I have learned to learn from failure. All my years outdoors has allowed me some wonderful, intense — at times dangerous — and beautiful experiences. Sometimes I am successful in these adventures, other times I am not. Anyone who spends their days outdoors will have stories of failure. Fish lost in the river, grouse lost in the forest, ducks and geese lost in the water. A hiking trail that’s snowed in halfway up, a flat tire in the backwoods …The list goes on and on.
For me, the biggest challenge has always been not catching fish. It’s a well-known but not often thought-about truth that, while not everyone likes fishing, most people enjoy catching. This is why you can take a person who is only mildly interested in fishing and put them on fish, and they would have a blast. And even those of us who like fishing enjoy catching. Of course fishing is far more than actually catching the fish, but there is a reason we don’t brag to our buddies about fishless days.
This all came to a head for me one day fishing on the Missouri. I was making cast after cast after cast into the endlessly slow, muddy waters. The sun was shining and it was cool but not frigid. My friend and I had been fishing since early morning and it was now high noon. We had not eaten a bite all day. We stopped for lunch on a big rock, and I rigged up rod with some powerbait to put out while we ate. Throughout lunch, the bait rod sat and never moved. Not even a twitch. We had a long hike back, and the fall sun was going to set quickly. For the first time that day, I had the thought that we might not catch anything. And for the first time in my life, that didn’t trouble me.
I have always been hard on myself, and fishing is no exception to this rule. I know that I have the ability and the knowledge to catch fish, so when I don’t, I feel like I’ve failed. This is only compounded when fishing right next to people who are pulling fish after fish. Over the years, I have spent a great deal of time fishing. Most of the time I catch something. Sometimes I don’t. And when I don’t, it sucks. For most of my life, how much fun I had fishing depended on how many fish I caught. But it’s sitting on the banks of the Missouri with wind and bugs in my face that I realize that is no longer the case.
I’ve had a great day. I got to sit on the banks of a beautiful river. I saw ducks fly by, close enough to hear the air whistle over their wings. The sun is out, and the air is cleaner than any purifying machine could ever make it. I smell towering pines that cover the hillside in evergreen needles. I can hear water over rocks. I am fishing. And I am grateful.
Later that day, I prove my prediction wrong and catch two nice rainbows. For the first time, that is not the best part of my day (although it is a highlight). The best part of my day is getting to go fishing. I don’t know when or why this changed, but I believe it’s because I have come to appreciate the fishing more than the fish.
I no longer worry if I don’t catch fish. Of course, I’d rather catch them than not, that will never change. I love the feeling of being connected to a fish by nothing but a thin strand of monofilament, feeling it pull on my rod and bringing it to the surface. But I also love the river and the cast, and a day spent outside with the sun on my skin and the sound of water in my ears. I love the peace it brings me, and the clarity it brings to my life. And I love the drive home.