On Various Catch Totals and Their Significance

The first fish answers “no” to the question of whether you will be skunked today and therefore is always welcome. The number-one fish takes you over a divide of sorts. You have readied yourself for fishing and you begin to cast, but without at least one fish all you really have to do is stop casting for a moment and you’re back at the first step again. You might as well be in your driveway, still trying to find a good song to start the drive. After the first fish is in your net, you are on to a third step, one which validates your preparation and careful selection of driving tunes.

If you’re in a place where fish are hard to come by, your first catch will represent a gulf between those who caught that day and those who did not. And when fishing in a group, of course, it’s hard to overstate the satisfaction that comes when your first fish is the first fish.

For me, the first fish often makes his appearance right away, on an early cast, maybe because my focus is so thorough but more probably because I haven’t had time to spoil the entire stream yet.

The second fish confirms what you’re always hoping: that the first one wasn’t a fluke. You have at least managed to get it right twice, meaning there’s a fair chance that you could do it a third time.

An angler fishing in very productive waters will blow past that second fish without pausing. I advise against this. Take note of the number-two fish, and salute him, lest he be lost among the other fish you catch that day.

Fish number three lends a certain Isaak-Walton completeness to your catch, especially if you are fishing for supper. Three good fish, lying picturesquely on a bed of grass in a wicker creel, are enough to feed yourself and your protege, with something left over for the milk-maid.

The number-five fish is looked for because with it you can report your catch by holding up all the fingers on one hand while maintaining a cool, trout-stalking reticence. The fifth fish allows some extrapolation, too–“It’s 2:15 and I have five fish. If this keeps up, I could wind up with fifty by 8:30.”  There is something great about counting up fish by fives, even the ones you haven’t caught yet.

The tenth fish is a benchmark for obvious reasons. Grunting “got ten” at your buddy has an authoritative ring, especially if the trip was somewhat short or the fish somewhat long.  You’re now also into double digits, which gives you an option of describing the day in those terms. For example, if your buddy says, “Thirty-five; how’d you do?” you may now honestly answer, “Oh, I got into double digits, as well.”

Fish number twelve allows you to use the word “dozen.”

Hello, twenty, thirty, and forty. There are fewer and fewer places in the world where ordinary anglers can catch twenty fish and not consider that a good trip. Twenty fish make a day memorable even if your buddy catches forty. I often make twenty my goal, though on an “ordinary” day, several factors have to fall into place for me catch that number, and going beyond it strikes me as relentless. The number-twenty fish seems to ask me, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?” I admit to often answering, “No, not really,” but I always acknowledge it’s a good question.

A few years ago my wife bought me a fish counter in the shape of a little rainbow trout with a dial and a tiny window that reads from “01” to “00.” I thought it would be fun for the few places where I’m in danger of catching more fish than I can count in my head, but whenever I used it, my catch totals seemed depressed. I once brought it to Montana to fish on what was supposed to be a dynamite trout stream. At the end of the day the counter read “09.” The next day I left it in the tent and caught twenty-seven. When it comes to fishing and jinxes, that’s as close to hard science as a fly angler needs–I’ve never fished with it again.

Some calibration may be in order here. If your homewater is a bluegill pond, twenty fish is the opening act. If you fish steelhead, thirty fish may be a month’s work.

What can be said about the fiftieth fish? If you’re holding the number-fifty fish, either the fish are just plain obsequious or you have moved into a hazy, euphoric state of mind we sometimes refer to as “the zone,” where practice and experience quiet the clamor of the conscience mind and tap into some primitive place in the brainstem where nothing exists but your efforts and their object.

