Angling Instinct

Article by Jim Wright

One view of a strange topic – Angling and Instinct

I claim no special knowledge within the realm of scientific phenomenon. In fact I failed biology. I only know what I have learned reading books by my heroes, in observing the efforts of others, and living my own experiences while catching headwaters trout. What works for me and what doesn’t.

Included in that list would be:

  1. How to skip school to attend an early Mayfly hatch and,
  2. What I can only call intuition or instinct.

Many authors have addressed this subject over the centuries. Ray Bergman walked me through my own first “Revelation” upon hearing it described for the first time. Ray was very traditional in both his experience and authorship, but the message came through loud and clear to my young ears.

Jim Wright - Angling Instinct - Ray Bergman

Here is an excerpt from that early lesson:

“I learned to keep my nerves at hair-trigger tension so that I reacted instantaneously… Every shadow or flash was treated as a striking fish… It was subtle fishing and developed intuitive reactions to a remarkable extent. Before long I was seeing things that happened under water… At the same time I found that I had to be in the proper mood to have success… It takes only a few weeks to lose that fine sense of perception…”

– Trout; Ray Bergman, 1938

My father took me fishing at a very tender age. I caught my first sucker in the tiny creek that ran through a wooded lot, in my quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of town. It gurgled behind my house not more than a 5 minute walk for a 4 year old with a hook and a bobber. We would sprinkle the lawn before bed and stalk our prey by the light of a filtered flashlight. We’d pick our cans full of night-crawlers and put them safely to bed under some moist soil for the night. If it was a quiet night, and if I listened carefully, I could hear the stream singing it’s siren song as I lay in bed dreaming of tomorrow morning.

I of course, being twelve at the time, must admit to being just a bit impressed by these gentleman and lady author/anglers speaking about instinctive angling in this way. As time passed I spent many slack times under a hemlock tree, in deep contemplation of just such ideas that Ray and others were telling me!

My own inspiration was taken from the writings of: Ray Bergman of course, followed by James Leisenring. Mr. Leisenring (I just wanted to type it twice) was an incredible inspiration to me, as was Art Flick’s writing, teaching me to tie flies. And surely one of the most influential at the time. They were perfect for me, but it wasn’t long before I uncovered evidence of more American and British anglers speaking in the same terms.

There was; A. J. McClane, Joe Brooks, Joseph Bates, Vernon Hidy, Charlie Fox and Vincent Marinaro. And more recently Hughes, Nemes and Poul Jorgensen.

Now my father had seen me casting on the lower reaches of an unnamed favorite stream, and I think that he realized that if I was ever able to save any cash for college after wasting every cent on flies from the discount store, he would need to act. I didn’t get much college, but I did learn to tie flies and catch trout.

A great many “writers of anglers” and “angler writers” were telling me the same thing. I do believe that at one point the local librarian, she whom I had borrowed books from for many years, kind woman that she was, might just throw me out of the library. Or throw a book at me. The later I usually regarded as the preferable should it come down to it. That depending of course, upon the size of said missile or it’s topic. All in my desperate attempts to discover what this strange power over fish might be.

So finally, let me get to my point before I forget it.

If I go out on the stream and feel good about the day. If I am really focused on the task at hand, paying attention with almost laser like intensity to my line, my kebari if visible, and at least in the spot that I believe it to be, I began to notice tiny changes in light and movement, in the water lanes and pockets in front of me. And it made all the difference in the world. And with practice I began to sense something more. It’s almost like you can sense the fish attacking your kebari. And when winter ends and the new season rolls around it takes some time to warm up those instincts again.

On the other hand everyone has an off day, and it humbles us. What we know is that “sometimes ya just have a bad day”. But I could see that it was my instinct that suffered as well. And that intrigued me.

A lot of you guys know exactly what I’m talking about. To me it’s similar to the instincts of common predatory species of which we are naturally one. I don’t think there is anything hocus pocus about it at all. To me it’s just natural human behavior. This force appears to be operating upon some unknown principal of nature. But a principal that we are all familiar with. We just don’t expect to find it in ourselves. Or is it that we have just lost it through the process of domestication?

At any rate, I could see that I was no different than any common fish, otter or wolf, except that my instincts needed further attention. Is any of this important to catching fish? No, if you are content with your current success. But if you are like me and always seeking to improve your angling skills, paying attention to those little details often pays big dividends.

Jim Wright, the owner of, has pursued trout, studied stream entomology and tied trout flies since 1967. He retired his Western fly gear, taking up tenkara in 2012.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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