One last cast. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that to myself. Often, I say it multiple times before it’s my actual last cast. I always hope to catch a fish and walk off with a catch. Less than a handful of times has my last cast resulted in a caught fish. This last time, I landed a fish, a very good fish, but I don’t know if I can claim it as a caught fish. I am referring to the odd and unfortunate occurrence of the “foul hook.” 

A foul hook is when a fish is hooked in another part of the body then the mouth. It unfortunately is a relatively common accident that happens when you fish, especially fly fishing. Foul hooking is also a common topic in fly fishing forums, question on podcasts for experts, and discussions in fly shops across the country. For a sport that has intellectual, scientific, artistic, and somewhat spiritual aspects, accidentally hooking a fish in the fin or body is borderline embarrassing. Anglers in these forums seek to understand why it happens and how to eliminate or at least reduce the occurrences. 

Beautiful Gunpowder Brown Trout

How stressful is it for the fish? Should you try to dislodge or break off the fish quickly? Can you take a photo of landed foul hooked fish? Is it considered a catch? These are some of the typical questions asked about foul hooks. There are lots of theories on why they happen. Anglers speculate that foul hooks occur when a fish touches a fly but doesn’t eat it, and the angler sets the hook. Others state that when there is a slow hook set when a fish actually eats the fly, and by the time the fish is hooked, it has spit out the fly and you snag the fish. If you are fishing multiple flies on one rig, fouls hooks seem to occur more often. There are no definitive answers for why it occurs, but it is an unintended consequence of fly fishing. 

In my blog, I relate fly fishing to my life, and I try to express how I see how my decisions in life are mirrored in all I do, especially fly fishing. Unintended consequences are present in each of our decisions, our preconceived notions, and our deeply held beliefs. The introduction of many exotic species into our ecosystems has had tremendous unintended consequences. The presence of the brown trout in the United States was entirely by purposeful stocking to provide an additional game fish for anglers. The brown trout are beloved by many but have also pushed out other species such as native brook trout in eastern streams. John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Non-native and invasive species are an obvious example of unintended consequences. Other examples include energy use selections and waste products, like acid mine drainage and greenhouse gas emissions. Public policy and politics also have obvious examples. Not all unintended consequences are bad, and sometimes accidental discoveries change the world for the positive. Our lives are each likely to have examples, too. I began to think about unintended consequences in my life. They are hard to see at first. The cause and effect are often not closely connected in time, so it is harder to connect all the dots.

Parenting and the lessons I teach my kids are connected to moments that are likely to have unintended consequences. Lessons that are too strict or restrictive can cause children to build resentment, question authority, and test limits. I often did things I was explicitly told not to do. I’ve heard so many stories from friends on things they did challenging their parents’ rules. However, without specific expectations set, children can feel uncared-for, misled, or lacking direction. Too much freedom can also have unintended consequences. 

A primary goal I have maintained as a parent is to ensure my kids feel loved, can explore their creativity, and can think, communicate, and act through stresses and important decisions. To understand that I can’t predict everything, and I can’t set up a perfect world is a helpful mindset to settle myself down. Thinking through second or third level consequences is a skill that aids learning and communication. Being able to teach my kids through the concept of unintended consequences and how to appreciate their possibilities is now a goal I want to complete.     

So, with my one last cast this week, I threw out a nymph rig under an indicator when I spotted a large fish. I couldn’t tell if it was a brown trout or a sucker from my vantage point. I was walking along a trail back to the car and didn’t have a good location to land a fish. I had no expectation of catching the fish; it was a “Hail Mary.” When the rig hit the water, it made a bit of a splash and was off my target by three to four feet. A smaller fish moved towards the upper fly and drew the attention of the larger fish. I don’t sight fish often, but it was exciting to watch the fish move and posture. The larger fish rushed to strike the fly and push out the smaller fish. I couldn’t believe it. 

Gunpowder Brown

I set the hook and it went for a run. I fought the fish but realized I had no way to land the fish in my current location. I had to scramble down an embankment and over some downed trees. I slipped on one of the trees and my rod dropped, losing pressure on the fish for a second. I thought I had lost the fish, but I regained my balance and lifted the rod. When I was finally well positioned, I realized the fish was now hooked on the tail with the lower fly. I netted the fish. I took a picture. It was my personal best on the Gunpowder River: a beautiful 15” brown trout. But was it? I had foul hooked the fish by the time I landed it. I experienced an unintended consequence, and it gave me a lot more to ponder than just a picture of a striking fish.    

4 Replies to “The Foul Hook”

  1. It sounds like you had an exciting experience! There’s lots to learn from things that don’t turn out as expected!
    I say a catch is a catch! Even if you bent down and grabbed it with your hand!
    Always a challenge and you seem to thrive on it!
    Enjoy the journey!

    1. There is definitely lots to learn from the unexpected, especially if we can observe with an open and curious mind! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

  2. The John Muir quote really resonated with me. It reiterates how things in nature are so intricately linked to one another. Mankind seems to think that certain species don’t matter. We tend to forget that even the tiniest organisms are necessary for other living things to survive. We also tend to forget how one small change can lead to bigger changes over time. And how those changes ultimately affect us.

    As a parent, it is often difficult to see those unexpected outcomes. We do the best we can. We prepare our children to the best of our ability. I have no doubt that your children know they are loved, and I have witnessed first hand their creativity, their ability to think intelligently and communicate clearly.

    1. Thanks Carla! It has always struck me that the connection points between cause and effect relationships are not always clear in a timely manner. The cycles of how nature work are sometimes very fast and sometimes very slow, so we can miss that the important connections truly are when they don’t match what we would expect to see. I really like the quote too. Teaching our kids to understand connectivity and to remain curious is very important! Thank you for commenting!

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