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It’s All in Your Head

Throughout a year of fishing open water, I spend a lot of time casting and retrieving, over and over again.  Depending on the season, water, and species pursued, I know I may spend hours in between bites.  That does not bother me especially if those few bites result in big fish.  This fall I have been standing in the water doing a lot of that, and I have been thinking. . . .


You hear a lot of athletes, especially those competing at elite levels, talk about their mental approach to their game.  I very much believe the same thing applies to fishing.  I believe your mental approach can make a huge difference in your success.  The mental approach of tournament anglers fascinates me, but unfortunately I am not aware of a lot of information on the topic.  I have read a few things, but not a lot.  Buck Perry, the father of structure fishing, used to say the most valuable tool any angler had for catching fish was the one between his or her ears–“Knowledge is the key to success”.  I am not going to proclaim to be any kind of expert on the subject, but let me share some thoughts.  Here are some things that I believe will improve your mentality on the water:

 1.  Be well-rested/fit.  Let’s face it, the more tired you are, the less focused and less effective you are at any task.  Yes, I know that there can be times when we only have so much time to fish and we want to spend every possible minute fishing.  But, at some point, if your mind, and body, are not sharp, you likely would be further ahead by taking a break and getting some rest.  Likewise, we may not have the body of gym rat, but there is a certain amount of fitness needed to fish hard.

2.  Focus.  One thing we love about fishing is the chance to get away from the stresses of everyday life.  It is mentally healthy to clear our minds and kick back while we are on the water.  So, do not make your fishing as stressful as your job.  Clear your mind and then focus on catching fish.  Pay attention to your presentation, look for subtle clues that will help you figure out what the fish are doing, where they are located, and how you can catch them.  Do not get distracted, but certainly be observant.  Try to visualize what is going on below the surface and while you are at it, visualize that you are catching fish (Visualization).  Turn off the stinkin’ cell phone.

3.  Have a plan.  Everyday on the water is different, and it can be hard to anticipate what you are going to find when you start fishing.  But, as much as possible have a plan for what you are going to fish for, where you are going to fish, baits that are likely to work.  Develop that plan based on your past experiences and knowledge, and then go from there.  While you are at it, have some ideas about “plan B”, “plan C”, “plan D” and “plan E” because most days “plan A” will not work.

4.  Be versatile.  I know I just said “have a plan”.  I also said have several of them.  Have an idea of where to start, adapt and adjust from there.  We all have our favorite ways to fish, and it is natural for us to have our favorite baits, presentations and strengths, but it amazes me the number of anglers that are “one trick ponies”–they are going to fish a certain way no matter what.  The more versatile and adaptable you can be, the more consistently you will catch fish.

5.  Be prepared and organized.  Buy equipment that you can afford.  Yes, generally the more expensive stuff is better quality.  That does not mean you have to spend more than you can afford to be successful, but if you can see a need for an expensive rod, reel or other piece of equipment, and you can afford it, buy it!  Organization of tackle, sharp hooks, fresh line, well-maintained rods and reels are all things that will add up to more and bigger fish over the course of a season.  If you own a boat, the need to be prepared and have equipment in the best working condition becomes even more necessary.

6.  Pay attention to detail.  The littlest details in fish location and presentations can often make a huge difference in catching fish or not catching fish.  I saved a quote from a fishing discussion forum on the internet:  

“Always ask yourself the “why”.  The answers you get are the answers that will improve your success.”–“bassinoutwest”

7.  Do not give up.  I have often said the best anglers I know simply fish harder than most.  Every second they have to fish, they are on the water, and they are trying to figure out how to catch fish.  Yep, at some level, catching fish takes patience.  It also takes determination.  If you do not catch fish, so what?  Go again, keep trying, keep learning.  Lose a big fish?  Again, so what?  There is another one and it may be even bigger than the one you just lost.  Learn from your mistakes, but then get right back in the game.

8.  Be positive.  In my mind, there has never been one time when I would not have caught fish if given enough time.  “Just one more cast” because I know the next cast is THE CAST!  I tell myself that all the time, and if I am fishing where no one can hear me, I will say it out loud!  I will even tell the fish I know they are there, and that I am going to catch them.  I will tell them to bite and then do everything I know how to make ’em do so!  If I am fishing with someone, I may not say it out loud, but you better believe I am thinking it, saying it to myself.  EDITOR’S NOTE:  If I am fishing with you and you hear my “inner voice” speak out loud so that you can hear these things, yes, I am crazy, crazy like a fox!  I speak to the fish all the time, sometimes I ain’t even whispering to them.  When they start speaking back, watch out, I will be able to catch fish like none other!

9.  Follow your hunches.  I believe the more time you spend on the water, the more you will develop an instinct for where you should be fishing and what presentations you should be using.  Maybe someday I will develop oneness with the muskies and be able to think like them.  Again, when that happens I will be able to catch fish like none other!  Until then, when I get a hunch while on the water, I follow it.  Sometimes it leads nowhere, but you would be surprised how often it leads to fish, big fish.  I may not be able to explain that in all situations, but I believe it is no accident.  One of my best spots on Elwood Reservoir was a place where I got blanked the first several times I fished it, but I just had a hunch that under the right conditions it would hold fish that were willing to bite.  I kept going back to that spot, kept fishing it, and yes, under the right conditions it produced big time, and has many times since then!

10.  Be confident.  This is maybe the most difficult because “success breeds success” and “confidence breeds confidence”.  All I can tell you is the more you practice, the more time you spend on the water, the more it will begin to come together.  When that happens it will be an “Ah Ha” moment, light bulbs will go on and your confidence will soar.  It is a rush and the more it happens the more it will happen again and again.  There are no secret chants or little pills to take, it only comes through dedication and hard work. . . .But along the way it is a darned lot of fun!


About daryl bauer

Daryl is a lifelong resident of Nebraska (except for a couple of years spent going to graduate school in South Dakota). He has been employed as a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 25 years, and his current tour of duty is as the fisheries outreach program manager. Daryl loves to share his educational knowledge and is an avid multi-species angler. He holds more than 120 Nebraska Master Angler Awards for 14 different species and holds more than 30 In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards for eight different species. He loves to talk fishing and answer questions about fishing in Nebraska, be sure to check out his blog at outdoornebraska.org.

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