Adversity can be important to success. While many anglers like the idea of going out and catching trophy-sized fish every trip, this would get pretty boring after a while, and you’d never learn anything. Skunks are important in learning when not to fish, when and which spots won’t produce, and the styles of plugs or flies that are inappropriate. Not catching fish can also mean you’re pushing yourself to try new locations, techniques, lures … all important in progressing as an angler. Really, if you’re always catching fish, you should still consider pushing yourself to try new things because you might be able to do even better.
However, bad patches of “excessive adversity” are not helpful and can go on too long. While I’m accepting of skunks, I can only learn so much from failure. Without a little success, I’m not getting anywhere. Plus, I’m miserable and fishing is supposed to be fun.
One way of looking at this is the idea of “tilt.” In chess, tilt means you’re on a roll, either positively or negatively, which builds upon itself and creates momentum that, almost all by itself, influences your playing ability and performance. If you are playing well, your confidence is high, you’re relaxed and focused. This means you don’t second-guess yourself as much, you don’t get distracted, and generally “stick to your guns.” Plus, whatever you’re doing is working, so you lean into that even harder, often with more success. Then, you play more because it’s fun, which gives you more experience and more time to hone your skills, further increasing your performance.
A positive tilt is great, but a “bad tilt” is more common in fishing. I believe that—and have experienced—long stretches of bad fishing are just as likely to be associated with angler perception, assumptions, and attitudes as actual fish presence or willingness to hit. Yes, there are times when fish simply will not feed, other times there are just none in your area, and some species are highly seasonable—you’re not going to catch an albie in March. However, catch rates and success are more dependent on choices and mental state than many fishermen realize.
The core problem with negative tilt is that it feeds upon itself. As you perform poorly, you start to get in your head and forget the basics, act rashly or illogically, and attempt shortcuts. This typically doesn’t work out, you see worse results, the tilt gets steeper, and your performance plunges even further. Getting desperate, you take risks and make poor decisions you never would have otherwise.
Let’s say you’ve blanked on the last five trips to your favorite, most reliable jetty. You planned those trips carefully and based them on solid experience, but it still didn’t work out. So, what do you do? You’ll likely come up with a new plan, try to get excited, and head out to a backup spot, a sandy point that often holds sand eels. Conditions aren’t ideal because it’s a bit early in the season and the water is dirty, but the tide is moving the right direction and you tell yourself, “There’s always a chance.”
The plan doesn’t work out. The water was even dirtier than you expected, there were weeds, and you forgot to check the moon and found the water much shallower than anticipated. You fish it only once, catch nothing, and getting frustrated, decide to hit a little bridge with good current. You haven’t been there all season, however, and the next evening you are surprised to find parking is blocked off due to summer construction. So, now you have no plan, and you’re getting really desperate, so you go back to that sandy point and decide to just walk and cast along the beach. However, you haven’t done any scouting, so you have no idea of what the structure looks like and you’re fishing the wrong tide. You get no hits, and you’re now really frustrated and worn down.
Yet, you know fish are being caught. The dagger in your heart is social media, where it seems everyone is catching all the time. Your ego is a little bruised, but you’re determined not to quit. You decide to roll the dice entirely, and fish places you’ve never been where you heard a friend of a friend say there were fish. You could just take a couple nights off and start fishing the jetty again, but you’re desperate for fish “right now,” so go for it. You bounce from spot to spot to spot over the course of two nights, fan-casting with fish-finding lures and trying to cover ground. You catch only a few small fish.
You’re now in the full throes of tilt. You’re emotionally and physically worn down, and you’ve used up favors and time away from your spouse, wasted vacation time, and lost too much sleep. You can’t even make time to fish the jetty now, even though it has the right conditions. You skip it and decide you need a break and hang up the gear for a longer period, waiting for a buddy to do the work, the season to shift, or some weather event to hit. This is just a continuation of a negative tilt and could make things worse as you fall out of touch with what is going on.
If this sounds familiar, if you’ve been here before, even if it wasn’t quite this bad, I suggest a multistep process I use when I find myself in a negative tilt. I take a beat, analyze what’s wrong and what’s worked in the past, talk it out, try to work in some new, fresh ideas and techniques, and ultimately return to “the best plan.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a tuna, striper, trout, bass angler, or any other kind of angler, the process and steps are the same.
Take a Beat
Just hitting the pause button can help break tilt. Many anglers maintain that more time on the water means they will stumble into success. Time on the water is important, but you must do it with purpose. Both in my experience and in my informal survey of other anglers, repeatedly continuing to do what you’ve been doing and expecting something different almost always makes it worse. Yes, you must grind it out sometimes, especially if you’re looking for big fish, and there is no set timeline for how long is enough. In my opinion, if you’ve gone five or six trips with no results doing whatever it is you’ve been doing, it’s time to reset. No matter how good you’ve heard the fishing is “here” or “there,” or how good it’s been in the past at “this time of year,” consider taking a night or two off (or maybe a whole weekend) and start over the next day (or week) as if everything is normal and the rough patch never happened. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to end the negative tilt.