My first memory of passing into the zone is playing Galaga at an arcade decades ago. Fishing and Galaga actually resemble each other more than you might think–both involve lengthy sequences of motions repeated mechanically, interspersed with furious improvisation. I had blasted my way through the high score on the machine and racked up four or five extra lives when I noticed how how relaxed my movements were, and the way I anticipated my enemy’s attacks three and four steps in advance. As I breezed through a Challenge Stage in the high 20s, I understood only that something up in my brain was different, sharper, better. Unfortunately, as soon as I became consciously aware of it, everything downshifted, the sharpness faded, and my starfighter disintegrated in a cloud of 8-bit graphics and sound.

Fish number 100. I was speaking in partly hypothetical terms about about catching fifty fish at a single go–I visit that neighborhood periodically but can’t afford to live there. Anything I say about catching 100 fish is pure speculation. Let’s say I’ve gotten a look at the neighborhood, but just from the highway.

Hypothetically, 100 fish would be a lot of fun, but I doubt I’d have the expertise or discipline to keep fishing long enough to find out. Assuming I found a waterway with such abundance, and further assuming I caught a fish every five minutes or so, I’d need to fish for more than eight hours to arrive at 100. What about taking a break to look around the stream? What about sitting on a rock and watching your friend catch one? Hey, what about lunch?

Even though such waters are uncharted for me, I suppose I can say one thing with certainty: the number-100 fish won’t be that different from the first, second, or tenth. The number-100 fish will shine and shimmer the same way the first one did. It will feel vibrant in your hand.

Every Day in May

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12 thoughts on “On Various Catch Totals and Their Significance

  1. Kenth Eis says:

    Not to mention that even with a conservative mortality rate of 10% of your released fish, if you catch and “release” 30, you’re still killing enough for dinner. So much for the holy mantra of catch and release. Better to switch flies and see what else theyi’re taking.

    Limit your kill by limiting your catch. Or just go ahead and bonk a few, especially if you’re fishing the BSF. You’ll be doing the right thing, then. Not many places where that’s the case.

    • Mr. Eis,
      I agree with all these remarks. I considered covering the mortality issue in this post, but it got to be too long. Unfortunately, I’m very bad at harvesting fish — not necessarily out of tenderheartedness, but because it’s inconvenient.

  2. I remember the days when I counted the fish I caught, and cared about size. Those days are long gone, any fish is a good fish, and there are times when catching fish ruins a great day of fishing.

    • I’ve tried to pretend I don’t care how many I catch, but I can never make myself believe it. There are many things that are as or more important than the fish — beautiful surroundings, great company. However, when all factors are equal, a day with fish is more interesting and more fun than a day with none, and a day with more fish is better than a day with fewer. I do believe there is such a thing as catching too many — no need to go nuts. I love just being at the stream for its own sake and that is no small consolation when I don’t catch much, but I admit that I go there to fish — if all I wanted to do was soak in the serenity and surroundings, I wouldn’t bring the rod, waders, and all this other junk.

  3. paracaddis says:

    I seriously doubt that the mortality rate of properly handled fish is close to 10%, at one point we used to tag some browns and were able to monitor their life and growth over a lengthy period of time. Properly handled and released I believe mortality to be very low. Wetting hands, using soft mesh nets, taking time to insure that the fish is ready to go before release and other factors certainly come into play but properly done survival is to my mind and in my experience pretty much assured. Plus of course we are using barbless hooks, there was never a thing do dangerous to a fish’s survival as a barbed hook. We fish entirely unstocked and CAR waters and should the mortality be anything close to that suggested we wouldn’t have any fish in the river. One thing for certain, banging ’em on the head offers a mortality rate of 100%, that much is scientifically confirmed.

    • In these parts, “banging ’em on the head” is about to become a conservation method — we have a trout stream here in which the brown trout are overcrowded and stunted, and we’re embarking on an experiment to see if removing trout (harvesting your limit) from the system can free up some room and allow larger, healthier fish. That’s what the previous commenter was referring to. As to mortality of released fish, this is a contentious issue. Scientific papers suggest that there is mortality in released fish, though the figure differs by waterway and species. Keep in mind that your “handling” of the fish begins when you force it into an exhausting struggle. Sure, you use a c&r net, barbless hooks, and wet hands, but you have also interfered with that fish’s ability to cope with its already harsh environment. As you know, wild fish (like most wild animals) subsist on very skinny profit margins — changing those margins even a little can compound and combine with other factors to affect a fish’s survival. I use every c&r practice I can manage, but I’d be kidding myself if I said there was no mortality among the fish I let go.

