It is a topic that every angler has wondered about. Is successful fishing (or unsuccessful fishing) a matter of skill or luck? Was that lunker you just hauled in a product of your skills or good fortune? Understanding whether fishing is more about luck or skill is key as an angler.
Fishing is a combination of both luck and skill. Fortune definitely plays a part in that there are many aspects of fishing, like the weather, that you can’t control. However, anyone that is highly successful must have a fair degree of skill to ensure they can find, entice and bring in fish.
Blind luck still occasionally plays a role. But if a regular angler doesn’t recognize the luck, however, it can be wasted, and to recognize it requires some skill in itself. Below, we’ll discuss why you need both skill and luck when fishing, with both working together for you to be successful.
Luck vs Skill In Fishing – What This Means
To figure out whether fishing is more a matter of luck or skill, both terms must be defined.
The dictionary defines “luck” as “chance happenings of good fortune.” For example, blindly casting a lure into a bend in a shallow stream in the winter and catching your personal best smallmouth bass would qualify as luck.
Carefully selecting a shallow stream because baitfish congregate in it as it is shallow enough to be warmed by the sun and then catching that personal best would not count as luck.
As you can imagine, the definition of luck is subjective. For example, perhaps your subconscious tapped into your fishing knowledge or something you read and that prompted you to drop your lure in that stream. It was not so much blind happenstance as it was an informed – if unconscious – decision.
For this article, “skill” is defined as “the ability to do something well.” It is also called an “expertise.” Whether natural or learned, skill factors into just about everything we do.
For example, being able to drive a vehicle without crashing into everything around you is possible because of your driving skills. Doing whatever you do for work well is a product of skill.
Being able to skip a bait under a dock without hanging up is a skill. So is dropping a spinnerbait within six inches of the edge of lily pads.
The Battle Lines
Those two definitions define the debate about whether fishing is a product of skill or luck. Using the bass in the stream example, which was at play?
Was it blind happenstance and a case of the fisher being in the right place at the right time? Or was it more a product of the fisher being guided by intuition, and catching the bass was down to skill far more than luck? Or was catching the bass a product of skill in the sense of being able to put a lure in the right place to entice a bass to eat. Or was that luck?
The reason this debate resonates with anglers and non-anglers alike is because of all the different angles and perspectives you can take.
Is There Skill Required In Fishing?
Skill is required in every aspect of fishing. The degree to which it plays a role varies, but behind almost every fishing decision is a foundation of your knowledge, skill and abilities. Putting all of these together allows you to make the right fishing decisions, rather than relying on blind luck.
How much an angler knows about fishing falls under the label of “knowledge.” Specific topics under knowledge include:
- Understanding how to use the appropriate rod, reel and line
- Knowing how to assess a body of water to determine possible hotspots
- Being able to “read” the water to make an effective lure selection
- Understanding the weather and how it affects fishing
- Knowing what lures work in different situations
- Knowing when to change lures
- Comprehending the importance of conservation as it pertains to fishing habitat
- Knowing how to read a nautical chart
- Knowing how to pick likely hotspots for shore fishing
- Possessing a comprehensive knowledge of fish biology
- Understanding how temperature affects fish feeding habits
This is a partial list of the knowledge needed to be an effective fisher. Each trip requires knowing all the information above and being able to practically apply it.
Skill is the practical application of any knowledge you possess. In this case, the practical knowledge is the information above. If you cannot act on that knowledge, it is worthless from a fishing standpoint (even if it still might be interesting to you).
Without some degree of skill, fishing would just be a process of throwing a bait or lure into the water and relying on blind happenstance to catch a fish.
Some of the skills needed to be successful at fishing include:
- Being able to cast, flip and pitch fishing lures
- Being able to tie and untangle knots
- Being able to “feel” a nudge, nibble, bite and strike by a fish
- Being able to set a hook
- Being able play a fish in without breaking the line or the fish throwing the bait or lure
- Being able to properly handle the fish once it is landed without hurting it
Each of these skills are required every time an angler goes out on the water to fish. If the angler lacks in any of them, the result can be anything from a wasted trip to a disappointing haul of fish.
Additionally, there are several skills that might be needed to be successful at fishing, depending on the circumstances:
- Knowing how to navigate with a boat
- Knowing how to swim
- Knowing how to wade and cross water
- Knowing basic first aid
These skills may come in handy, but not for every fisher and not on every single fishing trip.
