Fishless & Frustrated: Exploring "Failure" on Lake of the Woods

It was late afternoon. The minor was just underway, and that weed line looked juicy. I could feel it. There was a musky down there that would turn my luck around. 

The last 36 hours had been a grind. It was August 2017, and I was fishing Lake of the Woods for the first time. Ontario, Canada. Land of plenty. The waters that promised multiple fish a day. Where, no matter what, without a doubt, I would catch a bunch of fish and they'd be bruisers. Or so everyone told me. As my second of 3.5 days in the True North began to fade, I had cast probably 1200 times with just two low follows and exactly zero musky to show for it. On top of this, I was coming off a long weekend in Wisconsin where my partners and I got skunked, plus several evenings on my hometown lake with the same result. 

Here on Lake of the Woods, frustration had set in. Nothing. Two days, and I’d caught nothing. 

In truth, the fishing was pretty mediocre for everyone. A few guys I know had already been up for several days by the time my boat partner and I arrived at Tamarack Island Wilderness Lodge. They had started off hot, but the fishing had slowed in the last day and a half.  At night, the anglers staying at the lodge would gather in the main cabin, and over beer or bourbon, laugh about our favorite fish stories and bemoan our current struggles. Maybe it was the waxing crescent moon, or the gentle cold front, or the blue skies we’d been having for days since the last storm. We could only speculate as to why the bite was slow.  

But despite the lagging start to the trip, my boat partner and I had seen enough to know the pattern. He had caught two muskies already, and between the two of us we’d seen about six fish.  Each had followed on blades. Each were spotted in about ten feet of water at transition points, mostly where rock met weeds. 

Here, in the late afternoon of that August day, I was in the right spot at the right time with the right bait, and I could sense a fish coming.  

I cast, stopped the line with my left thumb, and my Revolution Bucktail splashed right where I wanted it on the edge of the weed line. I gave it a rip. Immediately, I felt a firm yank followed by the bam-bam-bam of a musky's head thrashing on the other end of the line. 

Yes! I thought as I set the hook. 

"Here's one," I called to my boat partner. Fifteen feet out, I saw the flash of the musky's back and judged it to be a little under 40 inches long. "Just a little one," I said.  

It was small, but all I could think was: Thank goodness. Finally! At least I'm not skunked.

I continued to reel. Bam-bam-bam. More head shakes. My boat partner went for the net. The fish was just eight feet out now. Bam-bam- 

Nothing.

I can still feel that sickening release of tension, my rod suddenly light in my hand. I can still see the little musky dart back to the weed line that had held so much promise. I can see my bait floating there looking sad and distinctly alone. I remember the way my mouth dried up as my heart raced. This was the first musky I’d ever hooked and then lost. After all these hours, the chance was gone.  

I whipped my bait in, swung it in the air, and then hammered it down to the water with a jolting splash. I swore. I threw my rod on the boat deck and angrily slumped down onto a chair. 

Nattie in tantrum. 

There I gave in to the allure of negativity. That surface-level anger and its false sense of strength. Thoughts of: This is stupid. I’m not going to get one. Why do I waste my time? I thought about what it would feel like driving six hours back home with no fish stories to daydream about. I thought about telling people I spent three and a half days on Lake of the Woods and got nothing. I thought about what that would say about my skill as an angler - to my friends, and to myself. 

There I sat, crumpled in a chair, fuming. 

It wasn’t just that I wanted to catch a musky that day and I wasn’t getting my way. I wasn’t just throwing a tantrum because I was pissed off. During the many fishless hours over the last several weeks, my insides had begun to swirl with feelings of frustration, pressure, disappointment, inadequacy and fear. And this most recent lost chance had sent those feelings churning through my gut just fast enough to digest, transform, and reappear as a single sensation: failure. 

After maybe 15 minutes of wallowing in self-pity, it suddenly hit me that I could make all the excuses in the world – from the wrong moon phase, to a progressive cold front, to post-frontal conditions, to me just not being cut out for this – but none of that even mattered. Because this is musky fishing. It’s tough. Those are the rules. Even the most seasoned anglers go days, even weeks, without boating a fish. And yes, some days they even struggle on Lake of the Woods. Going a few days without a musky did not mean I was failing. Hell, if I’d gone the whole long weekend without a fish it wouldn’t have been a failure. Disappointing, sure. But not a failure. 

On this day, it forever hit home that there is only one result in fishing that marks true failure: letting a negative attitude ruin a day on the water.  And I was not about to fail.

So right then, I decided I was better than this. I reminded myself I was on a boat, surrounded by breathtaking wilderness, blessed to have this time to do what I love. I took a deep breath, stood up, and began sheepishly untangling the mess of line I’d created on the boat deck. And after some mood-lightening joke about my embarrassing tantrum, I resumed casting.

I did not catch a musky that evening, but I fished hard. 

I did catch a musky the next day, and it happened to be my personal best. The morning after that, as our final hour ticked away? I broke my personal record again, missing the 50” mark by less than an inch. 

Both fish were landed during the minor, both on blades, both on transition points I just knew looked fishy. Both struck boat-side after several wide, heart-thumping turns of the figure eight. Both shook and thrashed and jumped. And after a few quick photos, both were released back into the water, leaving me with a thrill and gratification I can’t possibly describe.

Fishing has a lot of lessons. There are a lot of "big life things" that appear in "little fishing moments,” and that's why I get excited to write about it. Am I proud that I - a college-educated, self-sufficient, yoga-practicing, grown-ass woman - threw a tantrum that day on the water? Absolutely not. Am I sure that the more I struggle in fishing, the more I learn to navigate the challenges in my everyday life? Absolutely. 

Here is what I know: We have no control over the result. In musky fishing, we can do everything right, and that fish still might not get in the net. In life, we can be talented, committed, hardworking and even deserving, and we still might not get that thing we want. All we can control is our reaction. And it’s a lot less fun to let yourself get down than it is to stay positive, especially when your patience finally pays off.

Natalie Dillon9 Comments