I was recently asked by a newer member of my fishing club how I go about learning new techniques and how I got good at doing certain things. My answer was pretty simple. Practice!
But as we got to talking, I realized that many anglers…. correction, MOST anglers don’t know how to practice! Ask most club level tournament guys what they do on weekends without a tournament and their answer usually is “Go fishing of course”. But therein lies the problem. They just go fishing. You never hear one answer “I’m practicing fishing”. Even when an angler wants to learn something new, what do they do? They go fishing and they may try the new technique for 15 minutes, and if it doesn’t work, that rod is delegated to the bottom of the rod locker until the next time the boat gets cleaned out. But let’s face it, we have never been taught how to practice fishing.
As youngsters most of us grew up playing sports; baseball, football, softball, tennis, basketball, swimming, etc. While we were a part of those teams we went to practice. There we did drills, skills tests, cross training, and an assortment of activities that would be applicable to our individual role on the team. But we all learned fishing a little differently. Someone, usually an older family member, taught us the basics. We watched videos, read articles, and then just went fishing. We didn’t apply those same principals we learned in other sports.
When I was talking to this other angler, who was already very skilled, he hit on the driving problem that many of us experience when we try to learn new fishing skills, and that’s the frustration of not catching fish. He’s used to catching fish, so when trying something new, it’s easy to give up quickly and go back to what you know.
Let’s return to the hypothetical angler trying a new technique. He recently saw on the Bassmasters Elite tour pros catching bass with a crankbait over submerged grass. He figures he would give it a shot but the crankbait he has tied on is just a tad too deep and keeps getting hung up. He doesn’t take the time to change his rod angle, change the crankbait, or change the line diameter (all of which might bring the bait higher). Instead, after 15 minutes, he feels frustrated because he’s out there to catch fish; so he puts the crankbait away, and just goes back to a bladed jig. Will that technique work? Probably, but if he wanted to learn to throw a crankbait over grass, he didn’t take the opportunity to apply some basic practice exercises that might be helpful in the future. His mindset was that the purpose of the day was to catch fish and that was his undoing.
Professional golfers don’t just go to the same course every day, play 18 holes, and call that practice, and neither should anglers. We need to relearn those old tried and true practicing skills, and figure out how best to apply them to fishing. Below are my 6 tips to help anglers learn how to practice.
- Evaluate Your Skills
I’m not saying you need to rank every skill you do while fishing. We all know there are certain things we do well, and certain things we don’t. The idea of this step is to lay out what the focus of your practice sessions should be. Have you never thrown a Carolina rig? That might be a good practice session. Have you won multiple tournaments throwing a shakeyhead? You probably don’t need to spend a lot of extra time practicing that. This is all about improvement. So pick those skills you’re deficient in and that you think will benefit you most. Obviously if you’ve never thrown a Carolina rig and never plan on throwing one, it probably wouldn’t be a good use of time to practice it.
- Set a Schedule
Think of it this way. When you played basketball in high school, you had practice every day after school except on game days. Your fishing practice needs to be scheduled on a regular interval. This can either be the hardest step, or the easiest step depending on how much you fish. Pick a day of the week to go before or after work. Have the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the months be practice days. Whatever time you feel you can block out, do it. Once a week, twice a month, or whatever. The key is to set the schedule and stick to it. This might mean you need to cut back on virtual tournaments, or understand that you’re sacrificing time that others are putting up fish to learn something new. This is not a bad thing! At the next major tournament, you’ll be that much better off having more tools in your belt than that other guy. I think most of us would sacrifice a few inches or pounds during a small virtual tournament in exchange for winning a major trail event.
