The dirty little secret to outdoors success

Outdoors success means different things to different people. For some, it’s catching the most fish. For others, it’s reeling-in the largest.

Many hunters define success as harvesting a buck worthy of a spot over the fire place or shooting a limit of ducks. While some are just happy to come home with anything at all.

Success is relative. That’s part of what keeps us coming back season after season. There is always a new way to classify what success is. We could always achieve more. It’s a constant, addicting pursuit.

But no matter how you define success in the outdoors or in life, every triumph seems to have a common ingredient: a healthy dose of failure.

Regardless of what some of your hunting or fishing partners may try to tell you, no one bats 1.000 in the outdoors game. We all love to share our stories with happy endings. But most of us have many, if not more, tales of disappointment.

At some level, I’d like to think I have always understood this. But this fact really hit home during a conversation with one of my buddies on a recent ice fishing trip.

On this particular day, we decided to try a spot no one in our group had fished before. We had no trouble locating fish, but plenty of issues putting them on the ice. After a handful of fruitless hours of chucking the tackle box at our unwilling adversaries, one of my friends, like a proper fishing buddy, decided to give me a hard time.

“I should take a video and post it to Facebook and show everyone what fishing with you is really like,” he said gesturing toward my orange “Nathan Woelfel Outdoors” hat.

I laughed and pointed out that no one in the group was out-fishing me. So who were they to talk?

The trip ended shortly after that with zero fish to show for it. I spent the 20-minute drive home reflecting on what we could have done differently. I was certainly a bit disappointed. It had been a couple weeks since I last caught a fish and my well of exciting stories to share with all of you was running dry.

But then it occurred to me. This is what fishing is “really like,” at least sometimes. So much of my success in the outdoors stems from my intimate relationship with failure. More specifically, meaningful failure.

I’m not implying you can blindly fail your way into catching more fish or shooting bigger deer. But, if you are willing to objectively assess your not-so-stellar trips, there can be a lot of value in learning what not to do.

Take my most recent fishing season for example. I caught over 500 fish across 132 trips in 2020. But I got skunked 50 times. That’s zero fish on nearly four out of every ten trips.

But those empty ventures were important. They were often the product of trying new spots, new techniques, or targeting a species I wanted to become more acquainted with.

I fished one particular spot on the Sheboygan River eight times before I caught my first fish. I spent hours playing with presentations, bait sizes, retrieval speed, anything I could think of. Every outing provided a new tidbit that placed me closer to catching fish. By the end of the open water season, on one of my last trips to that spot, I caught two-dozen bass in an hour.

Of course, the last part of that story is the one I tell. But I don’t give enough credit to all of the not-so-inspiring treks to that spot that paved the way for my ultimate success.

I have no issue coming home empty-handed. But I have a big problem with trips that don’t result in additional knowledge.

In fact, there were a few points last summer where I became worried I wasn’t getting skunked often enough. I was concerned that I was too comfortable and falling into a routine. I wasn’t pushing myself and, worst of all, there was a chance I wasn’t learning anything.

Shortly after that, I switched up baits, tried new locations, and targeted different species. I gained a lot of insight from hitting the re-set button.

All of this also applies to hunting. When I’m scouting a new deer spot, particularly on public land, I know up-front that most of the first couple of trips will be dedicated to finding deer and a suitable stand location.

There will be plenty of walking, examining sign, and time spent looking through my binoculars with very little time dedicating to actively hunting. I will often invest more than a couple trips before I even see a deer, much less end up in a position to shoot one.

At the end of the most recent deer season, I decided to spend time attempting to fill my public land doe tag. I hunted several hundred acres I had never explored before. On my first trip, I slowly walked the land looking for tracks and other deer sign. I had my rifle by my side, just in case. I was encouraged by what I found.

The next time out, I was planning to sit the entire afternoon. But another hunter beat me to my spot. So I drove to a different portion of the property and went back to step one. I didn’t see a deer until my fourth trip. By the end of the week, I had seen eight deer and could have shot one if I was more comfortable with property boundaries.

Next year, my doe hunt will start on step three instead of square one. And that’s why I view the time I invested positively. Hunting and fishing are usually about playing the long game. It’s not always pretty, but if you’re looking for sustained success, there is no way around it. You have to put in the time and effort in a deliberate way and you have to adapt accordingly.

These experiences are a mandatory part of gaining the knowledge needed to know when to stick it out or when to change things up.

So next time one of your hunting or fishing adventures (or anything in your life) doesn’t pan out the way you had hoped, embrace it. Take stock of what you learned and bring yourself that much closer to success.

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