A buddy of mine went fishing with an angler of local repute. Having not fished the particular stream before, he was looking for guidance. His companion pointed to the rocks and runs where fish he virtually knew by name were lurking. They caught fish in the right places. They caught fish on the right flies.
The observation my buddy later made was that this guy wasn't so much a fine angler as an he was an expert on this particular fishery. He presumed that if this expert was taken to a new place he might not possess the skills to quickly identify the holding water and fly selection that would make for such a successful day. And while it seemed to me a bit of a leap to assume the expert would struggle elsewhere, it got me thinking.
There are several streams that I know very well. Often my success on them isn't due to my knowledge of fishing technique, but rather from knowing where to fish. A sizable rainbow trout came to hand the other night because I deduced, through limited observation and lots of experience, where to put my Parachute Adams in a particular pool for the given water level. While I didn't expect the rainbow, I did have a fairly high expectation of hooking something. It's a reliably fishy spot.
So what does this say about my competence as an angler? Am I a lesser angler because most of my success comes on familiar waters?
I must admit that lately I’ve been disappointed by my sloppy casting. Saturday morning I spent some time practicing as part of an effort to rid myself of a tailing loop problem. I'll practice some more to make sure the bad habits I've developed on the forward stroke are finally broken. But angling is about more than the casting and isn't the point of the whole exercise to actually catch a few fish? Even with my awful cast and passable water reading skills, I catch fish.
All-around, proficient anglers do exist. A few guides I've paid over the years leave you with the impression that they're not going to go hungry if they fished a new river. You can also see people like this on the B.A.S.S. circuit. And two guys I know personally come to mind as well. Put these people on any water that holds fish and they'll find them.
But while these expert generalists exist, I think a majority of anglers are home waters specialists. They've dialed in the holding spots at various water levels, they have go-to flies for the various cycles of the year, and they continue to put in the time to keep current on the changing moods of the river. Their specific knowledge of their chosen fishery is what makes them successful. It probably also makes them happy.
Last weekend I met a guy who fishes the Farmington River in Connecticut. I was surprised when he told me he hadn't fished the Housatonic, another nearby river of considerable quality. As it turns out, he doesn't fish other rivers. None. He fishes only the Farmington and has been doing so for something like thirty years. His expertise, a result of three decades fishing a single stream, was apparent as we talked about conditions and hatches. If his catch rate is to be believed, and I found it credible, he's pretty good at what he does.
Do I think his focus on a single fishery makes him less of an expert angler than someone who catches fish the world over? I don’t. Sure, he may find fishing new water to be a puzzle, but I've got to expect that he’s learned enough over the years -- studying, evaluating and scrutinizing his home water -- that he’s going to be able to apply that knowledge to produce success elsewhere.
Whatever the case, I’m going to fish with him. There’s something to be learned from this man and I am in need of a good day on the water. Even if it doesn’t make me a better angler.