I t’s been said that a serious angler goes through four phases during a fishing career. As time passes, I’m inclined to support this evolutionary theory.
During the first stage, the young beginner just wants to catch a fish. Pretty much any fish will suffice, as the newcomer has no significant measuring stick of size or quality.
This is a point that the parent or mentor pointing a tentative child at the water should keep in mind. A bluegill is as good as a bass. Indeed, it probably is better because the plentiful “perch” are readily accessible from banks and piers, easy to catch by using simple tackle and tactics.
Conversely, a coveted bass may prove to be a frustrating challenge for a kid with short attention and limited skills. This especially is true if “dear old dad” insists on using artificial lures and sophisticated tackle. Futile attempts backed by repeated barking from an impatient instructor might even discourage the beginner from the whole idea of fishing.
No, start easy and keep things relaxed. Fishing is supposed to be fun. Rig with a cane pole or a simple spincast rig and use a pinch of natural bait under a small cork. Watching the bobber dip and slant and making a big deal out a few shiny bluegills can go a long way in stoking fledgling fishing fever.
Along the coast, a light bottom rig and a small hook baited with dead shrimp serve the same purpose. No matter if the tap-tap-tug comes from an eight-inch croaker or a 10-inch whiting—it’s a fish!
During the second stage, the budding angler wants lots of fish. Numbers become the measurement of success. Again, the fishing needs to be reasonably easy. There’s nothing wrong with this; indeed, we all go through the fast-action phase
I must admit I still enjoy rapid-fire results on “schoolies.” Speckled trout under birds or under dock lights are a fine example. So are pre-spawn white bass massing in rivers and creeks.
Fresh or salt, a cast into the kill zone has a high probability of drawing a sharp strike. To repeat, most of the catch-and-release fish are small but the action is exciting. The bent rod becomes addictive and success feeds on itself. You increasingly feel like you know what you’re doing.
Larger fish sometimes shadow the frantic near-surface schools, and an offering allowed to drop near bottom might draw a hit from, say, a brag-sized redfish. This may be true, but I seldom have the patience to stick with the slow-drop program. The slam-bang schoolies are too much fun, maybe payback for the slow days when nothing seems to work.
Perhaps my hackles are showing. But when small “jug trout” are popping and swirling within easy range I have great difficulty not chunking into the melee—even when conditions suggest bigger fish might be available elsewhere. I’ve only been fishing 60 years so maybe I’ll grow out of the greedy Phase Two mentality. But I hope not too soon.
Phase Three, of course, emphasizes quality over quantity. The seasoned angler tends to target larger fish. Chasing schoolies might be an entertaining respite, but the real fishing is focused on the big pull. The angler at this stage often blows past the small stuff and concentrates on locations and tactics that offer a higher probability of sticking something with shoulders.
The veteran typically uses lures or baits that appeal to big fish (opposed to a smaller catch-all rig). And he is committed to long hours of potentially empty grinding.
Many salty pluggers talk a good game, but this commitment to purpose demands uncommon resolve. I’ve already admitted that I tend to “crawfish” after several thankless hours, but at least I’m being honest.
Still, many hardcore anglers try to at least start with the Phase Three mindset. Worth note, even one big fish can justify a long session.
The final phase is “My Way.” In this, the determined angler uses a preferred tackle or technique even though conditions dictate that another approach might be more successful. The stalwart gains great satisfaction in addressing the water on his terms—and if the fish don’t cooperate, well, screw ‘em.
This narrow concept might defy logic in an already sketchy game where the natural elements are among the most fickle of players. Yet, many experienced anglers know exactly what I’m talking about. The means are more important than the end.
My Way explains why a bass fisherman might spend hours chunking a scorned chugger along the edges of shoreline cover when the nearest main-lake point might produce strike after strike on a Texas-rigged plastic worm bumped along the bottom. The topwater purist enjoys making the accurate casts to defined targets and lusts for the big blowup.
My Way supports the bay wader easing along in knee- to thigh-deep water and flicking a gold spoon for redfish amid potholes and shadows. More fish almost certainly could be caught on cut mullet or live shrimp from a boat anchored along the nearest jetty, but the wader is driven by the one-on-one experience of stalking the shallow flats.
My Way also might enforce one technique over another, say, fly fishing over plug casting. This opinionated stance sometimes can get huffy and stuffy, but that’s just part of it. For example, trying to force a fly rod into conditions where it really doesn’t want to go probably isn’t too effective—but whatever satisfies the angler is the goal of the final phase. No one said it always makes practical sense.
None of this is absolute, and the stages of progression can overlap during a long career. But, now and then, all of them gloriously come together. And these are the “ice cream” days that keep us casting through the decades.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]