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

//Written by Ian Cavanagh
//Photograph by Scott Goodwill

Last updated on January 15th, 2024.

Ian Cavanagh

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


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


9.      The first cast matters the most.


Most seasoned fly fishers and guides alike, know well that the first cast into an undisturbed pool, is often the most important and productive one of the day. On many an occasion, a fly fisher has risen or hooked a fish on that very first cast and sage fishers, through experience and observation, have come to fully appreciate this incredibly important lesson. This has a direct and obvious analogy to life and business … “it’s all about the first impression”.  There’s a well known adage that you only get one chance to make a first impression and that can be applied to both personal and business relationships. Evolution has taught us to trust our instincts and intuition, something psychologists call “thin slicing”.


Within moments of meeting people, we decide all sorts of things about them, from status to intelligence to promiscuity. Research tells us that people can decide our trustworthiness in a tenth of a second and that people can even read a man’s sexual orientation in a twentieth of a second — the minimum amount of time it takes to consciously recognize a face. How’s that for wow! The overall “first impression” process actually takes place over a seven second window upon first meeting someone, which means that you always need to be on your game in any social or professional setting. And just like fly fishing, this will undoubtedly increase your odds of success, whether you are applying it to the dating scene, interviewing for a new job or scaling the corporate ladder.


10.  Pace yourself and know when to rest. 


Some fly fishers will show up to a pool and pound it relentless from sun up to sun down. However, if there are fish in the pool, it is often best to give the pool a rest at times in order to let the fish settle before putting a fly over them again. Notwithstanding earlier comments in previous posts regarding the importance of perseverance when fly fishing, if you have ascertained that a pool likely does not contain fish, then it is futile to keep casting. In this situation, unless you are simply bent on practicing your cast, you might as well pack up and head home or to another pool. When it comes to life and business, relationships and career, this also applies.


How many people have tried to make a relationship work when clearly they would have been better off moving on from that person sooner? And how many people have continued to work at a company, even though they may be unhappy or have limited career advancement opportunity there? Granted it takes courage to leave people or employers, but often times this can lead you to wonderful new places. From my own personal work and life experience, it took time for me to learn to know when to move on, but I am now very comfortable and confident in assessing situations to determine if I will continue to invest my time and energy or proceed to the next opportunity in life.  And if there are no fish in the pool … stop fishing and go find out where the fish are.


11.  Any fish is a good fish.


I recall vividly an occasion a few years ago that a wonderful guide taught me an incredible lesson. On that trip, I had been fishing for Atlantic Salmon for a two full days without a single rise of a fish, when finally in the last hour of the last evening, I hooked a grilse. While playing the fish, I exclaimed jokingly to the guide, much to his chagrin, that “it’s just a small one” and I didn’t think anything more of it.  But after I landed and the released the fish with his help, he said (in a good natured but indignant sort of way), “well, that is what we came here for, and better to have one fish than no fish at all”. 


And as I heard him speak those words, I experienced one of those slap in the face moments in life. It was profound to me on many levels, not the least of which was that this was my guide’s livelihood, and that his success was a function of putting guests on fish, which he had just done. And while he was feeling proud of having done that after a couple of days of hard fishing, here I was seemingly ungrateful of his efforts. My comment regarding the fish’s size was no way directed at the guide and I meant no harm by it. I also knew that he wasn’t being mean spirited with his own comment but that he had to make a point. And the lesson was a good one, and from that day forward, any fish that I am lucky enough to catch, is a good fish.


In life and business there are many people who ‘guide’ and help us along the way. They support us, they teach us, they mentor us, they love us and they make sacrifices for us. But are we always conscious of this or are we too self-absorbed and unaware of what we are saying or doing? Do we show our appreciation for their efforts? Do we celebrate life’s successes along the way, even the little ones? Are we mindful of our words, who may hear them, and/or how they may be interpreted by those around us?  We all need to be more conscious of those around us and put ourselves in their shoes, treating them with respect and being thankful for their role in our lives and our successes. And don’t be afraid to thank them too … just as I ultimately did with the guide when he stopped me in my tracks and made me think.


12.  Reckless optimists make good fly fisherman.


Now that’s quite a thing to say isn’t it!?! For any of my fly fishing brethren, please take this as a whole hearted compliment. I can’t claim to be perfect on this point, neither with my fishing nor in my work and home life. But I do keep trying and the trick is to realize that this takes a lot of practice and effort. Just like practicing your cast when fly fishing with the goal of becoming more proficient, you can develop a practice of being more positive on a daily, hourly and even minute by minute basis. I am convinced that the law of positivity is real and I have witnessed this on many occasions in my own life and career with people with whom I have had the privilege of living or working with and learning from. I have also learned this lesson from those closest to me including my Mom, my Dad and my wife, all of whom I both love and respect.  The more positive that you can be, the greater the likelihood that good things will happen for you.


Although I can’t scientifically correlate this to my fly fishing results, I can tell you that if I didn’t practice this while spending countless hours on the river (and been tested by it!), I would likely have quit fly fishing years ago … hence fly fishing requires endless optimism. Are you generally a positive or negative person? Do you fill others’ buckets or empty them? Do you think of others first or yourself? Being a positive person and living with an optimistic outlook does not make you naïve or weak and I can assure you that when you feel positive and project positivity, that you will be appreciated more by those around you … and good things will most certainly happen.


13.  It’s called fishing and not catching.


Now to my most important lesson learned from the sport of fly fishing. This one is an often used phrase with most fly fisherman I know and it couldn’t be more true. I don’t recall exactly when I came to this realization, but at some point, I came to understand that my enjoyment of fly fishing was not born out of the fish that I hooked and/or landed. As with life, it’s easy to get caught up in the end goal or the outcome, and in doing so, risk missing the pleasure and enjoyment of the path that took us there. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,“Life is a journey, not a destination” and while I acknowledge that this is a somewhat overused phrase and entirely cliché, it really is true.


I love fly fishing because I enjoy being outside, breathing the crisp clean air in the morning, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face as well as the falling rain, reading the river and feeling the weight of it on me, watching the seasons change and taking in the nature that surrounds me. I love the silence and the solitude but I also enjoy the comradery of guides and fellow fly fishers. I appreciate both the superficial and deep conversations that take place on the river bank and back at the camp. At the end of the day, catching a fish is really just an added bonus to the entire process of fly fishing.  And that is why I continue to do it.


So many people today are in a great rush (in both life and career) and I would freely admit that I too have been there at different times on my own journey.  But it is important to remember, during this one life that we have, to lift our heads and look around. Appreciate all that you have in life … enjoy watching your children grow, travel to other parts of your country or around the world, meet new people, savour good food and take time to breathe. I recall many years ago, an Australian friend of mine saying to me “we are all headed to the same place mate, so what’s your rush?” The point resonated with me then and continues to do so with each passing day. So find a way to live your life like you are fly fishing and worry much less about the catching. Henry David Thoreau, whose writing I am a big fan of, deserves the last word on this one … “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”