To Catch More Fish, Sharpen Your Mental Hooks

By Luke Patrick

I was crouched awkwardly behind an outcropping of grass at the edge of the Deschutes River when I spotted the dark, submarine form of an 18-inch, wild redside feeding an arm's length off the bank.

Thirty minutes of patient searching had finally paid off--or so I hoped--and now I was faced with a one-shot proposition. I had to remain hunched to avoid my own shadow passing over the cautious, midge-sipping fish in the lazy backeddy. Excited, I fumbled to unhook the fly from the handle of my rod. At these close quarters, even a small false cast might be detected by the skittish trout. With quavering hands I stripped out five feet of line, swept the rod low behind me, and breathlessly thrust the fly . . . directly into an overhanging limb three feet off the fish's starboard bow!

My nerves had gotten the better of my motor skills, and the ruckus of the botched cast had not gone unnoticed. Now my high hopes were somewhere out in the middle of the river, hunkered down with that trout.

I'd blown my best chance of the trip. If only I could have had a practice cast or two to weed out the kinks in my presentation!

Mental Preparation Would Have Saved the Day . . . and the Trout

Well, in a sense, I could have had a practice cast. It would have only been a mental practice cast, but in fishing, as in other arenas, sometimes mental preparation is often what makes the difference between a banner day and one you'd prefer to wipe off the books.

Fly fishing is like most other skills: once you have a solid command of the basics, the challenge becomes increasingly psychological. As the Tiger Woodses and Michael Jordans of the world will tell you, physical practice gets you to the playing arena, but mental preparation is what keeps you on top of your game. This is common knowledge in other sports, but it's been largely overlooked in the angling world.

Mental practice can certainly be helpful in honing one's casting skills or calming one's nerves in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime fish, but that's only part of its benefit. Mental imagery can be used to visualize the movement of a subsurface fly, or to prepare for competing currents, before your fly line even touches the water.

Through a skill I like to call "false-false casting" (taking practice casts in your mind), you can get dialed into a presentation before you even unstring your rod.

Mental Rehersal

If you've ever found yourself daydreaming about a fishing trip (and who among us hasn't?), you've already done an informal type of mental rehearsal. Once you learn to harness this skill in a slightly more structured way, you'll likely find yourself applying it to many situations.

To learn mental skills training, you don't need any costly equipment or fancy gadgetry. All you need to start with is a comfortable, distraction-free environment where you'll have 10 or 20 minutes to yourself. Your fly-tying bench might make the perfect spot, but locales can range from your office desk to your favorite recliner. Once you've learned these skills, you can begin to use them where it really counts: on the water.

Execution of mental rehearsal skills involves first becoming physically and mentally relaxed, then visualizing images that reinforce the activities or behaviors you are trying to perfect. Most of us fish because the pursuit itself is a sort of natural relaxant. Even so, I'm guessing that most Westflyers can recall a time when anticipation got the best of them and resulted in a botched opportunity for a big fish. Athletes call it the "choke factor." If it sounds familiar, here are a few quick tips to get you started at improving the mental side of your fly angling experience.

  1. Get comfortable. The best time to develop your mental game is not after you've saved the money, booked the flight, and traveled the miles to tangle with that tarpon. The best time is now. And the best place is one where you can sit or lie down comfortably, where you don't have to do a lot of fidgeting to stay at ease for a few minutes or more. If there's distracting or unpleasant noise going on around you, put on your favorite relaxing music, or one of those nature CDs that seem to be available everywhere these days.
  2. Learn to release tension. Break the cycle of tension before it breaks your fishing momentum! Some relaxation strategies are so basic that we simply overlook them. For instance, remember how your grandmother used to tell you to count to 10 and breathe when you got frustrated? Well, that's one more thing that Grandma was right about. Pausing for a few minutes to breathe slowly and deeply--in through the nose and out through the mouth--can significantly reduce the buildup of physical and mental tension. If muscle tension is interfering with a smooth presentation (and it is often the culprit even when we don't notice it), you can ease out the tightness by first contracting the muscles as you breathe in, then relaxing the muscles as you breathe out. For fly fishers, the crucial areas are usually the back, shoulders, neck, forearms, and hands.
  3. Use mental imagery. Once you are relaxed, you're ready to use imagery to practice your presentation. The great thing about mental practice is that it can be done as easily in your living room as streamside. The key to effective imagery is using all of your senses. In your mind's eye, try to actually see, hear and feel every aspect of the casting movement, and every detail of the situation: wind direction, location of obstacles, and the river currents where your fly and line are going to land.
  4. Visualize perfection. This idea has become cliche, but it's not as simple as it seems. Remember, you can only do effective mental practice if you've physically learned the correct way of doing things. In other words, thousands of hours of mental rehearsal won't make you a great caster if you've never actually picked up a rod. Mental practice complements actual practice, it doesn't replace it. So yes, you'll have to force yourself out on the water now and then!
  5. Take it on the road. Ultimately, you need to be able to use your skills in an actual fishing situation. Whether you've paid thousands of dollars to travel to some exotic locale, or found yourself gawking at the biggest fish you've ever come across on your home waters, you want to be ready when the moment arrives. Approach mental rehearsal just as you would approach learning to do a double haul: practice, practice, practice.

Keep at It!

It's easy to forget these basic steps when faced with an exciting opportunity on the water. But if you learn to apply these tips as effectively in an actual angling situation as you would at home, you'll find yourself not only getting more enjoyment out of your angling excursions, but probably getting more flies into the mouths of big fish.

Luke Patrick, Ph.D. resides in Portland, Oregon. He works as a licensed psychologist specializing in chronic pain management, sport psychology, and biofeedback relaxation training. His passion for fly fishing is a self-diagnosed obsessive compulsion, as well as his favorite form of self help.