There’s no rest for the Ten Percenters

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If you’ve logged even a modest number of hours kicking around the docks, monkeying around in the basement with terminal tackle or keeping track of who’s been catching what around the marina, you’ve no doubt run across one of fishing’s more widely accepted nuggets of wisdom: “Ten percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish.”

Zach Harvey

Like the relative handful of the overall population at the top of the competitive field in any activity, from lawn darts to stamp collecting, fishing’s 10 percent consists mainly of those with the requisite interest to push endlessly for further knowledge, to fish longer and more frequently than fellow anglers, and to dedicate a large percentage of waking hours and mental/physical capacity to the hunt for finned quarry. In fairness, when you line, say, marlin fishing up alongside, say, table hockey, there’s a great deal more obvious meat on the fishery’s bone.

In fishing, as in most activities, a small but highly motivated minority tends to dominate the field. What’s much more intriguing is the effort to identify which traits, talents, methods and philosophical approaches are common among the fishery’s “Ten Percent” with a capital “T.” My own efforts to lay out a generalized blueprint for a rod-and-reel sharpie have spanned almost two decades. And, admittedly, my understanding of which characteristics define the top fishermen has evolved as I’ve gotten to know a larger pool of real, live expert anglers. Ironically enough, where my earliest notions about fishing skills involved genetics and the supernatural, my current pet theories about “Ten Percenters” have distilled down into a lean, no-BS framework driven by the notion that in fishing, there’s often a good deal less going on than first meets the eye.

The chief factor that serves to simplify matters is the knowledge that the path into the Ten Percent has few, if any, shortcuts. Great fishermen start under the guidance of great teachers — folks whose considerable experience lets them pass along not only a sense of which skills, tactics or timing cues are critically important, but also a rough idea about which among the seemingly endless variables, most of which at first glance appear to be highly relevant, have little bearing on catch rate. Eliminating needless complexity is as critical as focusing on the right cues — another major reason apprenticeship with a master is an almost universal component in the development of a Ten Percent angler.

As we’ve all heard ad nauseam, there’s no substitute for direct, personal experience, so few sharpies learn all the “finer points” in linear fashion. Rather, in the act of drilling the right methods and the initial underpinnings of good fishing instincts into their very souls through rote learning — practicing endlessly with an established sharpie on a grueling schedule — budding fish savants hone their technical skills to a razor’s edge. Again, all of this is conceptually simple: All you need do is fish with a true master, pay very close attention and practice everything until blood trickles out of your ears.

Most of the anglers who consistently bring in big fish are out on the grounds every fishable day.

The key with the technical aspects of a specific fishery is that eventually you reach a point where you can wipe poor technique off the list of possible reasons fish aren’t biting. Every true sharpie I know can work through a fishless tide without losing faith in his own tactical precision — an important ability on the countless occasions when the best bet to pull a trip together is to wait the fish out while going through the usual motions.

Of course, I’ve met a great number of average fishermen with pretty solid technical skills. There’s more to joining the ranks of the Ten Percent than tying reliable knots, properly stemming a tide or spotting a subtle disturbance that belies the presence of a knot of baitfish in a rip. As the years of my own fishing education have drifted by, I’ve noted time and again that experience — the sum, as well as the quality of it — shapes the critical lens that will later let a developing sharpie shellac the other six boats on his dock.

It’s a rare captain who can summon the necessary drive to slog along through endless, fishless hours without losing all faith or focus — a big reason many sharpies are, by necessity, total, unapologetic fish nuts, capable of extraordinary perseverance. But again, in the final reckoning, passion, technical skill and a range of experience still don’t necessarily add up to a top-dog fisherman.

As much as the following flies in the face of the last century’s tackle marketing — most of it peddled on some form of “magic bullet” message implying that X lure could draw a thunderous strike from a fishless expanse of water — the cold, hard, unromantic, unexciting reality of the Ten Percenters’ inconceivable catch rate stems from their work ethic. Bottom line — and I’ve heard variations of this from a host of consistent tournament winners, high-liner charter skippers and talented pinhookers — is that the main edge the world’s Ten Percenters count as the top ingredient in consistent success relates to consistent, continuous time out on the grounds. The name of the game when you’re fishing under pressure is getting, and staying, as the inelegant little phrase goes: “on the meat.”

A common line seasoned skippers and crew throw at novice anglers is, “If you want to catch a lot of fish, fish a lot.” More often than not, the guys racking up the biggest hauls of big fish day after day enjoy such results because they are out on their primary grounds every fishable day. Assuming two captains each have intimate knowledge of an area’s bottom features — and a well-developed understanding of the way bottom reacts to changing weather, sea, bait fish and predator conditions — the smart money is on the guy who has spent the foregoing six days pulling fish off those pinpoint pieces of real estate (and who is already “warmed up” in terms of technical execution in those same spots). It’s not on the guy who knows the place but hasn’t sent a baited hook into the fray in more than a week.

The photo ops and tournament award ceremonies notwithstanding, most fishermen holding rank among the fishiest Ten Percent will be quick to tell you there’s seldom a big surplus of glory when you’re fishing at the highest level — just varying degrees of the fishing grind. The latter’s a notion worth weighing when you catch yourself lamenting your own paltry weekend catch stats.

You probably could work your way into the minority doing most of the rod-bending, but certainly not without signing yourself up for some unanticipated headaches long before the weigh-ins.

Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.

January 2014 issue