Make Your Own Luck: The Placebo Effect of Fishing

Make Your Own Luck: The Placebo Effect of Fishing

“I think it’s time for a pink bobber.” I’d been guiding Kim for several years and knew she had a lot of belief in using a pink strike indicator, despite my telling her that it didn’t make any real difference to the fish. However, we’d been fishing on the lake for hours without a strike. I’d changed the flies, the depth, and the location several times without getting into anything.

So, I begrudgingly swapped out Kim’s yellow indicator for the pink one I had brought along specifically for the purpose. Kim cast her new rosy nymph rig back out and no sooner had that pink bobber hit the water than it suddenly vanished and Kim was hooked into a giant trout. She repeated the feat 5 minutes later and continued to catch fish for the rest of the day.

When we got back to the dock that evening, I was a bit flabbergasted and kept talking about how the color of the indicator shouldn’t make that much of a difference to the trout. Kim simply shrugged at this as she climbed out of the boat, looked back at me, and smirked. “I told you, pink is my lucky color,” she said. It made me think because, with no other obvious explanation, I was forced to believe that there may be something to the idea of “luck” actually making a difference in our fishing.

Good Luck and Bad Luck

Almost every angler out there has some belief in luck. They have a lucky fishing spot, a lucky hat, a lucky rod, boat, lure, or whatever they believe will change the game for them. An almost “in case of emergency break glass” sort of thing, anglers only tend to bring out their lucky element when they aren’t catching fish or when the day isn’t living up to their expectations. It’s never something they use on a day-to-day basis, but rather something they used once on a particularly magical day in the past when they caught a bunch of fish or a particularly big fish and only pull out when they want to recreate that magic.

“I’ve got a lucky steelhead fly,” avid steelhead angler and guide David Force said. “I caught my biggest steelhead on it a few years ago and ever since I keep it on the dash of my truck when I’m guiding and then in a corner of my fly box when I’m fishing. I only swing it when I really need to catch a steelhead. I can be doing everything right, using the right line and sink tip and fishing the right water, and still be getting skunked. But when I tie that fly on, I know I’m going to get into a fish and that’s not something that should be used every day or else it will lose its power.”

By the same token, there is also a lot of belief about bad luck in angling. Whether it’s a certain time of day, a certain species or body of water, or even having a certain item on the boat, there are things that many anglers consider to be a be bad luck and many won’t have anything to do with them. Perhaps the most well-known and universally practiced of these bad luck superstitions is the banana on the boat theory. A long-held belief, many anglers believe that if a banana ends up on board their boat it could bring no end of terrible mishaps upon them—from not catching any fish to death by drowning—with many believing in it so passionately that they actually convince other more rational anglers to fear the fruit.

“Bananas on boats being bad luck always seemed kind of silly to me,” Montana fishing guide James Mugele told MeatEater. “Yet, I know enough guides who will completely freak out if the client brings a banana in their lunch or if someone hides a banana in their boat as a prank, that I almost think there’s something to it. Now I actually check my client lunches and make sure they don’t have a banana hidden somewhere in there. I mean I still think it’s kinda silly, but at the same time, I don’t want to take that kind of risk.”

It's kind of funny to think about how, in a modern angling era full of smart lures, fishing electronics, and other science-based angling insights, we can still believe in the idea of luck. Yet, the idea of luck and fortune being out of our hands has been a part of fishing since the very beginning.

A History of Luck in Angling

Since humanity first took to the sea in pursuit of aquatic quarries, there has been a bit of superstition and belief in a higher power fluttering in the background. Ancient cultures from all over the world held different beliefs and had a variety of practices that they believed would bring more fish to the boat and keep them safe while out on the water.

Vikings would sacrifice a goat or bull and splash the blood on the hull of their boats before fishing trips, believing that the gods would bless them with a better harvest. The Romans would toss coins into the water and Eastern Europeans would pour shots of alcohol off their boats before setting sail in an attempt to bribe the ocean into giving up its bounty. Several ancient African cultures wouldn’t allow a pregnant woman anywhere near their fishing boats, believing that their presence would call down the wrath of evil spirits and many South Pacific and European fishing cultures wouldn’t let women on board their boats in general.

While these practices may seem silly to us today, the roots of these beliefs in which success in fishing often depends on some sort of unseen force, had been passed down through generations and found its way into much of the modern angling era. In Scotland, many anglers still believe that tossing a man into the water and retrieving them at the beginning of a fishing trip will bring them good luck. In France, anglers still won’t eat rabbits, carry a lucky rabbit's foot, or even say the creature's name on the day they’re going fishing because they believe it’s bad luck. Additionally, I personally don’t know an angler anywhere who doesn’t get annoyed by someone wishing them “good luck” because they believe that it will have the opposite effect.

