Want to get better at fishing? It’s in the details

For those of us who fish, it seems we are always striving for more.

More fish. More big fish. More types of fish. More everything.

In a way, it’s only natural. More fish means more fun, right?

Personally, I spend a lot of time in the pursuit of improving the amount of consistent success I experience during my time on the water. The bulk of the fun resides in the never-ending chase and the progress that occurs along the way.

So how do you step up to the next level?

Back in 2020, I started recording the number of fish I caught each year. That year, I caught 502. Each year since has seen that number increase. In 2021, I upped my number to 525 fish. Last year, I pulled in 1,063.

Now I will be the first to concede that pretty much anyone with a basic knowledge of fishing and the ability to invest the time is capable of catching 500 fish in a year. I learned that the hard way in 2021 when I only upped my yearly total by a mere 23 fish.

The following year, I more than doubled my total. Sure, spending more time on the water certainly helped make this happen. But there is more to it than that. And if you want to catch more fish, this is something you will also come to learn.

While persistence is an absolutely vital ingredient to success, that alone will only get you so far. Eventually, you hit a ceiling. At some point, it becomes less about the big things and more about the smaller ones.

Now I don’t consider myself a top-tier outdoorsman, but I have learned a thing or two and I’d like to think I’ve experienced my fair share of sustained success. I want to provide you with some examples of how I’ve grown. Hopefully, they can help you too.

So what can you do to become a better angler? How do find your version of “more?”

In my experience, it is about focusing on sustainable, incremental growth. It’s keying-in on the small gains few people think about.

How can you have a good day when mostly everyone else is having a bad one? How can you have a great day when others are having an average day? What did you do or notice that others didn’t?

Simply put: it’s in the details.

“More” often comes little by little as the results build over time.

Last year, I had the chance to fish the walleye run in the Oconto River for the first time. We fished a stretch with bountiful public access that drew quite a crowd. I was told that blade baits and jigs were the way to go.

As the people began to file in, I closely observed their bait selections. It seemed that every Tom, Dick, and Harry had honed in on the color chartreuse and nothing else. Being new to the scene, I acted on this information and tied on a chartreuse blade bait. After about a half hour, I noticed that no one was catching any fish, myself included.

So, hypothesizing that the market was oversaturated with a single color, I made a switch. Now I am sure there are days when chartreuse baits are absolutely lethal. But, looking around, it became clear that this particular day wasn’t one of them.

I put on a goby-pattern blade bait and, within minutes, was hooked up. A short while later, I had a second walleye on the line. During the next hour, I watched as the general populace paraded past me on the way back to their trucks with their chartreuse baits still dangling off their hook-keepers.

No one else within my line of site landed a single fish that day. I landed three. I turned what was a bad trip for most people into a decent trip for myself. A single detail made that possible.

Now, if you have been reading my stuff long enough, you know that I will take every opportunity to work the lost art of dip netting into my stories. Though dip netting isn’t exactly “fishing,” I have some examples from this year’s netting adventures that translate nicely into lessons that are applicable to angling.

Dip netting is something of an equalizer. Details like presentation, bait selection, etc. are irrelevant here. When netting, the fish don’t even need to be hungry, they just need to be present and active. At a high level, that seems straightforward enough. Surely details can’t and won’t come into play. That was my line of thinking when I first started.

As it turns out, that’s not always the case.

A recent stretch of beautiful spring weather had me all-in on dip netting for white suckers in the Pigeon River.

I knew about a week in advance that, if the forecast held up, the local rivers would be full of active suckers. My plan was to set aside a stretch of a few night to get in on the action. I also knew there was a good chance that I would run into my fair share of like-minded folks who were also itching to enjoy some time outside to keep cabin fever at bay.

This meant that arriving at my desired spot early would be a necessity. When the day finally came, I got out of the truck shortly before 6 p.m.—a good 90 minutes prior to sunset. Since suckers prefer to migrate up the rivers under the cover of darkness, it was likely action would be slow at first. But, with limited opportunities to go net fish, I wanted to make ensure I was doing everything in my power to set myself up for success.

