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-FROM THE EDITOR- 28 April, 2004-

The Five Stages of Skunked

    You aren't going to catch a single fish on your next river outing, but you don't know that yet. It is the night before your trip and all preparations have been made: the boat is loaded up, all three alarm clocks are set, and the cooler is packed. If it is early spring, you may have already slipped into your waders for the night, a stuffy and inconvenient way to sleep, but a sure timesaver when you get to the river. All preparations and pre-trip rituals have been observed except for one, the most hallowed of rituals that must be performed after all other business is settled. It is time to tie on the next day's lure.

    Getting the tackle box organized for the trip is the fisherman's equivalent to dating. Each lure gets a look. They are all examined under the light, caressed, and perhaps drawn through imaginary water with expectant hands. All spinner blades are thumped to make sure they spin properly, and all the little bits of fishing line are gently snipped off the lures. Who is going to get the first dance?

    All the other contestants are noticeably disappointed when I reach in the tackle box and select a Rapala minnow. It is late spring. The fish should be fairly active, but probably not active enough to slam a noisy topwater bait. This is the only moment of my fishing life that I actually count seven twists of line in the improved clinch knot I normally tie. I carefully clip the tag end of the knot after cinching it tight, visions of large jumping bass filling my head. No fisherman will ever have a fishing trip that matches the expectations of this moment. It is impossible.

Stage One: Plan A

    The alarm clocks go off all at once. I squish around the bedroom turning them all off, subconsciously wondering why my waders feel like they already have river water in the bottom. Before heading off, I make eye contact with the Rapala, today's Plan A, sitting confidently taut, hooked onto my lowest rod guide. "You'll ride up front with me", I say, gently slipping the rod next to me in the passenger's seat.  Slipping out onto the water, the river is eerily calm. Too dang calm. But for two solid hours I cast that minnow plug into the bassiest looking water you'll ever see, threading the needle between logs and rock crevices, working this trebled wiggling wonder in and out of harm's way. Yet this siren's song is going unheeded today. Two solid hours of some of the best casting the world will ever see and nary a bite. Maybe I should try something else. There are a bunch of good lures in my tackle box.

Stage Two: Plans B, C, D, and E

    Stage Two is marked by steadily increasing changes in tactics, and also by steadily increasing frustration. I try a spinnerbait for forty-five minutes. The plastic worm gets thirty minutes. The suspending jerkbait gets fifteen minutes. The jig-n-pig gets lost high in a tree after two casts. One sub-symptom of Stage Two is that casting accuracy generally decreases the farther into Stage Two one gets. It is hot. I look into the tackle box and all I get are cold, unfeeling stares from the lures that were vying to seduce me the night before. Some of the smaller lures are avoiding eye contact altogether. This is the point where the fishing trip ceases to be fun.

Stage Three: Going Small

    "Geez, I just want to catch SOMETHING" I mutter to myself, tying on a tiny Rooster Tail in-line spinner. The psychology of Stage Three is complex. The thinking is that by putting on a tiny lure, the angler will catch lots of fish, even though they might be small and not of the original target species. Success in Stage Three can often result in an improved state of mind in the angler, since by definition "fishing" ought to, at some point, involve "fish". There are times when Going Small really pays off. Sometimes the act of catching numerous small fish makes the world OK again, and the angler will either have fun catching smaller fish or perhaps return to Stages One or Two in an improved state of mind.

    Not today. Failure in Stage Three can seriously damage the psyche. It's like asking all the pretty girls to the dance and being rejected. Finally, you ask the ugly girl who is a sure thing and then she says "No" also. On this day I have sunk to sight casting for creek chubs and hornyhead minnows and still can't get a bite. My casts have become about as accurate as the weather forecast, and I have just broken off my tiny lure fifteen feet high on a rocky bluff. It's hot, too.

Stage Four: Time Out

    Those of you with small children are familiar with Time Out. When a child gets overly unruly, exasperated, or violent the best thing a loving parent can do is to move the child to a quiet place where they can regain their composure and contemplate the error of their ways. I put the rod down without tying on another lure. The boat floats downstream, listlessly turning in slow circles, bumping into rocks and trees. I stare vacantly into the lifeless water, pondering nothing. Stage Four is often fatal to the continuance of a fishing trip. Many anglers will conclude the day's fishing at this point and paddle out. Since fishing is not supposed to involve intense self-loathing, calling it a day at Stage Four is often the best thing to do. Stage Four is rarely permanent, and the symptoms normally only persist until about Wednesday of the following week. I dunk my hat into the river and slop it onto my smoldering head. I set my jaw. I'm not done yet.

Stage Five: "I'm Going to Fish the Way I Damn Well Please"

    Stage Five is normally marked by a short stage of euphoria, illogical decision-making, and inane babbling. Late in Stage Five, the angler may even experience hallucinations. I tie on a buzzbait, my favorite lure. Never mind that the surface of this cursed river has not stirred all day. My first few casts are all on the money, and I revel in the metallic clap-clap-clap of this bizarre, but often effective lure. I'm fishing the way I want to, by God, and those darn fish can come to me. I'm through trying to please them. Anglers in Stage Five will often resort to lures they would never fish otherwise. If you see an angler casting a Flying lure or banjo Minnow, my advice is to steer clear. They either don't know what they're doing or are deep in the clutches of Stage Five. To escape Stage Five, the angler needs a fish to strike within the first ten casts. After ten casts or so, the euphoria fades into grim reality, and the next bad cast normally results in a permanent return to Time Out.

    That strike never comes. I realize no fish is going to hit my buzzbait and am too forlorn to tie on anything else. Then the hallucinations begin. I realize I am deep into Stage Five when I thankfully see the take-out bridge every time I round a bend in the river, only to see it disappear as I draw near. I hate Georgia. I hate rivers. I hate fishing. Upon arriving home, I avoid all contact with my fishing buddies or anyone else that might want to talk fishing. I screen all my calls. Until about Wednesday or so....




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