It's a strange thing that the act of fishing is still so swathed in its own superstitions despite our modern approach to the sport. Perhaps it is due to the history of fishing and the beliefs of ancient cultures which filled our ancestor's heads with tales of water spirits, sea monsters, and mermaids still affecting us. Yet, even today there’s a certain feeling of the unknown that comes over us when we’re out on the water. Whether you’re fishing for billfish on the ocean or panfish on a small farm pond, you can’t help but feel like you’re an outsider intruding on foreign territory. For as much as we look to the stars and wonder about gods, ghosts, and faraway civilizations on distant galaxies, the water itself is an alien environment filled with strange creatures that we can actually interact with. This creates a unique mysticism that perhaps anglers almost subconsciously adhere to no matter how evolved we become.

The Placebo Effect

One of the biggest reasons that we continue to use lucky charms in fishing is that they work. Time and time again, we pull out our blessed piece of gear on a slow day and suddenly we start catching fish. Now many anglers attribute this to their luck changing and believe that the fish suddenly feel the good vibes traveling down through their lines into the water or that their lucky lure or fishing spot is just absolutely irresistible. The reality is though that there isn’t really any scientific reasoning behind fishing with a lucky item in tow and the change in our fishing fortunes has much more to do with starting to fish with a certain amount of newfound trust rather than just simple serendipity.

“I honestly can’t think of any ‘science’ behind fishing success and superstitious use of ‘lucky’ items,” fisheries biologist Shawn Good told MeatEater. “I’ve never seen any published data or papers that have attempted to quantify that, although admittedly I’ve never done a literature search in a scientific database.”

But Good thinks the best anglers aren’t necessarily the “luckiest” anglers.

“In my opinion though, there’s a huge difference between fishing luck and fishing success. A lot of non-anglers think fishing is just lucky, whereas seasoned anglers know that skill and knowledge are what leads to success, not ‘luck’ (nor lucky hats, lucky lures, etc). If anything, ‘lucky’ items instill confidence and help anglers relax and not second guess their tactics, techniques, location, or lure choice,” Good said. “An angler who spends a lifetime learning about fish biology, fish habitat, feeding preferences, seasonal changes in what habitats they utilize and what food they seek out, and then puts that together to narrow down a pattern will always have more ‘luck’ than anglers who just go fishing.”

In short, fishing with a certain lucky item or changing to a lucky lure often inspires us to start fishing better. We work our lucky lures better and we fish our lucky spots more thoroughly, creating a sort of placebo effect around our lucky gear where it suddenly starts working for us because we make it work. We believe that our luck has changed so we fish harder and inevitably we start catching fish.

“I really think that having luck in fishing is all about confidence,” David Force told MeatEater. “When I’m fishing a ‘lucky’ fly, I’m fishing with a pattern that I have confidence in. I’ll work it over more water and present it to more fish until inevitably it starts getting eaten. There’s an aspect of exploration in fishing that probably causes us to use different baits and to fish in different spots just to see if it will work, but when we need some luck, we fall back on what gives us that extra assurance because it consistently works for us in the past.”

This idea can be used for bad luck in fishing as well. If a black cat crosses your path on your way to the dock or you find the banana your buddies hid in your tackle box, you automatically go into the fishing trip with a bad attitude. That is if you believe in that sort of thing. And, since you believe that you’re going to have bad luck from the very get-go, you fish more haphazardly and miss the necessary changes you need to make in your presentation in order to be successful. Bad luck in fishing may very well all just come from a bad head space at the start of a trip and all it takes is a change in attitude to turn it around.

Getting Lucky

As a fishing guide, I don’t believe in luck. Instead, I rely on changing fishing strategies and adapting techniques to varying conditions to consistently catch fish. Like most guides, I’m rather scientific in my approach and understand that there’s always a reason I’m not getting into any fish, like the water being too cold, the day being too warm, or the fish only feeding on a specific hatch.

The idea of there being some unseen force out there, out of my control, that determines whether I have any success or not seems ridiculous to me and I refuse to believe that there’s no way to turn my day around with a simple change of depth or bait. Yet, that doesn’t stop me from carrying a pack of pink strike indicators in my fishing vest—you know, just in case.

Feature image via Tosh Brown.

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