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Stages of Fly Fishing (or any outdoor pursuit)

I had planned to title this, "I try not to be a snob, really, I do!" because, well, often I feel that I am but I do not try to be a snob. I have a way that I like to fish - that is dry flies for trout and surface flies for smallmouth - not that it is superior but rather because I enjoy the rush of the surface take and how visual it is. I like catching fish on my own terms and I like that it limits me a bit. And yes, I know that sounds a little odd and probably a little snobbish.

UP / Wisconsin border sunset
Sometimes it is just about being there - other times, the catch or even eating the catch is the motivation behind fishing.

Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that I had not yet written about the so-called stages of a fly angler. Yes, there is a bit of science behind the idea but mostly it is an imperfect idea and not so much a progressive evolution as us trying to fit square pegs into round holes. The idea is that anglers - or grouse hunters, bow hunters, musky anglers, etc. - just want some success. Then it becomes a numbers game - the more the merrier! In stage three, size matters. We are told stage three anglers are in the hunt for big fish and that ever illusive PB (personal best). Stage four anglers care about how and where they catch those fish. We are told that they are searching for "the fish" but in this case it is not measured in size but in difficulty - catching fish on the perfect cast in the protected lie, maybe on some ridiculously small fly. And the top of the mountain - for those that move to stage five - are the anglers that are truly just happy to be there. They figured out it is about the journey - the fish are part of that journey but not the entirety of the journey. (For more: Atop the Angling Mountain by Todd Tanner)

While there may be some nuggets of truth in the above paragraph, I think it is mostly - but maybe not entirely - bullshit. Or at least the idea that we are climbing up some mountain and the goal is to reach the top is rather crap. It is a bit easier for me to see in something like upland gamebird hunting though the stage might be a bit different. I certainly know a number of grouse hunters that only shoot birds over points and with the finest double-barrelled shotguns. And I see here how snobbery is often tied to - or maybe confused with - the movement up the mountain. When people are carrying expensive bamboo fly rods or even more expensive European-made shotguns, it is pretty easy to think they are "snobs" and "fresh out of an Orvis catalog". Funny that nobody seems to think that of the tournament angler with at least $100K invested in boat and something to pull it with, but I digress.

Jet boat for the Lower Wisconsin River
A highly specialized piece of equipment for fishing the Lower Wissconsin River.

I feel myself over the course of a season or even a day jumping between stages. Early in the year, I am much more about having some success than I am later in the year. When I fish often, it is easier to move to that zen at level five. What is another day when it has already been a great season? And maybe as the years pass, it is quicker and easier to move to stages four and five. But I can tell you, early in the season, I want to get my hands on some fish and am motivated by the catch.

Looking back at my "climb up the angling mountain", some stages are pretty evident while others were at best short-lived and maybe altogether skipped. In particular, I have never really chased big fish and I would say that I got to stage four pretty quickly but that is largely a function of where I fish. I think it is also important to understand that the top of the mountain is not necessarily the ideal. If hunting big fish is what does it for you, that is great. If you are a fish counter, go do your thing. I don't understand it but if if makes you happy, go for it! And if you have reached the top of the proverbial mountain, awesome!

Angler Segmentation and Specialization

I had very briefly touched upon these ideas in an earlier post on human dimensions of angling. Southwick Associates - in a report you can request for yourself from them - conducted surveys of anglers, asking them a number of questions about fishing and using their responses to segment them into groups using some fancy statistical methods (k-means clustering - if you really want to get into the statistics behind how it is done). Angler segmentation is a way to group anglers together based on similarities and differences based on motivations for fishing.

They grouped anglers into seven (7) groups based on relationships in their responses to the surveys. They compared each group relative to the average (positive = higher than average; negative = lower than average).

  • Traditionalist grew up fishing and angling is a lifestyle. They feel it is important to pass fishing on to future generations. They rank above average for all the main questions that segmented anglers but scored especially high on questions related to mentoring and conservation. And they scored lower - nearer the average in their case - on questions about relaxing and spending time outdoors as motivations for fishing.

  • Occasional Anglers ranked low on most motivations, below the average on all the main survey questions but they were the furthest below the average on questions about connecting with friends and getting away to relax. Occasional anglers do not see fishing as central to their lives, if they are going to relax, they do it at home rather than go fishing. They have a preference for catching large fish, many fish, or target fish...but are not really willing to put much time in to do it. They do not fish much and are OK with that.

  • Friendly fishers make it about getting together with family and friends and score particularly low on questions about catching fish for food or for the challenge of it. They tend not to be very experienced but they are interested in learning - mostly from talking to and fishing with others.

  • The main motivation for consumptive anglers is to fish for food. They score well above average on the "fish for food" questions but well below average for the "thrill of the catch" questions. On most other questions, they score near the average. They tend to fish the places that they know and are not terribly adventuresome. They would fish more if people told them where to fish.

  • Another group motivated by fishing with other people are the social dabblers. They fish to connect with family and friends; for all other measures, they score well below average. They want to fish to have fun and prefer to do it with others. Fishing is a way to be around others rather than something they seek out more opportunities for.

