What Fly Fishing has taught me about life and business – Part II

//Photograph by Leonard Schoenberger

Last updated on January 15th, 2024.

Ian Cavanagh

Read Part I of “What Fly Fishing has taught me about life and business” here.


If anyone, and I mean anyone, ever tells you that luck didn’t figure into their success, then they are flat out a liar. Sounds harsh I realize, but that is the truth of the matter, particularly for a fly fisher but also for any successful business person whom I have ever known, myself included. Picking up from where I left off in Part 1, here are the next 5 things that fly fishing has taught me about life and business.


4.      Some days you just need to be lucky.


Fly fishing guides and fly fishers alike will always speak to the multitude of variables that can affect the actual catching of fish on any given day. And there are a thousand excuses to support a less than stellar day of fishing too. The variables/excuses can include the time of day, the fly pattern, the temperature of the water, the temperature of the air, whether the fly is light or dark, whether the barometer is rising or falling, whether it’s sunny or cloudy, whether we are expecting rain or just had rain, whether the river is rising or falling, and this list goes on. The point is that there are a lot of variables at play but the truth is that you and I have limited control over the majority of them.


We can however follow some of the aforementioned tips and, when combined with a bit of luck, meet with success. But because Atlantic Salmon are so fickle in taking a fly, many times catching has as a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. Yes being lucky. If fly fishers were truthful (and let’s be honest here … they can sometimes be hard to find in fly fishing circles) everyone would admit that sometimes you simply need to be lucky to catch a fish. It is virtually impossible to align all of the relevant variables above along with the perfect cast, the perfect drift of the fly and the exact point above a fish that will result in the fish taking the fly. So luck is definitely part of the equation and, as with life, we all need to accept and appreciate this.


At the same time, as with fly fishing, you can ensure that you have done the right things to be prepared for luck. A friend and very successful serial silicon valley entrepreneur has always lived by the following saying: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. This quote is attributed to Roman philosopher Seneca and it serves to remind us that we can in fact contribute to making our own luck. I think that this eloquently sums up the notion of what it takes to be truly lucky in life, business and in fly fishing alike.


5.      You never know when a fish may take the fly.


When the fishing is slow (which often can be the case with fly fishing) it is easy to take your eye off your fly. And then invariably, when you least expect it, a fish will strike the fly but because you weren’t ready and lose the opportunity to set the fly. Being present when fly fishing is critical and you must always be ready to set the fly while standing in the river casting. I find this a particularly interesting parallel with life and business. How often are we ready for what is about to happen and more importantly, how do we react when opportunity arises? Are we present and prepared to capitalize on the opportunity or are we casually drifting through life and thus not being aware of the opportunities that are passing us by. The important lesson here is to be conscious of what you are doing at different points in life and to be prepared to react and respond in a manner that will result in the outcomes that you wish to see.


6.      The fly that caught a fish yesterday does not guarantee you will catch one on it today.


My grandfather always said that “there were more fisherman caught by salmon flies than ever there were fish” and undoubtedly any fly fisher who looks into his fly box would surely agree. On any given day, any given fly may work on any given fish. Granted there are certain fly patterns that work better or more consistently than others but the trick is to develop comfort with change. If one fly doesn’t work be prepared to try another and if that one doesn’t work then try a third. In life we often fall victim to thinking that what worked yesterday will work again in a subsequent endeavor. And it may or it may not. The point is that you have to develop a comfort with change. The more that you can do this, the better off that you will be as it often results in innovation and opportunity.


Many people, myself included, struggle with change. I have faced it head on in my life and career and no matter the change or challenge, I have somehow found my way through it, although it still serves to be one of my greatest personal and professional obstacles. Intellectually I appreciate the need for change but I also struggle with the pace and constant nature of change that seems to exist these days. But in spite of my ongoing challenge with this, if I am true to my post, I need to encourage you to embrace change and I can almost guarantee you that it will enable great things for you in life and career.


7.      Start with a short line. 


This lesson was first taught to me by my grandfather who managed a successful salmon fishing operation during his retirement years. He would tell me, with a wry grin and a dismayed shake of his head, how some sports (guests of the lodge) would arrive at the camp incredibly eager to fish. They would quickly put on their chest waders, grab their fly rod and, without hesitation, wade out into the river up to their waist before ever starting to cast. Then, with every cast they would attempt to put out as much line as they possibly could, seemingly in an effort to have their fly reach the opposite bank of the river.


My grandfather’s smile and shake of his head was well founded. This type of sport would never ask their guide, most of whom spent their entire life on the river, for any advice. And if you don’t ask for advice, or worse yet, you do but then ignore it, you simply won’t learn. If some of these sports would have been more patient and interested in what others thought or knew and took the time to ask, then they would have learned an invaluable lesson. Depending on the river, and the pools, salmon can often lie within the first few feet of the river bank. Had these sports understood this then they would have been able to quietly approach the river’s edge and start making a few short casts which could have materially increased their likelihood of hooking a salmon.


Without this knowledge however, those sports who quickly raced out into the river were inadvertently driving the salmon out of their natural resting places. These same sports would then spend countless hours casting their fly to where no fish were holding. Many a guide has sat quietly on the river bank politely smiling at such sports who fished their hearts out but never even came close to hooking a fish. Honestly, this is one of my all time favorite stories and personal lessons that I take from fly fishing which can be applied to life and business.


How often do we get way ahead of ourselves thinking far into the future in terms of life or career expectations? How often do we think we have all of the answers? How often do we fail to seek counsel and input from those around us before jumping headlong into our project or role?  And how many of us find ourselves future focused instead of being present and delivering at the highest level in our current role/position? I have been there so I can admit to all of these. Once I learned to slow down however, I found that was I was able to be more effective and thus more successful. I have also learned that there is a direct correlation between present success and future success and that those baby steps in our life and career are as important as any of the big ones. Success usually begets success and ultimately I believe that future success is born out of deliberate and consistent short term execution for what you have responsibility for today.


And listen to those around you, no matter their rank or level, and will measurably improve your odds of success too. Granted that can be hard to do at times and I have had my own share of situations where I too was a bit overzealous or overconfident.  However, as counterintuitive as it sounds, I now believe that by slowing down, listening and being focused on what you are doing today will enhance your likelihood of long term career and life success.


8.      Be careful when casting in the wind.


This one sounds pretty straight forward and is most certainly one to take heed of. Casting a fly in windy conditions can, to say the least, be a risky proposition. Countless times, in spite of knowing better, I fought the wind and the wind won. And you would think that hooking yourself once in the back of the head with a fly would be enough to teach one a valuable lesson but in my case it has taken many such occurrences. Evidently I am a slow learner. Just as casting in the wind can be perilous, so can navigating life and workplace turbulence. The important lesson here in life and business is to become aware of your surroundings, learn to read the winds, recognize when and where conflict may arise (and it will) and how to deal with it effectively. If you can master this on your journey, you will hopefully position yourself to avoid many painful knocks to both your head and ego.


Read part three of “What Fly Fishing has taught me about life and business” soon on The Wading List.