Head counts vs a few confidence-building tugs
It was a fluke, of course. I just happened across a moment when everything aligned: the weather (drizzly and gray) the temperature (upper 50s) and the mood of the fish (peckish, to say the least).
As much fun as that was, I don't think I would trade it for the hour or so I spent fishing a small stream last Wednesday when very little was aligned. The sun was mid-afternoon high and bright; and the water level low, which made the trout all too easy to spook. About the only thing I had going for me was the tall summer grass along the stream side, and even this was a mixed blessing. It did keep me out of sight of the fish, but it also made walking the bank like a machete hack through a jungle thicket.
At the first bend, I was able to creep up and sink a bead-head nymph deep enough to hook a 10-inch brown. He may have been small, but he put an impressive bend on my three weight before cleverly twisting himself into some weeds and breaking off the line. One of the side benefits of catch-and-release fishing is you can slough off these misfortunes. You were just going to throw him back anyway, so he simply saved you the trouble of removing the hook, right?
So I re-rigged with a new fly and started to puzzle out the next bit of stream. I knew the bend ahead--about 20 feet upstream--held fish even though it was really small and shallow. It was so small in fact that I had overlooked it last May and then was surprised to see trout scrambling for cover as I lumbered past. This time, however, I stayed low, crouched down in the streambed and lightly cast into a bath-towel sized pool. It was a one-and-done situation. Either the fish would take the nymph on the first cast or I would spoil the hole with a clumsy splat. My fly landed gracefully (in every sense of that word) and BAM! Fish number two slammed it. Nice little brown. Okay, confidence growing.
I took two more fish out of that stream before I was done, one on a dry fly of my own design that I floated over a pool of browns. He came charging up out of the depths like a sub crash-breeching the surface. He hammered my bug, again bending the rod into a beautiful inverted "U." Sheer pleasure.
Okay, enough fish tales.
What mattered was how I caught the fish, not how many. There was the satisfaction of knowing what I needed to do in each situation and then the pay-off for having that knowledge. Catching 17 browns in two hours was a lot of fun, but the pleasure I took in took catching those three fish last Wednesday was a lot more fun.
In learning theory, this kind of pleasure comes from "mastery motivation," a psychological tendency for people to be more stimulated by tasks that challenge them than ones that come easily. Ask graduating seniors what experience in four years of college gave them the deepest satisfaction and you won't hear them say the high fish count of their GPA or the easy As they racked up. It'll be something they had to work for, or a project that stretched them or got them to see the world in a new way.
After all, you earn a 4.0 and what is there left to do? But you have a day like I had last Wednesday, and all you can think is "let's get back out there."