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10,000 Hours

the elusive number to become a steelhead outlier.


10,000 Hours

The elusive number to become a Steelhead Outlier. by Chris Ellis

Success as a steelhead fisherman is something that must be learned. Nobody is born knowing how to tie knots, how to row a drift boat, or cast a baitcast reel. These things all take time not only to learn, but to truly become good at.

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers hit the shelves. Outliers took a deep, critical look at individuals who massively exceed “normal” expectations in various areas – we’re talking about Bill Gates, The Beatles, and groups such as chess Grandmasters and violin virtuosos. One common theme that he found among these people is that they succeeded, in large part, because of how much time they dedicated to working or practicing in their chosen fields.

Gladwell references “The 10,000-hour Rule,” a concept which was originally put forth by Herbert Simon and William Chase. This rule states that 10,000 hours of practicing or performing a complex activity is needed for a person to achieve mastery of that activity. How much is 10,000 hours? About 1,250 eight-hour days.

The complexity of any activity affects whether 10,000 hours are truly needed to achieve mastery. Cornhole and golf both involve the player attempting to make an object go into a hole. However, since it is much more complicated than cornhole, golf more strictly adheres to the 10,000-hour rule. If you haven’t figured out how to be a good cornhole player after 2,000 hours, then you probably just suck at cornhole, and another few thousand more hours of practice won’t change that.

So where does steelhead fishing fall on this scale? Much closer to golf than to cornhole. This doesn’t mean that you’re a lost cause until you have your 10,000 hours in, just that until you hit 10,000, you’ll still have room left for improvement.

The complexity of any activity makes a big difference in how long it takes to master. If you’ve been steelheading for any length of time, there are countless little things that you’ve either gotten good at, or that you’re still trying to learn and improve at. Even basic activities that need to happen before a cast is made require practice and precision. How many fishermen have screwed up something like the stopper / bead / float / bead /weight / bead / swivel / leader sequence of building a slip bobber rig? How many hook points have been ruined trying to sharpen them? How many egg loops came apart before being cinched down tight? And this doesn’t even consider pre-fishing activities like knowing how to fill a reel with line, or how to wade safely.

In addition to technical complexity in terms of tying knots, rowing a boat, and executing a cast, steelhead fishing presents anglers with a lot of cognitive complexity. To be consistently successful, an angler can’t just stand on the same proverbial rock day after day, rain or shine, winter or summer, and expect consistent success. Or make the same pass using the same tackle in a drift boat every single time he fishes. Each scenario is comprised of a unique set of circumstances, and each can be optimally fished via a fairly narrow range of options. 

For these reasons, a key part of moving toward steelheading mastery is accumulating a catalog of experiences, and perhaps even more important, learning from those experiences. It is not enough to just gather experience or data. If you want to grow as a steelhead angler, it is important to move toward where this experience takes you. This is where many anglers struggle.

One of my most memorable steelhead came when I was about 16 years old. It was an unspectacular, typical 28-inch native hen, and it came from a hole from which I’d lucked into a couple of steelhead over the prior couple of years. But on this day, I put together a plan to cast to a particular submerged rock that I could barely see. On my first cast, I aimed a bit upstream to compensate for the depth and current, started my retrieve at what felt like the right time, and my blue Stee-Lee went right where I wanted it to go. When my spoon shuffled in behind the rock, the fish climbed on just like the whole thing had been scripted. 

Always before, I had simply cast and retrieved, trying to stay kind of on the bottom, and I occasionally found a taker. The reason that this fish was so memorable to me is that it was the first time I saw a particular set of conditions and purposefully decided to target a specific area hoping for a specific outcome. This showed me why things like reading the water and accurate casts are so important – I now had a direct experience to link to the information I had which suggested running a spoon in behind a rock might be a good idea.

A lot of my catalog of experiences are connected to firsts. The first steelhead that bit a jig for me didn’t get hooked the first time he bit. My cast landed on the water, drifted downstream maybe 5 feet, and my float went under. My brain told me that it couldn’t be that easy, so I didn’t set the hook. Two casts later I gave it a tentative, “let’s see what happens if I…” sort of hookset when the float went down in about the same spot, and I caught the fish. That one fish advanced my jig fishing by leaps and bounds, in that hole and in others. I (and I’m sure many of you) have had similar experiences with a first drift gear steelhead, or a first fly-caught steelhead.

One’s catalog of experience can grow as much or more from adversity as it can from success. This can mean something broad and general like casting too far and putting your entire rig into a streamside tree, or something that seems small and insignificant, like tying the wrong kind of knot in the wrong kind of line.

I once hooked and lost a summer steelhead on a fly because I didn’t pay attention to what was happening with my fly. I presented a nymph near a submerged rock and felt what seemed like a subtle take. I set the hook, and felt no resistance. On the next cast, I felt a much firmer strike, and again set the hook. The steelhead took off upstream, jumped once, and launched the fly right back at me. When I examined the fly, wondering if the hook was dull, I discovered that there was a small caddisfly larva case covering the point of my hook like a sleeve - I must have scraped my fly on the rock and picked up the critter on that prior cast when I missed a “strike.” In any event, my hook point wouldn’t penetrate the steelhead’s jaw with the caddisfly case on it, and the result was a lost fish.

The lesson is, of course, to check your hook after any cast where you think you had a bite, got snagged up, or anything else out of the ordinary. I knew this academically, and you’ve probably heard or read it a hundred times yourself. Experience can be a cruel but effective teacher – missing a fly-caught steelhead for an obvious and preventable reason is something that stays with you and contributes to your catalog of experiences.

Much of what you’ll experience in steelheading is transferable — what you learn or discover in one set of circumstances will carry over to other circumstances. Steelhead face upstream. They act differently in the middle of a hot day than they do first thing in the morning. They will hold in predictable areas of the pool.

Most summers, I take people flyfishing for steelhead on the North Umpqua. In my experience, it is much easier for an experienced steelhead fisherman to catch steelhead on a flyrod than it is for an experienced fly fisherman to do so. Many experienced steelheaders have virtually no fly rod experience, and are afraid they won’t be able to cast or present the fly very well. But even when they don’t cast well, their knowledge of steelheads’ behavior and their ability to read the water and apply basic strategies often results in them hooking steelhead.

Experienced fly fishermen, on the other hand, emphasize processes and actions consistent with their understanding of the act of fly fishing. This is a different thing entirely than catching steelhead. Beyond this, there are a lot of very experienced fly fishermen who have never had a big fish take drag from their reel, let alone take them deep into their backing, and they sometimes panic when it happens. Steelhead fishermen, even those with only modest experience, understand what to do when a fish peels line.

Steelheading offers no substitute for experience. An observant angler will continue to learn and make meaningful refinements throughout a lifetime of angling. Very few steelheaders will accumulate 10,000 hours of steelhead fishing — after all, we’re talking about 40 eight-hour fishing days per year for more than 31 years to crack that particular barrier — and that’s okay. Just work on learning and making small improvements each time you fish. Do things purposefully. Remember the adversities and analyze whether they can be prevented. Even if you don’t become the top rod on your home river, you’ll catch more steelhead. ssj

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