On Getting Skunked

Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

One of the few certainties in fly fishing is that all of us will occasionally wind up “skunked.” As experience, knowledge, and skill increase, this unpleasant experience becomes less frequent and less likely. But the possibility never goes away entirely.

It doesn’t matter how far you travel, or how much money you spend. You can always get skunked. Hiring a good guide, and being in the right place at the right time, can certainly stack the odds in your favor. But there is never any assurance of success in terms of quantity or size of fish caught. Or indeed of catching fish at all.

This brings to mind the famous line from Tom Hanks’ character in the movie A League of Their Own: “There’s no crying in baseball!” Likewise, there are no guarantees in fly fishing.

One of the greatest beauties of the sport is that, for the most part, we get to make up our own rules and definitions. Of course we must obey the fisheries laws, and if we choose to fish competitively we must comply with the rules imposed. But aside from such considerations, we can decide for ourselves when a fish is “caught” and what constitutes “skunked.”

My personal definitions are liberal and generous to myself. And why shouldn’t they be so? I very rarely use a landing net, unless I’m keeping fish for the pan. So I count a fish as caught if it’s still on the hook when I have my hand on the leader. If the fish flops off an instant later, it’s still “caught.”

I’m very egalitarian toward my quarry as well. A fish is a fish. It doesn’t matter if it’s a trout, a bass, a sunnie or a chub. Although of course I have favorites, I’ve never met a fish that would eat my fly that I didn’t like. In fact, I get a big kick out of catching as many different species as possible.

On any given trip or outing, I don’t consider myself “skunked” unless the fish totally ignore my efforts. Under my rules, fish that come unbuttoned while being played, missed hits, and even inspections-and-refusals all serve to erase The Scarlet (or should I say black & white striped) “S.”

I’ve had many students and guiding clients tell me that they don’t care if they catch fish or not. I’m sure that they believe it on some level. But although I’m far too polite to say so I always think to myself, “Baloney. You care. We all do.” Otherwise why go to so much trouble and expense? Why not just take a walk along the stream, unencumbered by all the gear? That’s not to say that you can’t have an enjoyable day without catching a fish or two, but no one likes being repeatedly skunked.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that many men fish for their entire lives without realizing that it’s not the fish they are after. This has become almost a cliché, but there’s more than a little truth in it. As with so many other things in life, there’s a balance to be found. How much to care about catching fish, how hard to work at it, and how much time to spend simply enjoying the environs in which we fish. I think that many of us shortchange the latter, and we deny ourselves a lot of pleasure by doing so.
I once worked in the education department at an arboretum near my home in the Philadelphia suburbs. As I developed my skills as a naturalist, one of the most valuable lessons I learned was the importance of “focusing down,” and taking notice of little things. For most people this skill is not instinctive, it has to be learned.

When conducting school field trips, we would gather the kids around for an “opening circle,” and ask them what kinds of animals they thought they might see during their time with us in the arboretum’s woods and fields. We got some very interesting answers from the younger children, ranging from fanciful notions about lions or tigers or bears to more realistic choices like deer, squirrels, or fox. I could never be sure if the kids felt more disappointed or fascinated when we showed them an assortment of insects, frogs, and salamanders. Most adults wouldn’t do much better. They might not expect to see any lions, but neither would they take much notice of the tiny plants and animals right under their feet.

Because of dealing with the insects and other fish foods that we seek to imitate or suggest, fly fishers have a big leg up on focusing-down. An inexpensive pocket magnifier encourages taking a closer look. It can open a whole new world for you. When the fish aren’t cooperating, take notice of the diversity of your surroundings, from the largest elements to the smallest—the sky, the stream, the rocks, trees, wildflowers, birds, and plants and animals of all kinds both big and small. Do this and you won’t mind quite as much when the fishing is slow. I believe that exercising my powers of observation in this way has made me a better and more effective angler.

There are as many ways to fly fish as there are fly fishers, we all make the sport our own. Our culture teaches us to be goal-oriented, and the goal in fly fishing seems to be catching as many and as large fish as we possibly can. Bringing an intense, laser-focus to bear on our fishing may seem like the best approach. It may be so for some people, but it’s certainly not for me. I want to relax when I fish, and I can’t relax if I’m working that hard.

I can remember times when I was much younger, when I had rising trout all around me and could not get a take. I would frantically cast, cast, cast and repeatedly change flies until the rise ended. Only then would it occur to me that perhaps I should have stopped all of that mindless activity, that wasn’t working anyway, in favor of just watching for a while. If I’d done so, I might have been able to figure out what was happening, and maybe even choose a fly and a tactic more likely to produce the desired result—a trout on the end of my line. At the very least, I would surely have learned something useful.

