Each time we see a picture of a grinning angler with a fantastic catch, do we tell ourselves that this is an exceptionally skillful person, or that he is just lucky?
Fishing lies somewhere along the continuum between skill-and luck-based activities. At one end we have things like swimming or chess: for any average human being it is hard to imagine that it would be possible to beat Michael Phelps in the pool. At the other end we have purely luck-based events like winning a lottery or lucky draw. In a fair draw, Michael Phelps is no more likely to win than you or I. How much, then, can the catch of a given angler on a given fishing trip be attributed to skill, and how much should be put down to sheer, dumb luck?
In order for a person to catch a fish, quite a number of factors have to slide into place in the appropriate order. Think of it as a checklist where one box at a time gets checked, and a box is only open to get checked off (and sometimes only for a limited time) after the box before it gets checked. Only after an angler checks off all the boxes in order does he get rewarded with a fish. These criteria can be categorised in many different ways, but can essentially be summed up thus: an angler must be fishing at the right time, in the right place, with gear and techniques that are suitable for the job.
In any given situation, there is no proper human definition for what constitutes ‘right’ or ‘suitable’, since the fish has as much (or even more) say in deciding the matter as the human trying to catch it. Instead of specific criteria for a ‘magic formula’ that some humans would prefer, each factor typically falls within a range, with a relative optimum or ‘sweet spot’, and boundaries that can sometimes be poorly-defined. Because of this, and the fact that the ranges themselves are not fixed but can change, it is possible to occasionally stumble upon a winning combination –but from long experience, that doesn’t happen all that often!
The reason luck sometimes doesn’t hold is because lapses in skill can sometimes cause crucial boxes to go unchecked, leading to the loss of far more fish. This makes successful ‘lucky’ catches all the more uncommon and by extension, memorable. More often than not, the picture of the angler with his trophy is the culmination of a long journey of preparation, trial-and-error, and hours spent chasing his quarry. The lost fish, destroyed equipment and wasted trips are often relegated to a dim memory in the euphoria of success. A picture may speak a thousand words, but sometimes there is even more that is left unspoken.
The matter remains wide open to debate, but at this point I believe that fishing is highly probabilistic (which explains the prevalence of the phenomenon commonly known as beginner’s luck), and skill in fishing increases the probability of a successful catch (which still does not preclude the newbie from out-fishing the veteran angler on occasion). There are no sure bets, though sometimes we can come very close (therefore the veteran will naturally perform better over the long run). This leads to the conclusion that fishing is a game of averages, and while fluctuations from the average are only to be expected, a true measure of skill in angling is the average result that a given angler is likely to produce over a large number of trips.
Besides the size of the catch, there are other tell-tale signs of angling skill. The skillful angler is typically well-prepared, sometimes down to the minutest detail. This can be manifest in the care with which equipment is maintained, or the precision with which knots are tied. Such attention to detail extends to the time spent on the water, where the angler asks a question with each time a line hits the water, and adjusts accordingly depending on the response. It is a continuous learning process, and the angler’s passive demeanour belies the activity going on in his mind. This goes against the common perception that fishing is a boring waiting game, for it is something that has to be experienced to be understood. The water does not easily give up its secrets, and anglers will return time and time again to play their hand in this age-old game of wits.