You can know how to cast, but if you are horrible at it, what you know isn’t much good. That sums up all abilities. You must be able to do the things listed above and be able to do them well, or at least adequately, to be effective at fishing.
Your abilities are both natural and learned. You can learn how to cast a fishing lure, but you can cast it much further if you have an arm like an NFL quarterback!
The only way you will ever excel at certain skills is through practice and experience. You will lose fish that jump out of the water and shake a lure. You will lose lures because of underwater structures you did not anticipate. You will sometimes go hours without catching anything and wonder why.
If, though, you do not go through those down periods, you will never learn enough to become a good angler. As with anything in life, practice makes you a good fisher. Losing fish and lures is as much a part of fishing as landing big fish and figuring out how to read water.
As you learn, your abilities increase as does your talent. When you combine all that with your knowledge, you have a complete package or skill set. Without either skill or knowledge, however, you will not be as good a fisher as you could be – and likely not good at fishing at all!
How Is Luck Involved In Fishing?
Luck is involved in fishing in aspects like the weather and fish behavior. If the right circumstances do not present themselves, all the skill in the world will not yield a success. However, you need to be able to recognize lucky fishing situations, and capitalize on them with your skill.
For example, the chances of that smallmouth bass mentioned earlier being in that stream at the moment a lure was thrown into it are fairly remote. A lot had to happen to get that bass there at that time.
Lots Of Variables At Play
The sun had to warm up the water in the stream. Baitfish had to be around and become active enough to attract a predator during a time of the year when activity for almost all fish is down. The bass must be there. It also had to be looking for baitfish which, given the slow metabolism of bass in winter, was not guaranteed.
Once all that happened, the sun had to keep warming the water. The baitfish had to remain active enough to attract the bass. Finally, the bass had to be on the lookout and in a state of mind to go after a lure.
In addition, the water temperature had to be just right. The current in the stream had to be perfect, enough to sustain baitfish and keep them active, but not so much that the bass decided going after them wasn’t worth the effort.
Much had to fall into place to get the fisher there at the right time and place. They had to go open-water fishing in winter, which requires a particular devotion to fishing! They had to be fishing on shore in exactly the right place or they had to position a boat exactly right.
They had to cast at that moment and the cast had to be enough to attract the attention of the bass. The lure had to hit the water just right and the bass had to decide the lure looked like food. It then had to strike, the fisher had to set the hook, and then they had to reel in the fish.
A Sophisticated Sequence
All of that had to take place in the proper sequence. If one thing wasn’t right, they likely wouldn’t have caught the fish.
If the temperature was off, baitfish might not have been active. The bass might have been hanging out in a different location. The cast might have hit the water hard and made the bass super cautious. The line could have broken, or the angler could have allowed too much slack in it, letting the bass get away.
Instead, it all worked perfectly. That is the definition of luck, or at least a form of luck. Transfer that luck into every fishing scenario imaginable and you begin to understand that luck plays a critical role. It plays a role in just about every facet of fishing!
Skill And Luck Together
Both skill and luck are critical to successful fishing. Each has a role to play and each one influences the other. It is almost reasonable to say they work in tandem.
Skill Informs Luck
There is an old saying that successful people “make their own luck.” What that means is that people who experience success know how and when to act to bring any scenario into their favor. It applies to almost every area of life.
A professional poker player, for example, might not exploit a tell of an opponent until the right cards are dealt. Professional athletes practice, exercise, strength train and study their sports almost constantly to gain an advantage over an opponent. Business leaders evaluate opportunities and use their skills to determine if a proposition is a potential money maker or not worth it.
Each of those scenarios combine skill with luck,or the right opportunity, and know how to seize and exploit the moment. The same holds true with fishing.
Skill And Luck Are Part Of Fishing
Fishing is a process whereby an angler uses their skills and equipment to entice a fish to go after their bait or lure. Once the fish is hooked, the angler must land it without losing it. Luck plays a role throughout that entire process.
Even the act of bringing the fish in requires a degree of luck and a lot of skill. The angler must play the fish, letting it run without snapping the line. They must reel it in at the right speed, which is something you only learn with experience. They must land the fish, take the hook out and secure it before the fish escapes or injures itself.