  • Adventurous anglers are motivated by the thrill and challenge of fishing and to be outside. They are one of the groups least likely to have gone fishing at an early age. Only the traditionalists spend more time fishing.

  • Zen Anglers are just happy to be there. They score below average on all the categories except that they rate above the average on questions of getting away and relaxing. And when they fish, they want to do it alone and they are not terribly interested in mentoring. Fish is a form of therapy for zen anglers. It tends to be an experienced and often specialized group.

It is important to note that this survey of a few thousand anglers was of all anglers, not a specialized group like trout anglers or an even more specialized group such as fly anglers. These groups - trout or fly anglers - have already specialized to some extent. The way anglers are segmented (grouped) depends upon the group being surveyed. There are not a priori groups but most segmentation studies find that the importance of catching fish to eat (consumption) in one of the most important factors that differentiate groups (hmmm, sounds like a ton of Facebook fishing page arguments...). Looking further into the data, fly anglers are in all the groups but friendly fishers and consumptive anglers are the least likely to be fly anglers and occasional anglers and traditionalists are the most likely to be fly anglers. But in all cases, fly anglers are a small percentage (8.8 to 13.0%) of all anglers. We are already a specialized group.

Two Different Approaches

The "angling mountain" and the statistical approach - segmentation - are two very different ways to think about angling groups and their motivations. I have a bit of an issue with the mountain idea as it is often portrayed as this progression that you should be making and the goal is to reach the top of the mountain. With that, the assumptions is that you are doing something wrong if you are not progressing to the summit. And the statistical approaches can be a bit difficult to understand as they rely upon complex interrelationships within the data based on individuals' answers to questions. Not everyone fits well into a neat category. And their motivations are not set in stone. The consumptive angler may be the occasional angler or social angler when it comes to that once a year musky trip. The normally zen angler may occasionally fill his or her freezer with winter Bluegill.

The groups are different - and remember they are digging deeper into the data than just what the figure above shows - but they are not that different. For each group, spending time with family and friends, enjoying the outdoors, and relaxing and having fun is important and differences are a matter of degree. Add those three categories up and for each group, that is at least 60% of what constitutes a good fishing experience. I think this is what drives us all - the fish are important but so is just being there.

Back to Me Not Being a Snob...

I do not keep a lot of fish - but I do try to keep some each year if for no other reason to remind myself that fishing is a blood sport. I guarantee that a least a fish or two that I caught and released died too. It is simply a fact of life for catch and release anglers; less than 100% of the fish they release will survive. Anglers can do things to drive catch and release mortality to near zero but on occasion, a fish will get hooked in a bad spot, fight itself to exhaustion, or something else will happen to cause some mortality despite our efforts to minimize mortality. I write this paragraph to remind us that fishing is a blood sport, much like reminding myself of that fact by putting a couple on the grill or in the frying pan each year.

Ramps and trout
A brace of Brown Trout and a bunch of ramps, spring delicacies in Wisconsin.

I have a way that I like to fish - dry flies for rising trout. In part, where I fish, I can do that. And I find it as a bit of a challenge, I have handicapped myself a bit. Not to be a snob but I have caught enough trout (is that zen?). I now prefer to catch them "my way". Though I am more than happy to try other things - fishing streamers and "down and across" wet flies and soft hackles is a nice change of pace. I ran across a quote from Ben Sittig, the Huge Fly Fisherman, that I really like that essentially says, the best angler is the one that is having the most fun. Fish the way you are having fun and makes you happy. Isn't that what it is all about?

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Geoff Roznak
Geoff Roznak
Dec 16, 2021

I think you are on to something with the idea that which type we are can change, even over the course of a day.

I often chase fish with a low success rate to begin with - musky on a fly, and there are lots of days where even seeing one is good...and there are days where we have a half dozen in the boat.

I came back to fishing after about a 20 year break...and after the break, I was never a trophy hunter, or a fish counter...though I certainly enjoy days with lots of fish and/or bigger fish...but it's not why I'm out there, these days. Floating a river, seeing the things that rivers show us...otters, eagles, bobcats, deer...all…


I don’t know what stage I am in. I suppose it depends on the day. I’m evolving.

My hero and role model Ted would smile all the time he was outdoors. He was often distracted by the songs of the birds or the shadows in the treetops. He would catch a few fish, or maybe not, and then he would say, “The world doesn’t owe me another fish,” and he would lay down under a tree and take a nap.

Following Ted’s lead I have stopped keeping stream notes, stopped counting and measuring fish, stopped taking pictures of fish and rivers, and have pretty much stopped worrying whether I will catch anything at all. These things have made fishing more…

Jason G. Freund
Jason G. Freund
Dec 13, 2021
Replying to

Interesting comment - I feel much the same. I've stopped taking notes unless I go somewhere really new. I take photos of the streams and the scenery and maybe take a fish picture once in a great while. I fish alone most of the time as well. I enjoy fishing with others but fishing alone is comfortable; fishing with someone sometimes presents challenges in different approaches.

I don't know that I'll ever get to not carrying at all about catching fish - after all, if it weren't for the fish, why not just go hiking? But I can say I care less and less about the catch all the time.

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