Why Do People Like Catching Big Fish?

If you spend much time browsing fishing media, you’ll notice a pattern. From photos of people posing with trophy fish, to articles with titles like “10 Tips to Catch Monster Trout,” to bass tournaments worth big money, it’s no secret that we like big fish.

The desire for big fish seems obvious. Of course people prefer larger catches. At the same time, it can be hard to put a finger on exactly why we place such a value on large fish.

As with most things, I think it’s more nuanced than it appears. If one specific thing led to the big-fish craze, it’d be obvious. Instead, I think several factors are at play here.

History repeats itself

Historically, in populations that relied on fish as a dietary staple, it’s pretty clear why big fish could be considered valuable. Targeting a few large meals in place of many small ones would be more efficient.

However, considering many, if not most, fly fishermen these days practice catch-and-release (and that those who don’t aren’t relying on their catch to survive), the reason behind the preference for big fish can’t solely be based on food. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that there’s a lingering survival desire deep down in anglers when they get excited about a hefty catch. Maybe biological wiring could play a role in the excitement that comes with big fish.

A steelhead is held above a net by a person in a river.

But, humans have also found enough ways to abandon their primitive skills and desires through things like desk jobs, paved sidewalks, and Amazon deliveries, that it’s hard for me to accept that the desire for big fish comes solely from an ancient need for protein. It’s also hard to believe that ancient anglers didn’t derive pleasure from big fish beyond the practical acquisition of nutrition.

So, assuming both long-ago fishermen and modern-day fly anglers care about more than just ample calories, there must be other factors leading to a trophy mindset. 

Rarity

Like gold, precious gems, and select baseball cards, people like rare things. This has got to contribute, at least a bit, to the big-fish complex. Naturally, the number of fish that live long enough to be massive is much lower than the number of tiny fish. This means there aren’t as many big fish to go around among fishermen, and that leads to desire.

Again, though, if it were solely rarity that contributed to the phenomenon, you’d expect anglers to head out in hopes of catching a mutant. I’ve landed fish with deformed jaws, missing fins, and other oddities, but I’ve never placed a higher value on these, or hoped I caught more. It’s an interesting tidbit in the moment, but you don’t impress your friends with harrowing stories of those fish years later, or refer to them as the one that got away.

And on a final note, if rarity were the bulk of the cause, you’d think more people would fish for something other than trout, which seem to be everywhere.

A woman kneels in a lake holding a large brook trout.

Challenge

We seek challenge in all sorts of endeavors, and fishing is no different. Things that are too easy tend to become boring, and in the same way a rifle hunter may pick up a bow or a climber attempts a tougher ascent, many fly fishermen get bored with an easily-caught fish.

It also so happens that big fish tend to be harder to catch than small ones.

Trying to catch large fish lets an angler test his or her mettle without the need for competition. Setting a personal best is a concept that transcends fishing, and the clearest way to measure a personal best in fishing is size.

In addition to challenging your own previous record is the challenge of using new skills. It doesn’t take much to land an overly-eager 10-inch fish, but it’d be tough to land a 20-incher without at least a little skill, and that feels good.

A woman kneels in a river holding a large bull trout

Comparison

As much as most people don’t like to admit it, we compare ourselves to others, a lot.

Especially with the addition of social media to fly fishing, the idea of missing out or not stacking up is a big concern to many.

When you’re bombarded every day by pictures and videos of monster fish, it’s easy to feel as though you’re not as good an angler. So, when you do finally hook and land a beast, you’re suddenly risen to the same level as those you’d admired.

Even before social media, and possibly for ages, comparison has played a role. It’s hard for me to believe that the earliest subsistence anglers didn’t feel a sense of pride at being the provider of the largest bounty. Why would you want to be the guy who always brought the smallest fish home?

A small bass sits in a person's hand with a fly in its mouth.

Like most of these musings, it’s complicated. I imagine whatever algorithm has led to a longing for big fish has even more rabbit holes than the points I’ve listed, but I have to think all have contributed in at least some fashion.

What do you think leads to this pursuit? Let me know in the comments!

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This is a list I made and use for my own trips, and I think any backcountry angler will find it handy.