As all that is happening the line must remain strong and not get twisted around underwater structures. The rod must remain in one piece to aid casting and landing fish. The reel cannot have issues either. If any of that happens, the fish can get just enough space to free itself from the hook. These aspects could be thought of as dependent on luck.
If luck and skill do not converge, the outcome would be much different. Maybe the line breaks or the reel jams. Perhaps the angler loses their footing, or the fish is just slick enough to get out of their grasp. Luck and skill are both needed, and each must complement the other to have any chance of success.
4 Ways To Improve Your Fishing Skill
1. Learning From Experience
The first and most important way to improve your fishing skill is through experience. Whether you are just starting out or have been fishing for decades, you should not be afraid to learn how to master the craft through experience. You should also not be afraid to fail, because most anglers will fail repeatedly until they pick up the skills needed to be a good fisher.
For example, you can read all you want about how to catch trout and watch videos that show you technique, strategies and tactics and almost always pick up some knowledge you can apply when fishing. You cannot, however, learn to master an aspect of fishing just by reading a book, watching a video or even by being instructed by a mentor, but instead these are useful ways to supplement your practice.
You must try out the information you learn using these methods. Only then can you see why certain strategies, tactics, equipment and techniques are recommended and how to actually do them. You will also learn what works for you versus what you are told to do.
Finally, fishing is by nature trial and error. If you are not willing to risk failure, you will not master the art of fishing. You also will only get to a certain level and never go beyond that in terms of being able to use your skills to make your own luck.
2. Reading About Fishing
Aside from actually practicing the skills involved in fishing, reading books is a great way to learn the theory behind the practice. The very first book on fishing was written in the early part of the 15th century by a Benedictine Monk (reportedly).
The “book” was more of a booklet, found in a prayer book. The oldest published work on fishing, “Tagernsee Fishing Advice,” was written by another Benedictine monk in the late 15th century.
The first published book of prominence, “The Compleat Angler,” was published in 1653 and had five editions. Since then, just about every conceivable fishing topic has been written about in books, magazines and blogs. There are even doctoral theses that address certain aspects of fishing. Topics related to fishing that have books written about them include:
- Fishing stories
- Hobby books
The following are a few book recommendations. The list includes books for beginners, those with more experience, and then a couple of fishing related books.
Basic Fishing by Wade Bourne: Realistically, any angler can benefit from reading this book.
Fishing Basics by Gene Kugach: This book is great for beginners.
Panfishing by F. Phillip Rice: This is a great book for any level of angler.
Reading Weather: The Field Guide to Forecasting the Weather by Jim Woodmencey: This book will help every fisher assess and forecast the weather quickly and accurately.
There are many other fishing books that can help any level angler improve their technique and catch more fish, but this list is a good start.
3. Watching Videos
There is a wealth of online video content that can benefit everyone from beginner to expert angler. An aspiring angler or one that is looking to improve can find videos on fishing basics, techniques, strategies, tactics, equipment, seasonal fishing advice, and just about anything else related to fishing.
Videos are helpful because you can take them with you and play them on your smartphone if you are trying to learn a new technique or skill.
The key to videos is to take notes when watching them and go back and listen to parts if you don’t get the information down the first time. Some people find videos more helpful than books because you can see what is being covered in practice.
For example, consider the process of learning how to use a baitcaster reel. It is difficult to comprehend how to master a baitcasting reel from a book, but a video can show you how and you can use the video to troubleshoot your technique.
4. Learning From A Mentor
The final way to improve your fishing skills is through a mentor. A mentor can be a fishing buddy with more experience, or someone specific that you ask to teach you how to fish. Most experienced fishers will be more than willing to show you the basics if you ask.
There are certain qualities you want to find in a fishing mentor, including fishing skills, patience, and the ability to teach someone. Not every angler is able to successfully teach someone else how to fish or how to improve their fishing.
However, if you can find a good teacher, they’ll be worth the knowledge of a thousand books and videos, and learning via a mentor combines learning the theory with practice, making it one of the best ways to improve your skills as an angler.
Fishing is a mix of luck and skill. Every fishing scenario demands both, with one or the other playing a larger role. You need to use luck and skill by learning how to maximize your chances of getting lucky, and how to recognize favorable fishing situations, capitalizing on them with your skills.