By: Mark McCoy

My grandfather taught me to fly-fish and after a 30-year hiatus, I came back to it. The last 15+ years have seen me move from dangerous amateur to avid-though-untalented fly angler. They have also brought me great joy. I usually catch fish—occasionally many, often just one or two, each beautiful and noble in its own way. And every now and then, none. Ouch. I used to say I never minded getting skunked when fly-fishing—I am always learning every time I am out. Thomas Edison supposedly said, “I didn’t fail, I just developed 999 ways NOT to invent the light bulb. I’ve found at least that many ways not to catch fish.

But I am getting older now and I know I won’t be wading forever. Each fall seems closer to the last time than the first time I was in the river. Could that be what raises the urgency to see that beautiful majestic brown trout in the net?

After a hot summer and as soon as the water cooled enough, I was in the water—it felt great after a several-month hiatus waiting for trout-safe water temperatures. I went to my closest river. Skunked. Not a sign of fish anywhere. Next time out, same river, different holes. Skunked. Third time, new river, new holes…skunked. Then a buddy told me of the best fly-fishing in my region. A bit longer drive but I had to go. Nothing. Frustrated, I read up on the location and went back the next weekend. This time….nothing. I recalled the scene I watched a hundred times with my daughters in the movie Polar Express when the kid looks up the North Pole in the encyclopedia to see if Santa is real and reads that the North Pole is DEVOID OF LIFE. That is how these rivers felt to me. Had someone emptied the rivers? It felt like I couldn’t get a fish at the supermarket.

One evening as I reflected on this, I realized that during this drought my fishing stories had changed. Usually I tell an “I found a new way to be an idiot with a fly rod” story about setting the hook on a downstream fish (lost, of course) or falling while getting out of the river or losing a fish while tangled in fly line. Now I was telling my friends about the beautiful deer that crossed the stream ten feet from me or the beaver that smacked his tail loudly enough that I thought I was being shot at, or the grace of the goose who just watched me quizzically for 20 minutes as if to say, “you ain’t no fisherman.” I talked about the beauty of the sunsets and the changing trees; I talked about how the sound of the river changes in each part of the stream; I asked if “crisp” air smelled different from summer air.

Last weekend I was out in a new stream when I found the hole God put on earth to revive anglers like me. It was a perfect hole on a beautiful fall day. First cast a giant brown brushed at my attractor. I tried again, second refusal. I changed to a smaller version of the same fly and a third refusal followed by a rainbow take. And then another. And another. I fished out that hole and move up just a few feet and changed to double nymph indicator. Out came rainbow after rainbow, each beautiful and noble in its own way. I stopped counting after a dozen. And then something weird happened.

I stopped fishing. I sat on a rock and looked around. I thought of my grandfather and how he seemed to make life slow down to his pace rather than be caught up in its whirlwind. I noticed that the trees were awash in beautiful colors. I listened to the sound of the river –as perfect a sound as had ever been made; I smelled “crisp” in the air. After 20 minutes on the rock drinking the world in, I waded out. I could have kept fishing upstream—I had only covered 50 yards of water and the fish were there for the taking. But I had had enough. I wanted to make certain that this trip was not only about fish.

Getting skunked taught me about why I really fish in the first place, and I never want to miss that point again. Sure, I hope it will be a while before I go through a slump like that, but I ‘ll be ready when it inevitably come around. And I will appreciate all the time and memories and beauty and sounds and smells getting skunked brought to my attention.

I am no longer worried about the last time I get to step in the river. Between this day and that, every time my boot breaks the surface, I will know why I am here.

Mark McCoy has been a professional musician, composer, conductor, author, teacher, professor, dean and college president. Now he serves as an executive coach and an avid-though-untalented fly angler. His greatest accomplishment was marrying Lisa and becoming the father of triplet (now 17-year-old) daughters.

3 thoughts on “Skunked

  1. I enjoyed your article, gave me a different perspective next time I get skunked and even when I don’t. Good job!

  2. Beautiful article, Mark! Growing up in Wyoming, I never ‘got’ why my dad and brother went _way_ up in the mountains to fish.. my mom and I just fished right by the spot we parked our car and had a fine time. It took me decades to realize the _hiking_ was something I would have loved and I didn’t _have_ to fish the whole time. sigh. Some things I guess we just have to figure out ourselves, right? Again, thanks for the insight and I truly hope some young folks read it and take it to heart!!

  3. Very nice story about finding peace in the world while doing something enjoyable, the intrinsic motivation associated with being with oneself, and the mindfulness associated with being present in the moment. A good lesson for all of us to remember. Fishing is about more than catching fish! Even if catching fish makes it more fun.

Leave a Reply