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.