North Fork Outdoors: Success is key in confidence game

With my wife, Janet, away from the field trial grounds and her horse, Buck, needing some exercise, I got her permission two weeks ago to ride a morning brace at the gun dog nationals by myself.

With a little help from friends, we got the walking horse tacked up, bridle in place, and trotted over to the breakaway. For me the moment of truth came after the first hour following the first brace when I needed to get back to the staging area alone. Having ridden horses a lot in recent years, I had always been in packs and galleries. Now I needed to find my way through three miles of fields and fences and hedgerows. The ride through the autumn landscape was the highlight of the weekend, and really made me appreciate the vantage point that any rider has in the saddle. Moreover, I now had more self-confidence in my riding, thanks to years of instruction and encouragement.

Outdoors experiences are all about confidence, it seems. When you look through the contents of a surf angler’s lure bag, you will usually see a lot of lures with chipped paint, dings, and dents, lures that have done months of service through the seasons. Other lures look relatively “clean,” and still other lures you would expect to see aren’t in the bag at all. It boils down to a simple fact: You fish doggedly with lures you believe in, until something happens to make you do otherwise.

I remember an incident decades ago when I was learning the surf game from an expert and we were fishing off Horton’s Point. He was firing away with a selection of poppers and swimmers and darters and catching only an occasional bluefish when another angler come down to the beach and set up to the east. This fellow proceeded to catch one slammer after another. When the tide ran down a bit and action dropped off, he came over and displayed his lure bag; it was full of white bucktails plus a jar of pork rind. Needless to say, the next time I fished with my friend on the North Fork, he was throwing bucktails tipped with “Uncle Josh” strips. He became such an advocate of bucktails he’s now noted for treatises on the subject in fishing publications.

What impressed me the most was how open the expert was to learn a fresh technique. Years later he offered another valuable tip: If there’s a lure you know you really should use, but you have no confidence in it, force yourself to begin the day with that very lure on your rod. This is particularly true if you sense there should be fish in the area. Once you have a couple of hookups, you’ll have more confidence in that new lure and it will become part of your arsenal. If it doesn’t work, talk with experts before giving up on it.

The same theory holds when fishing new areas or different seasons. For years I had been baffled by my inability to catch freshwater largemouths when water temperatures plummeted into the 50s and 40s during the late fall. I knew that lake temperatures became uniform when stratification broke up and I knew fish dispersed, but I just couldn’t find anything more than the occasional bass, usually in deep water. When we came out to the North Fork and fished kettleholes like Laurel or Marratooka, I decided to try some late November bass again. Instead of going “deep” I began fishing with very, very slow moving swimming lures or streamers right near the top. Bang! Suddenly I found the fish, even catching some of my largest bass of the season in four or five feet of water. And why not? After all, sunlight warms the surface first, and much of the easy pickings for sluggish fish is still in shoal water.

Some 40 years back I bought my first side-by-side shotgun, a second-hand, 16-gauge L.C. Smith, so I could hunt ruffed grouse in the woods with a quick-swinging firearm. I shot it fairly well on a Peekskill skeet range, but some of the simplest targets, birds going directly away or at slight angles, baffled me. Misses eroded my confidence in the gun — badly. Then one afternoon, instead of shooting at a straightaway rising target with the barrel just under the bird and looking up at it, I missed my “point” and covered the skeet bird with the barrel as I fired. It was powdered! Suddenly, I had my answer; the gun shot low, very low. Made in 1910, it had three and a half inches of drop at heel. If you drove a cheek into the stock, the gun looked down. But the old-timers often shot with their heads up! I learned to blot out birds instead and the gun did well for me for a decade.

There’s really nothing like success for breeding confidence!