Standing over my client Rogers left shoulder as he roll cast his dry fly toward a slow undercut bank, I had been happy with his progression throughout the morning. A trio of wild rainbows in the net and a steady progression to consistently accurate and delicate presentations was rewarding for the both of us, but I had sensed a change in the last few minutes. An errant cast, followed by a tangle and a bit of small talk. I knew Roger’s focus was waning and I needed to get him locked back in if we wanted to continue to fool wild fish under increasing bright skies…
Focus, Confidence, and Persistence, terms usually reserved for successful athletes and business persons rather than anglers standing in a river or boat looking to un plug. I will argue however, that you can still unplug while at the same time upping your fishing success by elevating your mental approach. This will be the first in three articles covering each.
We will begin with Focus. This is a fly fishing intangible that can make or break a day on the water, and I’ll cover how focus or lack there of affects my own fishing below. The good news is that most people have the ability to focus hard for hours on end. While many people will claim to have a persistent lack of focus in everyday mundane tasks (especially myself) that doesn’t mean focusing on a specific task that one is passionate about is impossible. I know this because rarely do I have clients that are not locked into the moment. It makes sense, you are paying good money for a very high end experience with a knowledgable guide is who is also completely focused on the task at hand. Occasionally I’ll have the guy who can’t stop looking at his phone but it really is rare, thankfully.
The challenge is to match that focus on your own while on the water. A few ways to do this are to fish with others who like to fish hard and are able to dial in out there as well. Secondly you need to process your mistakes as learning experiences instead of failures. If you lose a fish don’t get mad, ask why? If you keep tangling a fly ask yourself what part of your cast needs improvement. This will keep your focus positively on fishing. Next is to take breaks, if you are alone, have a seat and enjoy nature, eat your lunch, walk up or down the river etc etc, but just enjoy being outside. If you are with others this is the time to joke around, talk, have fun, drink a beer, you name it.
When I guide, I build these times into the trip as I read their body language and attitude. In a drift boat I’ll have people reel in and relax while we float down a less productive piece of water. If I am wade fishing, I will often purposely get into the truck and drive up or down the river to a different area. Pre Covid, when we drove together in my vehicle, it would be a great way to take a mental break and just talk about whatever the client would like, now we will usually hang out on the tailgates instead, or relax on the river bank for a few minutes. In Roger’s case, I grabbed a drink from my pack and handed it to him, “it’s starting to get hot, lets have a seat and get hydrated before we get to the next bend, its a great little riffle and pool that holds good numbers of fish and occasionally we hook into a really good one. I want you to be completely focused when we get there.”
Why do I personally place such value on focus? Well it is what keeps me engaged while importantly allowing me to block out all of the other stressors in my life. Figuring out the daily puzzle, presenting a fly, setting the hook, netting a fish, when I have a rod in my nothing else is on my mind. I go to a place of complete focus and nothing else matters but the here and now. The sore back and tired eyes from the 4 am wake up are things of the past. I am completely in the moment, which I struggle with during the rest of my life. Being a father of three young kids and owning two businesses isn’t always easy, focusing on fly fishing is a relief for me to such an extent that fishing is more than a passion but a necessity. I would even go as far as saying a big reason why I have earned a spot on the USA Fly Fishing Team is that in a competition, despite losing a fish, or not knowing the water as well as other competitors, or having a bad draw, I can get in the moment and fish the particular piece of water that I am on as best as I possibly can with no distractions, while others seem to falter when it comes to crunch time.
Occasionally though I have a bad session on the water, and when I do its often a hot mess. There are times I am asking myself how can you call yourself a professional fisherman when you can’t even keep your flies untangled. Ask a few of the guys I fish with most and they’ll have some funny stories to tell. I can usually trace this back to lack of focus, and not being able to lock in and get completely engaged for whatever reason. I end up frustrated. I’ll miss and lose fish, repeatedly. I’ll lose flies in trees and spend lots of time unraveling tangles and soon I’m having a bad time. My personality is always to push through and fish harder, but I probably should take a page from my own guiding book and take a break or a drive.
Pure focus on the water will make you a better angler, and it will provide you with a more positive fishing experience as well as a much needed mental break from everyday life. Keep that in mind next time you hit the river. Next up I’ll go over confidence and why I am constantly telling clients they need to believe that a fish will eat their fly.