For the past decade, I’ve helped instruct a fly-fishing guide school in southwest Montana. It’s a great gig. We help folks hone their fishing skills, teach them how to row a drift boat, give them advice on client management and do our best to get them hooked up with jobs in the industry. One question students consistently ask is: “What happens when people pay me to take them fishing, and we don’t catch any fish?”
Often my standard answer is some variation of that worn-out old chestnut, That’s why they call it fishing, not catching. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more about what exactly it means to get skunked (alternately referred to in Montana as a bagel, a donut or getting blanked). The act of going fishing and not catching any fish seems pretty simple on the surface, but with a little more scrutiny it’s easy to see that not all skunks are created equal.
As someone who guides for a living, I split skunks into two categories: the recreational skunk and the professional skunk. The professional skunk, i.e. taking paying clients out for a day that involves zero fish caught, is something all guides have to come to terms with eventually. I feel lucky to guide in a fairly target-rich environment and can say that it doesn’t happen too often. This is not necessarily due to my ability as a guide, but to the simple fact that there are approximately 8,000 whitefish per mile on the Yellowstone, and eventually your client’s prince nymph will connect with one’s face.
Not to get too deep into the weeds, but in my circle there’s a further designation: getting trout-skunked. It’s not uncommon to go out and catch two-dozen whitefish and zero trout. As a guide, there’s a small amount of shame in it, but it happens, usually several times a season. With beginner anglers or kids, it’s a non-issue. As for clients not falling into those two groups? I’ll be sure to let them know that the Rocky Mountain whitefish is native to the Yellowstone, unlike the invasive brown and rainbow, and in fact needs cleaner, colder water to survive than most trout species, making it an important indicator of a healthy river system. Or, translated from guide-speak, You’ll catch that whitefish and be damn grateful!
Some guides I know work fisheries where regular skunking is all but assured — swinging flies for Pacific Northwest steelhead, for example. These folks have taken the art of getting skunked to its Zen pinnacle and, furthermore, have somehow convinced people to pay them for the pleasure of receiving a steaming donut. I used to think that this would be one of the most difficult guide jobs out there, cold and rain, difficult wading and casting, no fish, etc., but then I realized that most of the clients know the deal going in and don’t really expect to catch anything anyway. More often than not, they have their expectations met, thus they have a good time. As a guide, you can give them a few tips on their snap-T, have a thermos of coffee, blame the dams, and if by some miracle they so much as get a fishy bump at the end of a swing, it’s a bonus and a great day.
While a professional skunk is something I abhor, and will work my face off to avoid, getting skunked recreationally is a semiregular occurrence for me and most guides I know. This is a bit counterintuitive. Recently a non-fishing friend remarked, after I returned from yet another unsuccessful day-off fishing trip with a couple of guide buddies, “Aren’t you guys supposedly good at this? Why do you never seem to catch anything?”
This made me reconsider the skunk and all the different reasons one might arrive there. Although there are many subcategories, the way I see it, there are three root causes that occasion a fishless outing.
This is fairly straightforward. Some fisheries are trickier than others, and even experienced anglers who don’t have the right fly or lure or technique can easily get blanked. This is a skunk in the most classic sense. The fish are there, and they are being caught — by other people. You are not among these people because you lack the knowledge to succeed. When non-anglers or inexperienced fisher-people consider a skunk, this is most often what comes to mind. As a guide, this situation is what makes your palms sweat and your guts roil. It’s all fun and games and a nice day on the water until your boat is the only one not hooked up, and then you’re the captain of your own little floating island of misery.
This is a common path to the bagel and one that routinely applies to me and my friends. Most of the time I feel that if I really need to, I can catch a fish of some kind on the Yellowstone River. With that out of the equation, the fun becomes trying to catch a fish in a certain way. Often that particular way is not the most effective way.
When I was in my early 20s, this method was throwing large streamers, something that was just starting to become popular. We’d do ridiculously long floats and huck massive flies on 8-weights and routinely catch nothing, taking comfort at the end of the day in the fact that we were hard core.
These days, much less hard core but still stubborn, I’ll tie on a single large grasshopper dry and fish it all day, whether or not the fish show any interest. I like to cast it, and I like to see them come up for it. And if they don’t, oh well, it’s my day off, and there’s probably beer involved. I like to think that this is a skunk’s most noble form. Taken to its full extent, getting skunked out of stubbornness can almost be a badge of honor. I think this is the premise that anglers who swing flies for steelhead operate under. They could probably catch a steelhead a different way; they just want to do it their way. And while I’m calling it stubbornness, maybe another way to look at it is strong aesthetic preference.
I will freely admit that these days, laziness frequently afflicts me when I fish recreationally. It often starts with stubbornness. For instance, I tie on a big dry fly and fish it seriously for a while with no love. On most days in the summer, if I stick with it, eventually something will eat it, and the skunk will be avoided. Sometimes, though, after casting awhile, I come to the conclusion that the surface bite is not really happening. I then put the rod away and spend the rest of the day looking for agates and petrified wood, or swimming. An honest stubborn skunk can only come from sticking to it from beginning to end.
Laziness while recreationally fishing is one thing, but professionally is quite another. It’s extremely rare among the guides I know, but I do see it occasionally. Usually it manifests on tough days of fishing, late in the season. For instance, a guide with beginner anglers prone to tangling might refuse to put on a heavier and harder to cast (but highly effective) double nymph rig, and instead sticks with the single dry that results in fewer tangles, less work for the guide and no fish landed. Sometimes a guide will try to claim the noble skunk here: We stuck to the dry but didn’t get ’em!
Looking back on this past guide season, I had my share of less-than-stellar days, but I can honestly say that I had only one true professional skunking. As I was trying to ascertain which of these categories to file it under, I was tempted to stick it in its own category — adverse conditions — but in truth, stubbornness was probably more accurate.
Long story short, we drove an hour-and-a-half to a small river and launched my raft. Right away, I could tell the river was on the rise due to snowmelt. Instead of pulling the plug and trying to go elsewhere, we decided to stick it out. I wanted to fish this river and was too stubborn to be flexible.
As it turned out, the river doubled in flow while we were on it and turned the color of chocolate milk. We fished hard from beginning to end, even when it was clearly hopeless. I tried every stupid thing I could think of, short of dynamite. My clients kept a good attitude and fished their butts off, and still we got emphatically, resoundingly, soul-crushingly blanked. Not even a bite. My clients were great sports, luckily; they fish in Montana a lot. I have a feeling that this coming year when I see them, we’ll have a better time reminiscing about our epic fishless outing than all the forgettable fish-filled days we’ve had in the past.
That being said, the drive home was a little subdued. Eventually, one of the guys broke the silence and threw it out there. Well boys, that’s why they call it fishing, not catching. We all nodded seriously. Never before had this statement seemed so completely profound and unassailably true. And then, of course, someone chimed in with, As I always say, a bad day of fishing beats a good day at work.
With this settled, we went to the bar.