Based on previous years, I had a working knowledge of which side of the bridge I wanted to be on and where, specifically, I wanted to be positioned on that side. I believe so strongly in the importance of these details that, honestly, if I wasn’t able to get my desired location, I would have gone to a different bridge entirely.

Thankfully, I was indeed the first one to arrive and I got my position of choice. My dad and my buddy Spencer joined me a short time later. I already had a pair of fish to my credit.

We dinked and dunked our way to a dozen fish or so before darkness arrived. Just before it did, another gentleman showed up and started netting on the opposite side of the bridge. After seeing our success (and having none of his own) he came over and kindly asked if there was room for him on our side. We told him the remaining spot was unproven, but he was more than welcome to come over.

He grabbed his net and pail and joined us. By the end of the night, our group caught 35 fish. The man next to us managed just one, despite his net being mere feet from the outside of our spread. Why? Details.

No matter how they appear from above, river bottoms are full of character. There are rocks that block the current, hidden pools that have less volatile water temperatures, structure that holds food, the list goes on and on.

So while being on the correct side of the bridge mattered, not every spot on that side had equal potential. Sometimes, a few inches one way or the other can make all the difference.

While I wouldn’t call the first night a wild success, it showed enough promise that going out again the following night seemed like the right idea.

Once again, I arrived roughly 90 minutes before sunset. Spencer was running late. As repeatedly pulled up empty nets, I asked myself “why the hell did I bother getting here this early?”

Before I could even finish the thought, I reminded myself of the night before. “The details matter,” I said to my audience of one.

See, the thing is: while it’s true that the bulk of the fish that end up in your net will come from roughly sunset to about an hour afterward, I’ve realized the number of fish that ends up being is based almost completely on where you are at that time. Again, not all spots are equal.

Spencer eventually joined me and our nets presided over two of the three holes that were fruitful the night prior.

Shortly before sunset, just as the previous evening, a vehicle pulled up and parked on the other side of the bridge. Two younger guys hopped out of the truck and grabbed their nets from the back. I had a feeling I knew how this story was going to unfold.

Darkness came and so did the fish. Well, on one side of the bridge anyway. Though we were down a person (and therefore, a net), Spencer and I topped our total from the night before. We pulled in 42 fish. The guys across from us had 11.

Over the span of two days, we out-produced the people around us by a ratio of roughly 7-to-1.

Right before we packed up, I witnessed an interesting interaction. A car in the opposite lane pulled up to the guys across from us and rolled down his window. He was looking for intel. It’s a common occurrence during any dip netting trip.

I heard the conversation clearly. He asked how many fish the guys had. To their credit, they answered honestly, “11.”

Then the guy drove off, feeling he had what he needed. But if he would have taken the extra 15 seconds to turn his head and ask Spencer and I, he would have had a much clearer idea of the true picture. He would have found out that we had four times as many.

But he will never know that because he didn’t ask.

He missed a detail.

In fact, he missed a couple. He also never asked how long the pair had been out. There’s a huge difference between catching 11 suckers in half an hour and pulling in 11 in three hours.

A couple nights later, Spencer and I decided to give dip netting another go. We both had prior obligations, so we weren’t able to start until 9 p.m.

I figured we’d find a place somewhere, even if it wasn’t our preferred location. We would make the best of it and be grateful we were even able to get out.

To my shock, I arrived at our desired spot to find it empty. Upon closer examination, it appeared no one had been there at any point that night. The pavement was void of fish blood, scales, or spots from wet nets being placed down so that fish could be collected.

The forecast earlier in the night called for thunderstorms. But here’s the thing: they never came. It’s not about what the weather was supposed to do. It’s about actually happened. And you know what actually happened? Nothing.

As it turned out, that was an important detail to miss.

