The Psychology of Fly-Fishing: Managing Frustration

Written by: Justin Collmann

Justin Collmann, a clinical psychology graduate student, believes that fly
fishers can help manage their own frustration on the water.
Photo courtesy Justin Collmann

One October a couple years ago, I was standing at the lip of the first pool on my home stream in Shenandoah National Park and casting across the current to a fishy undercut boulder on the far side. No sooner had I dropped my fly in the still water behind the rock than my line got caught in the current, and my little dry fly was water-skiing, a nice V-shaped wake behind it. A brook trout actually stuck his head out of the water and asked, “Are you serious?” Then he splashed me with his tail.

Immediately I thought, “I should have been high-sticking” and began beating myself up about it. After spending every spare minute of my time fishing and tying these last few years, and spending a multitude of hours at meetings dreaming about fishing, I have observed the powerful influence of these types of statements on my fishing experience. I study clinical psychology, and in that field we recognize “should” statements as a type of cognitive distortion that skews one’s view of himself. In the case of the “should” statement, a person punishes himself for making a mistake or for what he is not accomplishing. Some classic fishing should’s are, “I should be catching fish right now” or “I’ve been fishing for years; I should have a longer cast.

This type of thinking merits reflection because most of us pursue fishing as a form of recreation. Although I acknowledge that fishing is a passion that for most fly fishers extends beyond the realm of a hobby, we fish with the intention of enjoying ourselves, and “should” statements have the power to interfere with our enjoyment. When a fisher uses a “should” statement, he begins a process that often results in a gradual slide towards self-criticism, irritation, and disappointment. One professor I had called this process “shoulding all over yourself.” This can really put a damper on the day, and it also introduces elements of our non-fishing life that we pursue fishing to escape.

Common Fly Fishing “Shoulds”

1) I should be catching more fish.
2) I should have a longer cast.
3) I should have a more accurate cast.
4) I should have mended there.
5) I’m in _________ (Alaska or some other hot spot), and I should have caught a monster by now.
6) I shouldn’t be missing so many fish.
7) I should be using a different fly.
8) I should be a better sub-surface fisher.

Working with the Shoulds

If some of the above statements resonate with you, there are some simple tactics that can help reduce some of the irritation that you feel after making a should statement. First, you can identify that you have just made a “should” statement. These thoughts are most likely to pop up after you make an error like a sloppy cast, poor presentation, or miss or lose a fish. They may also start to arise after long stretches of no fish in which you start to question your fly selection or skill.

After identifying the “should,” you can challenge the should with a variety of rational or compassionate responses. In the case of a sloppy cast, you might reflect, “Well, not every cast can be perfect. I’m human.” You might also say, “I’ve been fishing for a few hours now, I’m getting tired, and it makes sense that my cast is getting a little sloppy.” You can also take a break and focus on another task while you wait for your irritation to cool down. For example, you might sit down and have some water or a snack and observe a pool. You could also tie on some more tippet or organize the flies in your fly box. Taking a little time to cool down can really help let the irritation work itself out.

In the case of long stretches of no fish, you can challenge should statements with thoughts like, “Well, I guess the fishing gods are just not smiling on me today…oh well.” You might also consider other factors that are influencing the bite: “Last night was really cold; maybe the fish are a little slow today” or “This section gets a lot of pressure so the fish here may be a little spooky and reluctant to bite.” In general, you want to look for reasonable explanations of why you are not having success. Your technique or fly selection probably does contribute to the issue, but there are always other reasons, as well, that may have just as much or more influence over the issue as any personal deficits.

Finally, if you find yourself overwhelmed with should statements and the emotional fallout that they produce, it may be time to call it a day and head to the pub. You want to cultivate a strong association between fishing and fun, and spending extended periods of time fishing while frustrated or beating yourself up can cause you to associate bad feelings with fishing, just like you associate an alarm clock with irritation or the smell of disinfectant with a hospital. If you find yourself getting tired, hungry, and/or frustrated, focus your awareness on how you are feeling and determine whether it might be time for a nap or a beer.

Fly Fishing as a Learning Process

The main idea that I like to cultivate when I fish concerns fishing as a life-long pursuit that can never be fully mastered. Because it can never be wholly understood, each fishing outing is an opportunity to learn more about fishing and more about how I fish. When I make a bad cast, a poor mend, or don’t catch fish, I remind myself that I am just learning even though I have been fishing for years. The waters and fish are complex and sensitive to environmental cues and conditions that are often beyond our abilities to sense, let alone comprehend. So I always try to think, “No matter how many years I spend out here, I am always a beginner, always making mistakes, and always trying to learn.

Justin Collmann is an avid fly fisher and tyer. He is currently a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia and regularly writes about the psychology of fly fishing.

7 thoughts on “The Psychology of Fly-Fishing: Managing Frustration

  1. Eric English MD

    I usually blow off steam by cursing the fishing gods. Almost as good as hitting the pub. 😉

    Actually I do all that touchy feely stuff too after cursing the gods doesn’t result in more fish! Good article. Have I seen it before?

  2. Mark Barry

    I think it may be difficult for many of us to break out of our goals oriented cultural mindset when we recreate…whether fishing, hunting, golfing, etc. We spend so much of our time living with responsibilities and roles that are goals oriented that we are really programmed and shaped by that component of our lives. This mentality is not conducive to comprehending the “bigger picture” of why we really spend time outdoors doing whatever we do. To truly enjoy my time fishing I find I often have to coach myself on the drive to “just let go” and get into a more simple and clear mindset (as much as possible..I mean let’s be real we all have some fishing aspirations:) Having fewer expectations allows for less disappointment and more enjoyment when you do have a magical day. I should think it is similar to being a Cubs fan.


  3. Spencer Knibbe

    This is something that I struggled with early on…being a hyper competitive person it was very hard for me to get skunked and not get frustrated. As I matured and honed the craft, I not only experienced more success, but really started to grasp what the sport was all about…being outdoors and enjoying the company you are with. It truly became less about the fish….

    Thanks for the post!

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