The flipside is making sure you don’t stop for long periods. That is giving up, wallowing around at the bottom of your negative tilt. Stopping entirely for three weeks, for example, can make things much worse. Short break periods can help you relax, rest up, regroup, and refocus, but long breaks may result in being disconnected from what is going on at your spots in terms of fish movement, bait presence or hatches, or even environmental conditions like shifting sand bars, vegetation growth, or water temperature changes. Therefore, just employ a short break and muster up the motivation to go back out after you review what you might be doing wrong, which is the segue to my next suggestion.
Use Your Time Wisely
During your short break, a thoughtful review of what has been happening is crucial. Sometimes we miss things while “in the heat of battle.” Even as detail-oriented as I tend to be, I simply can’t keep everything straight while fishing hard. To view things clear-eyed means reviewing everything at home, quietly, when I’m focused. Instead of fishing one outing (or two), use the same time you would for that trip to analyze what’s been going wrong. If you’d normally be fishing from false dawn through 9 am, wake up and use that time to review your logs, look at reports, or poke around on nautical charts. Go over helpful articles, books, or videos, and collect and review as much data (tides, weather, fish behavior, etc.) as you can. Many anglers think that the best fishermen become that way only on the water, but the very best anglers spend a lot of time learning and analyzing off the water, too. This is so important if you’re in the throes of a negative tilt.
Talk It Out
Having a fishing partner can be a valuable resource on the water, but I find having someone experienced, insightful, and trustworthy off the water is even more important. When I’m in a tough stretch, I appreciate being able to call up a friend and talk it out. The more familiar that person is with your fishing and you as a person, the better. Sometimes, easy things get missed, and I have discovered errors and made realizations just through talking about it.
Once you get some logical, reasonable suggestions and lay everything out, you need to be willing to listen and then really give it all a try. You can’t just listen to what your fishing partner or mentor is saying, get back out on the water, and give it a five-minute, half-hearted try before returning to your same old patterns. Instead, follow through on trying suggestions. If you have a good amount of experience, this will be particularly hard. Those who have been doing the same thing(s) for a long time, only to find it suddenly not working, are at risk for not even seeing easy solutions. They also are most resistant to changing their ways (also speaking from experience). However, climbing out of the tilt can mean being open-minded, and the best anglers are those who are able to pivot off broken tactics and leverage fresh ideas and techniques.
Do The Opposite
When I’m in a funk on a bad tilt, I purposely try to integrate techniques or tactics I’d usually not try. For example, while most of the time I fish pretty slowly with my plugs, breaking from my routine and going fast can be a simple solution when things aren’t working out. That’s a very simple idea, with a million different examples: fishing high in the column instead of on the bottom all the time or fishing a brightly colored plug even though you almost always fish a dark one. Frankly, it’s a good idea to try new things periodically, but especially if you suspect you are on a bad tilt, because throwing in new tactics can help snap you out of it. Just be careful not to overdo it. You can push yourself further into a negative tilt if you totally abandon all your tried-and-true techniques and venture completely into the unknown. Consider new techniques as spice for your main ingredients.
Because tilt can be as much a mental state as it is actual fishing conditions, sometimes quitting the “grind” and shaking up your routine can be a powerful way to get you out of it. Simply trying something new may snap you out of your bad decision-making and reinvigorate or kickstart you into getting back out there. This can be tricky, though, and can be a very sharp double-edged sword since branching out or trying something new comes with the risk of even more skunks or frustration, which can be really hard on the ego. It can also feel intimidating or make you feel hollow and unsatiated because you likely fish the way you do because that’s what you love most. If that sounds like you, the change doesn’t have to be fully opposite or foreign, but instead try something slightly different that’s still in your wheelhouse. If you’re a dawn fisherman, why not fish dusk? If you fish only on the surface, try fishing jigs? If you’re constantly walking the open beach, how about doing a little concrete-jungle fishing? The point is to break out of your funk by trying something that’s mostly (but not entirely) new.
Return To What Works
Finally, my last step in arresting a downward spiral is to simply fall back on my most trusted and reliable patterns. If I’ve been trying some new techniques or running around fishing in more or different areas and it’s still not working, I’ll return to my homebase. Again, this sounds simple, but for those who are highly motivated and desperate, it can feel uncomfortable to go back to a spot that’s been crummy for a month, even if years of data suggest it’ll be good “right now.” For me, I mentally try to put the rough patch behind me, no matter how bad it was, and try to see the spot (or pattern) for what it’s been. To do this, I simply start the whole process over as I’ve detailed here: I’ll reset my head for a day, then look at my logs and review what has worked before, maybe talk to someone about it, see if there are any techniques I should try out, and then focus on the next high-percentage shot. This might mean a tide, a weather event, or a hatch but the critical thing is to wait and hit the very best pattern. It can be hard to ignore “good shots” or “could be good” scenarios, but more than ever before, avoid those and focus only on the very best in your repertoire.
Tilt will happen to everyone, but it doesn’t have to be protracted. It can just be a fleeting moment if you stick to these principles and add in some others that work for you. To sum up, I think the critical aspect to all of this is one of the hardest to put into action: Don’t get frustrated, try to divorce ego and pride from your decisions, stick to your strong suits, and play the long game. If you do that, you may never have to go through an extended period of tilt and, instead, experience only short periods of “positive” adversity.