Fishing Guides:
What it takes to be successful

The Sixth Sense

If I go there will be trouble

And if I stay it will be double…

Should I stay, or should I go?

The Clash, lyrics: Should I Stay or Should I Go?   1982

The longer I fish, the more I realize that many life lessons can be learned from the art of fishing. Intuition, or that “sixth sense” is definitely no exception. Every now and then we’re faced with decisions that seem to require guidance from outside ourselves. Or maybe, deep within.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re thinking about changing careers or pulling out of the stock market. Or sticking it out in a certain area waiting for the bite to come on, or pulling the gear and making a run for greener pastures. Is it better to stay with a chosen course, or change plans and hope for a better outcome?

There are so many factors to consider as a professional fisherman. Wind, tide, fish and bait movement, light conditions–they all factor into the decision making process. If it was a full moon last night, were the fish feeding all night? Will they be as hungry as usual in the morning?

I think the pressure to perform can be just as intense in the sport fishing profession as other more publicized venues. Only I am performing without a camera following my every move. Decisions on whether to move to a different area, change lure size or color, or even fish a little deeper all end up affecting the size of the catch at the end of the day.

For me, there’s few things worse than hitting the dock with only 2 or 3 salmon in the hold and seeing the competition laying out 12 beautiful salmon and halibut. (Of course, his has never happened to yours truly).

Every once in awhile, I’ll hear a fishing charter captain lamenting the fact he burned 400 litres of fuel and covered 60 miles of ocean in search of good salmon. On the surface it sounds impressive, admirable even. He was so committed to finding fish for his customers, he gave no thought to the money vaporized into the ozone on burnt fuel.

But here’s the thing.  Nine times out of ten, that guy is a rookie. He hadn’t factored the tide change into his plans.  He hadn’t considered which side of the bank he should be on when the tide changed. He probably only had a rough idea what the fish were feeding on that day. Basically, he didn’t have a well-thought out itinerary when he left the dock, and he kept “winging it” from there on out, with predictable results. (I speak from experience, as once upon a time, I too was a rookie.)

Without a well thought out plan, pretty much all that’s left is to “go with your gut” and hope for the best. Throw the dart. Drop the chips, and let them fall where they may. All too often, people who go with their gut will tell you, “I just had a feeling.” When it works out, they look like geniuses. If they come up empty, however, you usually hear very little. I think we all tend to remember our victories, while the times we came up dry fade into the recesses of our memory.

The same principle applies to the poker table. Some of you might know I’m a poker buff. About once a week, I’ll play in a small stakes Texas hold-em poker tournament. The guy who just won a big pot with a terrible starting hand invariably gives a little grin and says, “I just had a feeling.” The thing is, if you watch the same guy over the course of the evening, he gets these “feelings” fairly often and, most of the time, he’s wrong. Good for me, because this is where I pick up most of my chips. In the long run, the math always rules.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in “going with my gut” and all that. It’s just that I’ve become a little more scientific in my thinking over the years than chalking it all up to some special foreknowledge, some magic, and some intuition that makes me a little special. Hunches, or going with your gut, are usually based on prior remembered experiences, whether subconscious or otherwise.

Our subconscious “remembers” things we’ve long forgotten. Sometimes these memories show up in dreams, or are triggered by a smell or sound we haven’t heard for eons. Suddenly, memories come rushing back, events and people from long ago. That’s why we sometimes can’t put a finger on why exactly we did something, only we knew it was the right thing to do.

I think most of you would agree that history and experience teach us that keeping to a well thought out course for the duration pays off handsomely in the end. Investing consistently every month, through ups and downs over fifty years it seems to be a recipe for success.

But then again, we’ve all heard of the guy who switched stocks at the last minute and made a killing and retired at 40 years old. Or the story on the dock about the fisherman who pulled into a spot at the last minute and filled the boat. There’s nothing quite like choosing a course of action, all the while harboring a nagging feeling that you’re really missing out. So what to do?

A couple of years back, I had a group of guys from Alberta fish with me for 3 days. One guy in particular by the name of Wade really wanted to land a salmon over 30 pounds. Usually I don’t pay too much attention to clients telling me they want a certain size fish unless they make a good case for their request. I take the boat out every day, do my best to catch fish for everyone, and let fate decide who catches what.