      • paracaddis says:

        Thanks and I understand the thinning out process on some streams, Indeed I accept that it would be naive to imagine that there is no mortality, I just don’t think that it approaches 10%. Certainly wasn’t trying to cause any offense. Regards T

      • No offense at all taken, Tim. Your posts and comments are always smart and welcome. I think most fly anglers are aware (over-aware?) of the costs/impacts and always hedging to minimize them.

  4. Kenda T. Eis says:

    Sorry, I misspoke. The summary I was referring to said that with single hook lures, mortality of released fish would likely be less than 10% of the fish caught. Ranges for fly-caught trout were from 0.3 – 3%. The summary did state that “barbless lures do not significantly reduce hooking mortality, but probably reduce some damage to fish and therefore have a value in trout management.” (http://www.flyflinger.com/wpblog/?p=360).

    The point I was making is directed toward the catch and releasers who smugly claim 50 fish days (or more) but that’s alright because “we turned ’em all loose.”

    So how many fish is enough to prove that a person is one hell of a fisherman? I have experienced some 50 fish days (or more), but as it turns out, the feeling was more like that of staying too long at the fair. And the excesses actually left me not eager to return to experience more of the same. I’ve experienced that fishing for bluegills at Pelican Lake, some staging rainbows on the South Platte in Colorado, and silver salmon in Alaska.

    My motto: No challenge, no reward.

    Walking away knowing that you could catch more but didn’t is a sign of a mature angler.
    Like the sign says, “Know when to say when.”


    • Again, I agree with you, Ken — it’s a matter of wearing out your welcome. It can be hard to walk away from really easy fishing, though. I believe I learn something with just about every fish I catch, even if it’s just improving my presence of mind during the playing/landing process, which helps me lose fewer fish. Knowing that catching fish makes me better at catching fish sometimes makes it hard to pass up an opportunity for easy pickings. Plus, bumper-crop catch totals don’t happen to me every week, so again, it’s hard to walk away. But I try. The thesis of this particular post was directed primarily at me, myself and I — that counting up your catch total is somewhat (but not totally) pointless, and that it’s great to catch and hold a fish, no matter if it’s the first or fiftieth of the day. Thanks for all the comments!

  5. This is a good analysis of the fish counting process and why we even bother. I use it only with trout and salmon because they are the fishes I’m most fascinated by. I’ve been trying to quit it but, alas, I think counting fish is an addiction. I’ve cut back on some forms of the count (i.e., total trout in a year, which only serves the purposes of a beginner) but the number of trout daily is a tough nut to crack. And it’s all because of that #1 fish:”The skunk is finished, now have fun!”

  6. A year or so after I began fly fishing, I started keeping track of my catch in a tiny little pocket notebook. It wasn’t because the totals were impressive, believe me, it was just so I could recall where I had fished and where I’d had successes. At first it was barely more than a tally of fish and their location, but as I learned more about fly fishing the notes became more complex and within a couple years I was keeping a full-on journal. Over the years I’ve gotten so much satisfaction from writing and reading these journals that I consider them a big part of my fishing experience — I don’t think I could go back to just fishing and then forgetting the day. I like to write a little about each place, the fish, and the day. I suppose I could do this without catch totals, but I’ve also become somewhat hooked on “running the numbers” at the end of each year. I guess I think it’s a way to track my skill, the effectiveness of certain techniques, or the productivity of the places I fish. So yeah, I count fish. I’m always envious of anglers I know who don’t count fish and won’t discuss how many or how big — they seem more evolved than me.

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