May your skunkings be few and far between, and may you take great pleasure in the simple act of fly fishing, regardless of the fish you catch—or don’t.

17 thoughts on “On Getting Skunked

  1. Paul Kruse

    The author is 100% correct that slowing down and taking the time to observe your surroundings is NOT instinctive, especially in today’s fast paced world. I find myself being angry for not doing just that when out trout fishing. If you work in today’s business environment most understand the previous statements. I get way to caught up in the “how many” I catch aspect of our sport, without trying to sound like a big braggart, I do better than most on my foray’s into some beautiful trout country of my state. I now consciously try to take more of the beauty of my surrounds in, so I am not left with the somewhat empty feeling of the “how many”.

    Reply
    1. Mary S. Kuss

      I’m sure you’ve heard the bit about the stages of a fly fisher. First you want to catch a fish, then you want to catch a lot of fish, then you want to catch big fish, and only after you get past all of that are you ready to “smell the roses,” so to speak. I believe it’s largely a matter of shifting one’s focus from being goal-oriented to being process-oriented. It’s best to truly enjoy the process of fly fishing, regardless of the result. Do this and you’ll catch just as many fish, it just won’t feel as much like work.

      Reply
  2. Judy W

    Another great article, Mary. I try to be patient and enjoy the surroundings when being skunked. Some times it’s hard though, you get caught up in that mindset of catching!

    Reply
    1. Mary S. Kuss

      Thanks, Judy. We all want and hope to catch fish every time we go out, that’s perfectly natural. The trick is to accept a slow day with good grace, to keep eyes and mind open to what can be learned. As Margaret Clarke, a DVWFFA member who is now wetting her line in a heavenly stream once wisely said, “When you go fishing, take all your hopes with you but leave your expectations at home.”

      Reply
      1. Paul Kruse

        >“When you go fishing, take all your hopes with you but leave your expectations at home.”

        Duly noted…Thank you!

        Reply
  3. David Boyer

    I was out a couple of weeks ago with my Granddaughter on the surf in SoCal, one bite between us. But having a great day with my Granddaughter fly fishing, was not SKUNKED!

    Reply
  4. J.S. Weber

    Anyone tie flies with that skunk tail?
    Replaces raccoon, opossum and bear. Stiffer than marabou and possum, softer than bear.

    Reply
  5. Michael J Vorhis

    Enjoyed your article Mary. It’s a ticklish subject, and one we tend to turn the channel on, in our minds, when we’re daydreaming about being on the water. I find that as long as I fail to realize I’m getting skunked, the sweet suspense continues and each new cast and drift still hold promise, still holds possibility. Of course I’ve had a lot of practice shutting out the “skunk in progress” realization.

    On the positive side of this kind of dynamic, baseball pitchers strive to shut out the realization that they have a perfect game in progress. I figure if they can do that, then I can fail to realize I’ve got a big fat zero in the works.

    I like your suggestion about counting any and all species in the ‘catch’ tally. To avoid logging a skunky day I’m somewhat liberal with the species I count, often including juniper, spruce and pine.

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. Paul Kruse

      I too can prune pines with the best of them Mike. My philosophy is if you not getting caught up once and awhile you’re probably not putting the fly in the correct spot for a higher percentage of takes. Risk vs Reward! Glad to hear I’m not the only one out there.

      Reply
      1. Michael Vorhis

        > Glad to hear I’m not the only one out there.

        Far from it Paul! I’ve denuded entire stream banks over a period of months. I think of my fishing style as more of a scorched earth policy.

        – Mike

        Reply
    2. Mary S. Kuss

      Thanks, Mike. I’ve had students ask me when they will stop catching their flies in trees. I tell them, “When you stop fly fishing.” Bob Clouser, who has a devilish sense of humor, used to have in one of his slide shows a “Rogue’s Gallery” of fly fishing celebrities caught by the camera with their fly in a tree. After a while he quietly removed it; I suspect that some of those guys weren’t amused.

      Reply
      1. Michael Vorhis

        Hilarious, Mary! I’d love to have seen those slides. And your response to that common question is perfect.

        Your article seems to have struck quite a chord! Sixteen comments and counting…looks like getting skunked is the topic we all know but never discuss–the odorous black-and-white elephant in the room.

        – Mike

        Reply

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