Between myself, Spencer, and our friend Cody, we caught 141 fish in three hours—a new personal best for all of us. At one point, we got 17 fish in the span of 20 seconds. We had six fish in the net at a time on three separate occasions. And all of that happened on a night no one else bothered to try. Sometimes, the smallest details can make the largest impact.

I’ll leave you with my two most recent examples. They came while I was out chasing pre-spawn smallmouth on the Sheboygan River.

I’ve fished smallies in this area for nearly my entire life. In springtime, rainfall can really consolidate the viable fishing options as the river rises to its yearly high-water mark and sometimes remains there for an extended period.

Throughout the years, I have put together a short mental list of choices for this exact situation. Earlier in my fishing career, simply knowing about one of these particular spots got me a few fish up on the average Joe. But, as time has progressed, it seems the number of people who know about this location has grown twofold.

That baseline level of knowledge doesn’t cut it anymore. In order to succeed, you have to be strategic. You have to be different. You have to be *detailed.*

Recently, I had a half-day of vacation on a Friday. The weather was gorgeous for late-April and I knew I wanted to be on the water. I also knew that, if I wanted to get into some big fish, spending some time at my favorite spot was an absolute must.

In the back of my mind, I realized it was likely that this certain spot would be a hot commodity. That suspicion was confirmed when I rolled up the first time to find another angler already there, casting a jig. No matter. I moved to one of my alternative spots and stayed there for 45 minutes, caught a fish, and circled back.

When I returned, I was greeted by a different angler, in the same spot, throwing a spinner. Frustrating, but predictable. It was a perfect day for fishing, after all.

I went to a second alternative spot. Within 15 minutes, I noticed the car from my desired spot pull in next to my truck. Immediately, I picked up my stuff and high-tailed it to the original spot I hoped to fish.

Looking back, I don’t think I ran any stop signs. But I guess I can’t tell you that for sure.

The reason behind my urgency was that my experiences in the other two locations told me that, though conditions were prime, I didn’t need just any spot, I needed that spot.

As it turned out, the third time was the charm. The spot was all mine.

I’ll concede that seeing two separate fishermen vacate the same honey hole in the span of less than two hours is not normally cause for optimism. But I took note of the baits they were using and I had a detail they didn’t. My prior experience told me that the best bait for this situation was sitting in the bed of my truck: a bucket full of minnows.

I was welcomed with open arms (fins?) by plenty of hungry fish. On my very first cast, I caught a solid fish. Nine more followed, including six that were over the legal limit of 14 inches.

The pair that fished the spot prior to me had the right spot. But success in this scenario called for a greater level of detail.

A few days ago, I went back to that spot for a quick afternoon session. As I started to get situated, I noticed another angler on the opposite side of the river who had just arrived.

We were both respectful and gave one another plenty of room to operate. The fishing was slow, but I scratched out a few nice fish. Meanwhile, my fellow fisherman on the other bank had tied on a new lure 12(!) times without so much as a snag to show for it.

At first, it was another classic example of the pitfalls of not paying attention to detail.

But that’s where this story took a turn. At one point, he must have noticed that I was using live bait and he wasn’t. He briefly disappeared. When he returned, a minute or so later, he had his own cooler of minnows and opted for the tactic I was using.

By the time I left, he had a big ol’ smallmouth and a surprise crappie to his credit. By paying attention to his surroundings and knowing how to act on that information, he found the detail he was missing. Nearly as soon as he found it, he started having success.

These are just some of the countless examples of how refining the little things has helped me catch more fish. I am confident that this approach will help you too.

So I implore you, if you want to get better at fishing, start paying attention to the details and consider how you can start acting on them. You will quickly learn what matters and when it matters. If that knowledge is applied correctly, the results will be sure to follow. Before you know it, you will be at the next level, regardless of what that looks like for you.

And here’s the best part: that “next level” will always exist, no matter how good you get.

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