Sometimes I get told they want the biggest salmon in the world. I smile and say, “We’ll see.” Some 45 minutes later, when they’re struggling with a 10 pound silver and asking for help because, “My arms are killing me”, I smile quietly inside know they wouldn’t last 10 minutes with the world’s biggest salmon. But this guy had fished all over the coast and was still in search of that elusive tyee, a Chinook (King) salmon over 30 pounds

Now a 30 pound salmon is a special fish. In Ucluelet, during late July and August, they seem to come a little easier, but they don’t necessarily happen every day. Every year is different (fortunately this year we are expecting great fishing for big fish). Some days you can hit a good patch of fish and catch 2 or 3 over 30 and a few just under 30. Then a couple days will go by and there won’t be anything over 29 pounds. So you never know. Besides all this, this was early July. I really wanted to get Wade a tyee because I could tell he had paid his dues and fully understood what was involved.  I knew I had my work cut out.

The first day, a brisk Northwest wind was blowing, making an offshore trek a little dubious. Since we were trying to track down a trophy size fish, I started at the north entrance to Barkley Sound, just inside Cree Island. Even though it was July, I was hopeful we could find an early fish working it’s way back to the Stamp-Somass system at the head of the inlet. I fished anchovies in a teaser head 6 ½ feet behind a Hot Spot flasher. We landed a 2 Chinook in the teens, a bunch of shakers and a few sea bass. Right at the end, a good fish popped the downrigger clip and swam right to the surface behind the boat. Once there, it rolled and the hooks came out. I saw the bronze and gold on it’s side and knew we had lost the fish we were looking for. Not quite the start I was hoping for.

The second day, we headed offshore to Big Bank. At 18 nautical miles out, fish from just about every major river system in North America will migrate through at some point during the year. Huge white springs from the Harrison, the thick, fat fish from the Columbia, and the hundreds of thousands of Fraser fish.  Fishing was fast and furious. We trolled up our “chicken “ halibut in record time, and had the Chinook coming over the stern every 15 minutes or so, because the Coho (Silvers) were everywhere and were distracting us from getting our trophy. At the end of our trip, the trophy ones were conspicuously absent, our biggest weighing in at 23 pounds.

The third day, we started at Wya Point, a few miles north along the coast. I figured that since we had hit one fish the first day farther south, maybe more of the main body of fish was farther north. About 10 o’clock with nary a fish on board, I had a decision to make. I had made a calculated guess, and guessed wrong. We had no fish to show for 3 hours fishing. Should I stay, or should I go?

On the one hand, we had little success the day before on really big fish on the offshore waters. But for some reason, I kept thinking about Southwest Corner, about 11 miles out. Was it intuition? That sixth sense? Or something else?  Logically, it seemed like the decision was a bit of a toss-up. We’d tried offshore the day before, and hadn’t found anything over 23 pounds. Beautiful fish nonetheless, but not that trophy salmon. On the flip side, we hadn’t hit anything through the tide change where we were, so a move seemed to be in order.

All at once, I made the decision to go. It was a perfect day. Slightly overcast, no wind on a gentle swell. Travel time of about 28 minutes. I started at the bottom end of the Corner and let the current push us in a northwest direction towards the Starfish, another place that can sometimes produce good results. I was still fishing anchovies behind a flasher and decided on a depth of 85 feet on the port side and 50 feet starboard, even though we were in 160 feet of water. I kept our speed right around 2 knots, much slower than what I would troll with conventional gear. 40 minutes passed, and we hadn’t had so much as a sniff.

I had my back to the port side, but I heard the downrigger creak a bit and I turned just in time to see the rod trip. Wade was on it in a flash and quickly reeled up the slack before the reel began to shriek. It kept going, and going, and going. I knew this was it.  Sure enough, 20 some minutes later, he was the proud owner of a 38 pound tyee salmon. We finished the day out with 2 more beautiful salmon in the twenties and headed for home, a jubilant group.

How did I know to pick up the gear and run 11 miles for the last 3 hours? In heady moments after landing a really big fish, it’s easy to believe that somehow I have a special gift, a sixth sense of where and what to fish. But I believe it’s usually a little simpler than that.

Good decisions cannot be made without good information. Some of that information is cognitive, where I have a logical reason for deciding a course of action, and some of it come from years of storing tidbits of data that come back to help the next time around. And there’s always time to listen to that still, small voice that seems to come from outside ourselves that lets us know exactly what to do. Some of you know of whom I speak.

Til next time,

Ray Vandervalk