- Keep Practice Session Short
Nothing kills the motivation to practice like not catching fish. And we can only take so much of that before we give up and go back to our “usual”. This is why practice sessions should be kept short to begin with. I personally recommend between 1-2 hours. Less than an hour and you’re really not giving it a proper effort. Any more than two and you risk burning out, or worse, practicing poorly (something I’ll touch on later). If you have a 4 hour block to fish, set the first half to be practice time, then after you’re free to do whatever. Maybe if you’re lucky, practice was successful and you just keep utilizing that new skill. Or if not, you can always tie on one of your go-to’s, speed over to that waypoint, and just hammer on em. Keep it short, keep it light, and remember the focus is on technique, not just catching fish.
- Do Your Homework
Not all practice is or can be done on the water. There are plenty of opportunities to practice at home which includes another topic, studying. What does a quarterback do on Monday morning? They sit in the film room and watch the game tape. Film study is a great way to practice at home. Watch your own go-pro footage. See when maybe you missed a hook set, or lost that fish. Why did it come off? What could you have done differently? YouTube is filled with millions of hours of fishing videos. Most are horrible, but some are quite useful. Not just for the educational content, but the actual footage of a person fishing. What angle are they holding their rod? Are they sweep setting the hook, reeling into it, or slack-lining it? This isn’t about watching fish catches, this is about watching the little nuances of how they’re catching a fish.
Casting is a great practice item to do at home. We’ve all stood on the back porch flipping a weight into a bowl. But have you stood sideways and practiced backhanded casting? Casting with your off hand? Those days it’s too windy to be on the lake, you can practice how to cast without getting a bow in your line or how to cast into the strong wind without backlashing. These are just a few examples of items that you can do at home without even needing to go to the lake.
- Focus Your Practice
This is the easiest thing to do…. If you’re willing. When practicing a skill, you need to focus the practice. Take frogging for example. If you’ve decided to spend a practice session learning to throw a frog, you should have only 1 rod in your kayak (or on the deck of your boat), a heavy frog rod. And the only tackle in the boat should be a box or two of frogs. But it doesn’t stop there. WHERE you practice also needs to be focused. If you want to practice flipping grass, are you going to go to a deep clear reservoir? No, you’re going to go to a shallow natural pond with lots of grass. Practice needs to be focused and smart. Study the technique you’re learning and cater your practice session to that. If you want to learn to drop shot, don’t pick a day with 20-mph winds. Do it when the conditions are more conducive to learning that skill. If you want to practice breaking down new water, don’t just pick a spot on your usual lake, make a list of small lakes nearby you’ve never fished. The night before a practice session, pull one out of a hat and that’s where you go in the morning.
No matter what you’re practicing, make the session about that, and only that; and make sure you’re optimizing the conditions and locations. As legendary coach Vince Lombardi said: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect”. Which leads me to my final practice tip.
- Get a Coach
Call it a coach, a mentor, a teacher, or just a buddy who knows something you don’t. We have a vast resource of fellow anglers that we’re connected to through our clubs, teams, and social media, so there is no longer any excuse to have to learn everything via trial and error. You don’t need to go it alone. You also don’t need to just tap one singular person to be your coach. They can be specific to what you’re trying to learn. If you want to learn to work a jerkbait, talk to someone who fishes a jerkbait a lot. Take them fishing and have them comment on your technique, too fast or too slow? Line too slack or too tight? Should I be throwing along the edge or over top the weeds? Coaches can be a valuable resource, and it’s likely you can reciprocate by teaching them something you’re good at. Coaches don’t even need to be fishermen. Maybe a skill you want to learn is to write up better notes on your fishing trips. Your coach could be a spouse or even one of your kids. In this case, their role is to keep you accountable. And an outside set of eyes can be very helpful. They may critique your summary and ask questions about the trip you didn’t even think of to write in your notes. No matter who, or how you tap into coaching resources; you don’t need to go it alone in this journey.
Above are just 6 simple tips on practicing. The amount of skills you can learn is endless, the conditions we fish in are infinite, the practice techniques are ever changing, and the fish are constantly adapting. Luckily, we have a lifetime on the water to learn and improve our skills all in the pursuit of our scaled quarry. So get out there, take some time to practice, and hopefully that new or improved skill will be key to holding that big check at your next major tournament.