A return on investment, whether that investment is time, effort, money, or all of the above is often thought of in terms of an immediate success. We live in a results-driven economy and society.  Regardless of whether the effort is a business, movement, sport, or activity there is often an expectation that the outcome will match or exceed the expectation.  But that is not always true, especially in fly fishing.  Sometimes the result of the effort to research a stream, tie the anticipated flies, get your gear together, drive to the stream, and actually fish is not catching any fish.  Skunked.  Other hobbies, sports, and activities have different names for the same result: a stinker, on the schneid, the goose egg, the donut, the shut-out, the failure, and some other not-so-family-friendly terms. 

I have been skunked fly fishing somewhere around fifteen to twenty times in the last five years.  It has happened to me most often when fishing somewhere new for the first time or when I’ve had only a short time to fish. Getting skunked hurts, especially when you know the fish are feeding and present. When you have traveled a long way to get to the stream, it’s even more frustrating.  I begin to doubt my preparation, skills, and focus as time extends and I haven’t caught a fish.  There are many lessons to be learned while fishing but not catching fish.  But they are learned through what can be a pained lens.  I try to be more observational, more patient, and more experimental.  I have found that I get better during these moments, but it is frustrating, and I get down on myself.  

This weekend I made a special trip to western Maryland to fish the Savage River.  I have previously fished there three times and gotten skunked each time.  The Lower Savage River is a picturesque tailwater that is largely pocket water.  I haven’t had much success yet on pocket water and spring creeks.  They require skills I haven’t acquired yet.  I wanted to face the pocket water skunk and get rid of it.  I read and reread the tailwater section of Tactical Fly Fishing, and it helped me develop a better strategy for breaking down the water.  I also knew the water temperatures were safely low (in the 60s) to fish for trout.  So I left my house around 4 a.m. and drove three hours to Luke, Maryland.  Besides the Gunpowder, the Savage River is the most well-known trout stream in Maryland.  It was getting to me that I hadn’t caught a fish there, and I felt like I didn’t even know how to fish it.  It would be very helpful to hire a guide, but my pride wanted me to figure this one out on my own.  

I arrived at the river in a public access location, and no one else was on the river yet; that felt like a minor victory to start the day.  I kept telling myself to stay focused and relaxed: no pressure, just a day on the river.  But I could feel the pressure of the skunk.  I switched between tightlining, indicator nymphing, and dry-dropper fishing depending on the water in front of me.  One and a half hours into my fishing, I hooked into and landed a nice brown while tightlining.  I netted the fish, took a picture, released the fish, and threw my hands into the air! I could do it! The skunk was gone! Probably a little dramatic, but it felt like a relief and a victory.  I felt like I’d improved and that I didn’t give up.  

I thought back to things that motivated me to improve different skills throughout my life.  I was in martial arts for many years in my youth. The times I didn’t perform well at a tournament or lost a match stung me and propelled me to work harder and to look at my performances and preparation more critically.  Part of me didn’t like feeling embarrassed or less-than and part of me just enjoyed the learning to improve myself.  As I continued fishing through the morning, I only caught one more fish.  A beautiful and fierce looking brook trout (my personal best brookie).  I hooked a few other browns but didn’t land them.  I felt like I was learning and improving.  The ride home felt great, replaying the time on the river as a relaxing time and a relief. I remembered back to my time in martial arts, where I finished in 8th place my first tournament and I worked until eventually I finished first in a national level tournament. I felt a similar level of satisfaction to beating the skunk.    

When I got home, I decided I would write this week’s blog on getting rid of the skunk.  I looked up skunked and fly fishing on the internet.  I found two excellent blog posts that approached the topic differently, but in great ways.  The first blog is from wadeoutthere.com and is a wonderful two-part series on the benefits and growth from getting skunked. Jason Shemchuk, the blogger, points out how to focus on improving hook sets and fishing at the same location repeatedly to learn and fine-tune your skills.  He also talks about how the only way to get better at fishing is to have more time fishing.  All the time, regardless of outcomes, adds to your improvement as an angler.  The other post, from Gink and Gasoline, is a great story on how the pressure builds as you sense you may get skunked, particularly on a cross-country trip to catch Steelhead.  

As Jason states in his blog, “If you believe that the key to progressing is more time on the river, then each day counts. Even if you are skunked, you accomplished the important task of knocking out one more day on the journey”.  This is true for most goals and for living a full life. Committing to and recommitting to improving and appreciating your journey is a key to growing and being engaged in life. I have tried to develop some habits around when I get skunked and even sometimes when I have more fishing success.      

Things I use to help myself learn from the skunk:

-Take notes and record the trip and think about the lessons learned

-Talk to other anglers on the river and try to learn from them

-Take photos of the stream and make mental notes of things I observe

– Sit from time to time and watch the stream, appreciating the sights, sounds, and smells

As long as you are pursuing some goal and participating in life, the chance of a skunk is always there. Our perception or superstition that somehow luck is against us doesn’t help us progress.  As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” 

For my personal journey, I realize that I need to minimize being hard on myself, appreciate the journey more, and learn from the results but not dwell too long on when I come up short of my expectations. I am too hard on myself. I recently heard an interview with Malcolm Gladwell where he stated that for any project he works on, he tries to value the total effort as the combination of 80 percent the process and 20 percent the reaction to the effort.  No matter the result, if you’re enjoying the effort, it is always a benefit. I think I’ll give that a try and keep enjoying my days on the river.  

5 Replies to “The Skunk”

  1. I have been living in a “skunked” space, I think. But I had never heard the term before. But it makes sense, that it starts to gain a power over us, to make the moment less about the being in it and more about the conquering it. Not an easy thing to do, to keep working at something with no “obvious” results other than in the doing of it. I like this sentence and think it’s words to live by, “Committing to and recommitting to improving and appreciating your journey is a key to growing and being engaged in life.”

  2. Another excellent set of observations and experiences! For a moment, I thought you and a skunk met while you were fishing! That would not have had a good outcome!
    Learning from our disappointments is powerful!
    You use your whole being while fishing! No part left out! What a gift!
    Now I am rethinking me being skunked by a groundhog!

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