Can a Fishing Trip be Successful without Catching Fish?

As I was listening to a hunting podcast the other day, the topic of success came up. One person argued that a hunting trip can be successful without culminating in a harvested animal. Another argued that it couldn’t in that case, since the goal of the hunt was to bring meat home, and that didn’t happen.

It got me thinking about how I define success on a fishing trip, and whether fish (and if so, how many) are required for it to be a success.

Success in failure

What perked up my ears during the hunting debate was the argument that considering a game-less hunt a success is the equivalent of handing out participation trophies. The aim, he argued, was to harvest an animal, and to consider coming home empty-handed a success is to not allow yourself to fail, learn, and grow. In the same way a child might never learn the value of working hard if they are awarded regardless of the outcome, a hunter who feels success without game will never become a better hunter.

A direct comparison could be applied to fishing. Can a fishing trip be successful with no fish, or is the angler at that point vying for a participation trophy?

Several people fly fish near each other on a river

My issue with the participation trophy argument is that on a fish-less day, you aren’t simply handed what you were seeking. In a real participation trophy fishing environment, if at the end of the day you had nothing, a fish would be given to you.

Obviously (and somewhat sadly), this isn’t how it works. When people say they feel successful after an “unsuccessful” day on a hunting or fishing trip, it usually means they did not achieve their primary goal (harvesting game or fish), but that other successes were had. In these cases, they may be defining success as learning a new skill, practicing a difficult technique, learning new land or water, making a lesson-teaching mistake, or simply having a much needed day in nature to recharge.

These aren’t participation trophies. They’re valid positive impacts gained from the activity. They may not be the main goal, but they can be goals nonetheless.

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be traditionally successful on a fishing trip, consistently trying to categorize yourself as such can be exhausting and frustrating. Go fishing five times “unsuccessfully” and you may not have the motivation to even try again. Finding small wins, though, will keep you motivated enough to try one more time.

A river rushes along a rocky shoreline with trees.

Being realistic

Though I’m clearly firmly in the camp that believes a fishing trip can be successful without fish, I also know how I feel in the moment.

It’s easy to look ahead or back in time and accept that a trip can be successful with no fish, but in the moment emotions may direct you differently.

Not many anglers would say they’re having a successful day smack dab in the middle of being skunked. One or two fish can quickly change a mood.

So where is the line drawn that divides those who feel successful throughout the process from those who only claim it after the fact as a way to make themselves feel better?

I’ve found that for me, the only way to stay on the righteous side of that line is to think about what I want from a trip before it even starts. This usually produces a list of four or five things, at least one of which is nearly bound to happen.

Fish are always on the list, of course, and catching a given number can automatically make a trip successful. What that number is depends on a lot of things, most notably the angler. Some folks are happy with one fish, and others need 30. Other factors also raise and lower the bar, like fishing pressure, weather, location, and species. It’s doable to have a 10-trout day. A 10-muskie day is a different story.

Apart from fish, the potential goals are endless. A big one for me on trips with friends is simply getting to spend time with them and catch up. I can go all day without a fish with my friends and still have the time of my life. It’s almost painful for me to leave a day like that calling it unsuccessful.

I also can’t remember the last time I went fishing and didn’t learn something. Even the best anglers make mistakes, and these moments of failure are extremely valuable to the lifelong learner. There’s not much to learn when you catch two dozen fish on the same presentation, but you learn a ton from trying five techniques to catch a single fish. Often the least successful days of fishing become the most successful days of skill-learning.

So can a day without fish be successful? I sure think so. Of course, how you define your own success is up to you. Personally, I’ll choose glass half full.

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