Reasonable Expectations

by Gary Soucie
An excerpt from Traveling With Fly Rod and Reel

"When a trip comes apart on somebody, it's always, always because of false expectations," Silvio Calabi said recently. "People arrive at a destination with a mindset - not just about the size and quantity of fish, but about the food, the amount of game animals they're going to see, how crowded the fishery is." An experienced traveler and expert fly-fisherman as well as editor in chief and associate publisher of Fly Rod & Reel and Fly Tackle Dealer magazines, Calabi knows what he's talking about. My experience certainly corroborates his.

After reading the outfitter's or booking agent's promotional hype about the place (not to mention the breathless prose in the outdoor magazines, almost certainly written by nonpaying junketeers), it's hard not to arrive at a fishing destination with pumped-up expectations. I mean, if you didn't expect great fishing, why would you have spent so much time and money on the trip?

It's okay to be optimistic about a fishing trip; just be a realistic optimist. Unless you're a real piscatorial shut-in, one who's experienced little variety and a lot of shutouts in your fly-fishing, you can't realistically expect that a trip to some angling Mecca halfway around the world will provide the fishing of a lifetime. The trip of a lifetime, maybe. But the fishing? There are simply too many variables to count on having great fishing, no matter where you are heading: weather, timing, your abilities and skills under the conditions at hand, even luck.

Yes, luck. After we've tucked a few seasons under our belt, we like to think that luck no longer plays a role in our fishing, but it does. The first time I went fishing abroad - on a writers' junket to the Scottish Highlands and the Orkney Islands - luck conspired with the calendar.

Mid-May in such high latitudes, we expected the water to be cold and the salmon run to be spotty. And they were. But who could have predicted weather too hot and sunny for good fishing, two days out of three, that early, that far north? To make a long story short, nobody caught a salmon. But at least we all caught trout. All but one of us, that is. The one who went completely fishless the whole trip was probably the most experienced person among us, insofar as fly-fishing and trout fishing are concerned. You'd recognize the byline for sure, but I won't embarrass him further.

Lady Luck can be fickle and perfidious. Or she can smile on those least deserving. I hadn't yet learned to fly-cast but somehow managed to catch the first fish of the trip, a brown trout from Loch Swannay that turned out to be half the first day's total catch. Believe me, it was dumb luck. Skill had nothing to do with it. Nothing.

Summing up the Scottish Highlands and Islands experience: The weather had been perverse (as it so often is when fishing is involved), we got there before most of the fish did, my fly-fishing skills (virtually nonexistent) were not up to the challenges, and luck dealt out some pretty strange hands. As I would come to learn with more fishing-travel experience, it was a pretty typical fly-fishing trip.

The least experienced fly-fisherman on that trip to Scotland, I was the least disappointed. My expectations were vague and, except for the one about catching a salmon, mostly exceeded by the particulars of the experience: seeing the Scottish countryside, watching birds, learning about flies, meeting a lot of interesting people, discovering single-malt Scotches. But I think some of the others were disappointed. Expectations and disappointment are closely related, and mostly mirrored: High expectations beget high disappointment, unreasonable expectations result in unreasonable disappointment.

Go anywhere in the world expecting to shoot fish in a barrel, and you are setting yourself up for a major disappointment. Odds are the fishing won't be that good at any given time and place. If it is, it'll be too easy to be much fun.

From hard-won experience, I can tell you that no fishing trip ever turns out exactly the way you thought it would. Sometimes the fishing is better than expected, but usually it's worse. Every famous fishing Mecca has its off days and weeks, weather can turn the fishing on its ear in a minute, and both people and machinery sometimes fail at the tasks assigned them. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns so memorably put it, "The best laid schemes o'mice and men/Gang aft a-gley."

If the fishing isn't off or the weather uncooperative, you almost certainly can count on something else going wrong at some point during the trip. Sometimes a lot of something else. I've learned that "no problem" is the last thing you want to hear before or during a fishing trip, because it usually means the person you are talking to (a.) doesn't understand the question, (b.) doesn't know the answer, or (c.) is pretty sure you don't want to hear the answer.