A large part of finding out where the fish are is finding out where they aren’t. –John Gierach
During World War II, if you found yourself a member of a long-range bomber crew flying missions over Germany, it was time to get your affairs in order. Get right with your Maker. There was a fifty-fifty chance you wouldn’t be coming home.
It’s not that each individual mission was so very dangerous–your chance of surviving one bombing run was something like 95 percent. Sometimes I feel like just driving to and from work can be more hazardous than that. But each crew had to fly 25 missions before they could go home, so, compound a 5 percent probability of dying by 25 independent events. That’s called even money.
In an attempt to sweeten the odds for their airmen, the British Air Ministry decided to fit their aircraft with armor. The question was, where to put it? You can’t encase a whole plane in armor–if you did you’d have what’s known in the military-industrial complex as a “tank.”
So, the Air Ministry collected data on bombers that had gotten shot up while flying over Germany. Pretty soon they had a very good statistical picture of where their airplanes were most likely to get shot. They supposed the next step was pretty simple: put armor over those spots and the planes would be protected.
But that was a bad idea. And someone said so.
The guy’s name was Abraham Wald, a mathematician from Hungary. Here’s what he noticed: the Air Ministry did not examine planes that had been shot down–the data were collected only from planes that had been hit but kept on flying. Wald pointed out that if they put armor on the places where surviving planes had been shot, they’d succeed only in protecting the planes from hits they’d probably survive anyway, leaving their vulnerable areas still unprotected. I’ll give you a couple seconds to read that again.
Instead, Wald said, put armor on the places where surviving planes were free of damage. Logically, those are the places where the shot-down planes had been fatally hit.
Long-story-short, the plan worked. I like this little lesson because it says a couple things about the nature of the universe. First, sometimes the situation is very, very complicated. There are times when it’s stupid to keep it simple. Looking at some airplanes, noticing the bullet holes, and putting armor over them seems right until you realize the complexity of the situation. The second thing is, sometimes complicated things are not so hard to understand. If you’re like me, as soon as you heard Mr. Wald’s reasoning, it made perfect sense. As soon as I realized that it involved a sort of backwards thinking process, it clicked.
When I was first learning to fly fish, very few things clicked. My mind reeled with the crushing complexity of this supposedly elegant pursuit I’d taken up. Lines, casting, flies, fish–numberless volumes have been written about each one, and those are just a few basic headings. Yet the fly angler must develop a working familiarity with all those subjects, and a considerable number of others, to begin connecting with fish with any degree of reliability.
In those early days, I may have let the seemingly daunting intellectual challenges of fly fishing psyche me out. I often thought I would never really understand any of it. I fished a lot of days without laying eyes on a single fish, and there were days when I saw fish in every direction but never hooked one.
At some point, I started thinking backwards about it. I think it was in wintertime, and I had been told at the fly shop that fishing a #22 Griffith’s Gnat on stillwater in January could be productive on my homewater. I thought it was a legitimate possibility that the guys at the shop had some sort of bet to see how crazy a story they could sell to the next customer who walked through the door, but I was also very short on ideas about how to catch a fish. After casting this utterly invisible fly for a couple hours in the core-freezing cold over a flat-calm backwater, a brown trout took the fly almost without showing its nose above the water. I set the hook and somehow it stayed in the fish. I was learning that those small flies come away as often as they stick. The fish dove into some deep water and I held onto the rod. That was my strategy–hold onto the rod.
At the time I hadn’t caught more than twenty fish on that rod, so my ability to judge the size of the fish was poor. They all seemed big to me. He would have surely broke off if he’d played even one dirty trick, like turning into the current, ducking under the winter ice, or making one decent jump. But he didn’t. He just ran up and down the backwater about eleven times, turned on his side, and allowed me to scoop him up. He was as big and heavy as any three fish I’d ever caught on fly gear. I didn’t realize what a prize he was until a couple years later, when I told a much more seasoned angler this story and pointed out where it happened and he looked at me like I was a big fat liar. But that was the day I started thinking that maybe fishing for three days with no fish had taught me what I needed to know to get a fly into that big brown, and that it was logical for such a very small hook to catch so big a fish.
There was some luck involved, yes, and it was a long time before I caught a fish like that in the same place again. But at last I had it in my head that complex things can be understood, and that a day with no fish can teach one just as much as landing a lunker.