Most fly fishermen have at one time or another wondered what it takes to be great. Most of us are fascinated by this. We want to know the answer not only so that we can get better, but we also want to know by what criteria success is measured. In other words, what do we do to get better and when will we know when we get there. We know the answer lies in more than just the ability to cast and catch fish, because we all know too many anglers with poor skills that can catch fish. If you ask those that should be able to answer such a query such as guides, shop owners and experienced old salts this question, you might expect to be told the usual stuff. You know, you might expect to hear that such and such an angler is a great caster or that he presents the fly better or that he has superior skills to fight and land a fish. Sometimes these experts do answer with this and just this. They delineate the requisite skills and stop there. But more often than you might imagine, the pondering angler quickly glosses over these essential skills by saying something like "sure you have to be able to cast well, tease the fish to the fly and fight and land a fish", but they often add "yeah, but lots of guys can do that... the great anglers I know have something extra."
When pressed on this point, the conversation gets really interesting. The perfunctory answer quickly gives way to a genuine attempt to describe what qualities separate the truly exceptional angler from the rank and file. So, I thought you might be interested in the qualities mentioned that separate the merely good from the great. Some may surprise you and others may not, but I think delving into these attributes may just help all of us to become better anglers. So here are the results from my unofficial poll that has been conducted over many decades and many more beers:
Without a doubt, the number one quality ascribed to upper echelon anglers is the ability to concentrate. Some anglers seem to be able to do this better than others. Elite anglers are somehow able to shut out everything, but the task at hand. They are fully engaged most, if not all, of the time. I consistently heard that some of the best fish sighters have only mediocre eyes. I've heard stories about the fellow with thick, coke-bottle lenses who can spot fish with the best of them. Somehow they see flashes, ripples, rises, nervous water, birds and a myriad of other clues that betray the presence of fish. These elite anglers have an ability to concentrate and block out distractions. As a result, they simply see more fish or fish sign than others do.
The second attribute most often mentioned is the ability to stay the course and work hard over the long haul to find fish. Repeatedly, I heard anglers described as "He never gives up." or "He has the patience to wait for that second rise" or "He will wait patiently until the time is right." This drive to be successful on the hunt was finely tuned in our ancestors. Those that didn't have it simply didn't last long. Great fishermen have tapped into this reservoir of indomitability and patience. Put simply, good anglers are tenacious.
By far the most interesting quality that guides and other professionals feel is essential to achieving greatness is an unrelenting sense of optimism. In other words, you must have faith. Without it, you might just as well sit in your room. For the elite angler, each new day is filled with hope and the promise of big fish. To these fishermen, yesterday was yesterday, today is today. One old timer put it this way. "What could have been is a wasteful question. Better to ask what is and what will be". Expert anglers are generally positive people who rarely complain about anything, even if there is reason to do so. They don't dwell on what could have been or the errors of others. They see it as a distraction that cripples their powers of concentration and drains their energy. They never complain and they never blame others for their inadequacies. They say people with positive attitudes live longer, but we'll add that they also fish better. And if they do indeed live longer, then its just practical to be positive... with a longer life, you'll get to fish more and seemingly do a better job at it!
I also often hear when conducting my poll that the best fisherman don't compete. These guys genuinely don't care if they are the "top dog". Of course, they want to catch fish. That's the whole point of the exercise, but they somehow understand that to want it too much again interferes with their powers of concentration and blurs their focus. They only compete with themselves. These anglers have a certain generosity of character too. They are helpful and encouraging to other anglers and are always willing to share their fishing acumen. Lefty Kreh comes to mind. If ever there was an elite angler who was generous to others, it is Lefty.
The next quality falls under the heading of "relax... it's not brain surgery". The best anglers can simply relax, especially under pressure or in the heat of battle. Maybe it's because they are not competing. Maybe they're just too busy concentrating! Intense yes, but also relaxed. They are somehow confident and know that if the fish are there, they will find them. These guys push hard, but they don't push so hard that it becomes a distraction. They let the day unfold. They are determined, but not hyper.
To a person, experienced anglers all felt that the best fishermen are in reality, excellent hunters. These anglers think like hunters whether it be in a boat, bank side or wading a flat. They are quiet. They move slowly. They plan their attack whether it be to move upwind on a bonefish flat or to hide in the shade of a big cottonwood tree when casting to a trophy brown trout. They take the time to make a plan and execute it successfully and above all, quietly. I once had a guide tell me that so and so was a great caster, but not a very good fisherman. He said he just made too much noise whether it was wading the flats or shutting the lid on the boat's cooler.
So there you have it. It is interesting to note that not one of the qualities so often mentioned above involve technical skills. Perhaps the necessity of having technical expertise is a foregone conclusion, but perhaps the acquisition of technical skills only puts you at the threshold of true greatness. Whichever the case, we hope you found this food for thought. It certainly provided something for me to chew on... and emulate.