaricating; it goes along with Tom McGuane’s rule never to read an author who uses a middle initial.)
Lots of anglers, even the best, can point to extended slumps in the not-so-distant past. Sparse Grey Hackle immortalized his in “Fishless Days, Angling Nights.” The sport is not for impatient people. Patience reveals the “invisibles” that once shown are never forgotten, like how getting an emerger up a little higher in the surface film will draw a strike, or knowing when exactly on the tide a flat will show fish, if fish are there. In fly fishing, patience hardly ever goes unrewarded.
When I was 30 years old, in the middle of spring fishing, I contracted severe mononucleosis. Unable to sleep for more than a few hours and running a 103-degree temperature for 10 days, I emerged a physical wreck. (“You’re luck,” said my doctor. “Really?” I said.) But I had to work, so after getting reasonable assurance from my grave-faced internist that the exercise alone wouldn’t kill me, I crawled out of bed and back up onto the poling platform and spent a good portion of each day lying on the back seat cushion of my skiff hoping my clients would still write the check.
The following year I guided 302 days. I didn’t really set out to do it, but I needed the money. So I fished constantly, for weeks in a row. Days off became oddly painful, because I was unable to shake thoughts of what the fish were doing on that particular tide with that particular wind that would tell me to be in a certain place. It was easier just to keep fishing. One day after fishing for 72 days in a row I decided to go back out on the water by myself and fish all night for tarpon. The only thing I remember worrying about was whether I’d use up my stash of chocolate brown flies that I knew I’d need when I picked up my client at 5:30 AM.
Halfway through this marathon of guiding, I started getting lucky. I started to notice things I had never noticed about the tides, and I started to see fish do things I’d never seen. I started guessing and being right more. Even though that year was one one of the stormiest on record, the light and the wind seemed to always help us. Even my anglers were fishing better. The fishing was so good that I made an extra stop or two each day at places I had never explored, and we never didn’t find fish. I had extreme confidence in my knots, my eyesight, and my skiff. Every day when we left the dock, I knew we would catch fish, I just didn’t know how big or where.
This is the only personal evidence I have of how luck gets started. But I also know the feeling of how luck fades.
The first thing you start wondering about is whether your timing is going, but in fact that’s the least of it. It took two years after I retired from guiding and moved to Montana for the poling calluses on my hands to disappear. As they did, something went with them. That softness worried me desperately, more than line cuts and hook gouges and fish teeth ever had.
These days I sometimes fish with the same tackle I used as a guide. I’m banking on the fact that it still holds some mojo. But not long ago I brought a large tarpon to the side of the boat and was exerting that last “I’m sick and fed up” pressure to pull the fish backwards when the nail knot slipped and the butt section and leader noodled off with the fish. I almost mumbled “Bad luck.” But I should have re-tied that three-year-old knot. It would never have happened while I was guiding.
The wonderful thing about luck is, once you get it, you never really lose it — you just occasionally forget where you got it in the first place. Then you work hard again and suddenly you can do no wrong. Maybe that’s why it gets easier and easier to say, “I was lucky.”