The Fine Art of Getting Skunked

My first fishing trip was one of those trips that always stick with you. A buddy and I met up halfway between where he lived and where I lived to do some walleye fishing. We only had a few days to get our fishing in and we were hoping to enjoy some solid fishing.

What followed was about two and a half days of absolutely terrible fishing. We tried everything and managed to get nothing, until the very last possible moment when my friend hooked into a nice pike.

We were both relieved to have caught something not only because we it meant we wouldn’t be eat mac and cheese that night, but it also meant that we hadn’t gotten skunked.

Getting skunked is one of those complex issues that anglers deal with. It shouldn’t be complex (or an issue for that matter), but it is. Among other things, it means something different to everyone. Some consider a skunking a day when you don’t catch the fish they’re targeting, others think of it as a day when they don’t catch fish over a certain size, while others still think it’s a .

For me, it’s simple. If you don’t catch anything at all, you’ve been skunked.

I do this because it doesn’t matter all that much, not to me, anyway. I don’t necessarily go fishing to catch fish, I go out there to explore the surrounding area, spend some time on the water and, if I’m lucky, catch a fish or two. If I don’t manage to catch anything, then I still spent my day exploring the surrounding area, I floated around on some water–or waded around in water–and I spent the day fishing.

(I always end up with a lot of scenery shots when I’m not catching fish.)

It really doesn’t get any better than that.

I’m in the minority, though. I realize that. Not only does it take A LOT for me to get really upset about something like not catching fish, but it takes a lot for me to say that my day wasn’t even worth the effort it took to get out there.

I think there’s a few reasons for this.

The first is that after almost 20 years as a writer, I’ve put hundreds of hours into things that people have turned around and been rejected, especially when it comes to writing fiction. I have spent the better part of a year working on something and having it shot down again and again and again (and again and again and again). Spending a few hours on the water and not catching any fish is nothing compared to writing a novel no one will ever read.

Secondly, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m still spending the day doing something I love. I will never complain if the fish are too small, too hard to catch, aren’t the right species or anything like that. It’s not worth the effort and, not only that, complaining and being negative just taints what is an otherwise great day of fishing. I just take more pictures than normal and enjoy the peace and quiet.

The biggest one, though, is that getting skunked means I haven’t figured it out yet. There’s something I missed during my time on the water and, whatever that something was, it would have been key to catching fish that day.

This drives me crazy. It fuels my desire to get back out there and try again. If I could, I’d be out there the very next day throwing every fly I have at those fish and I won’t stop until I’ve figured it out.

I’m one of those people who likes to have things figured. If I can’t, or if I’m not doing it quite right, I obsess over it. I mean, you should see me when I can’t remember a word or a fact. I get quiet, distant and I can’t stop thinking about it until it comes to me.

The same thing happens when I get skunked. I still can’t stop thinking about lakes that left me fishless years ago. I can’t stop thinking about what tactics might have worked, what flies I should have tried and just what, in general, I could have done differently to change my luck. They haunt my dreams and I make a promise to go back and make things right (which I nearly always do. I’m almost drawn to lakes and rivers that have skunked me and will fish them until I figure it out, like this lake for example).

Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated by it. When you’re on a fishing trip and you’re fishing hard for three days, but you don’t catch anything, that can be very frustrating.

But they’re not wasted trips.

Sure, you’ve spent some money you probably could have spent on something more practical. And, go ahead. Grumble about the fishing all you want, but don’t lose sight of the fact that just spent three days with someone you like enough to spend three days on a boat with (which usually means they’re a pretty good friend) and you’ve spent it fishing. And be careful you don’t ruin a perfectly good trip because you’re too busy grumbling about the lack of fish or the wasted effort/time/money it took to get out there.

I still think of that first trip as one of the best we’ve done, even though the fishing was tough (which has become something of a tradition for those trips). Not only that, but there’s a part of me that’s dying to get back to that lake and try again.

Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts on getting skunked. 

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  1. We’ve all been there and, you’re right, the experience is never really wasted, but a skunk will haunt you with all the might-have-beens until you go back and figure it out (sort of). Without the possibility of a skunk on our heels (whether it be in fishing or writing or whatever pursuit), we would be successful ALL the time, and bored. Thanks for putting this in perspective.

    1. I love the challenge of figuring out water that has stumped me. It really keeps the whole thing interesting, as you mentioned. I hadn’t even thought about the comparision to writing that you made. Sitting down and staring at a blank screen for a few hours is exactly like getting skunked, although I’m way grumpier when I’m staring at the blank screen than I do when I’m not catching fish.

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