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The Fish Yips

In baseball, a player that suddenly and unexpectedly loses the ability to perform a routine task (making contact with the ball, a catcher throwing back to the pitcher, etc.) is said to have the “yips.” It is a perfectly wonderful part of baseball, a sport filled with bizarre and nostalgic traditions. However, I think that the yips aren’t limited to the diamond, or even sports.

For example, I’ll chalk up a person driving with their blinker on for miles and miles as being subject to the yips. Or, for that matter, a barista that has to line up the hole on the cap with the seam on the cup. That sort of negligence can only be attributed to some supernatural force like the yips. Personally, I’ve been yipped (yippied? yippled?) on setting the hook.

Just in the last few months there have been some inexplicable misses on fish. The big smallmouth on a tributary of Lake Winnipesauke. The zealous and longsuffering brown on the West Branch of the Delaware that rose to my fly no less than three times. I could mention more, but it is too painful.

Setting the hook. Seriously? Sure, it is a pretty vital part of fishing. But it requires moving your arm out of reflex. The hook and the fish’s mouth do most of the work. I’ve caught hundreds of fish in my life, most of which included an unremarkable hookset. Honestly, I usually skip or skim articles about how to set the hook. The only exception is this whole strip-setting business in saltwater. Before a trip to North Carolina this summer, I was scared to death that my trout and bass fishing muscle memory was going to ruin every chance I had at fish in the salt. So I read, watched, and practiced. Maybe that, like a baseball player changing the color of bat he uses, threw me into this yipping tailspin.

My worst experience with the hook setting yips was a weekend in Colorado. I was fishing high mountain streams, specifically targeting greenback cutthroats. I felt like I needed to catch at least one of these rascally little guys, as it seems as if 99% of my Trout Unlimited dues has been going to protect them. I had to do my part, after all. So up I hiked, and immediately was in fish.

Rise. Miss. Rise. Miss. Check the hook. Rise. Miss.

I’ve heard how the altitude can cause even the most fine-tuned and precision athletes to perform at a level lower than they are accustomed to. Plus, I had been eating a lot more elk than I was used to. It couldn’t be a me problem.

This continued for a few days. I caught some fish, but the amount of misses (on dries!) overshadowed the successes. My lowest point came when I mountain-goated up a boulder at the point where the stream flowed out of a small lake. I spotted two or three chunky trout holding high in the current, watching floating bits drift by. I missed and put down one, then two, and then the third. Upon completing what was essentially a fait accompli by that point in the trip, I allowed the momentum of my failed hookset to propel myself backwards in disgust and anguish. Blinded by agony, I neglected to consider the shape of the object I was kneeling precariously upon. The impact from the back of my head hitting the rock disoriented me enough to prevent me from panicking as I slid a good ten feet to the gravel streambank. I did keep my rod safely aloft, as I had only packed one five weight.

Like anything else in life any fly fishing, setting the hook depends on a good combination of technique and focus. Not enough of either, and you’re in trouble. Or, you can mess up whatever you can and should be able to do by getting cute or pressing. Like the force applied when setting the hook, fishing smarter is better than fishing harder. Focusing on minutia that is often taken for granted can pay off dividends in the long haul.

I’m not sure what will cure this most recent case of the yips. Part of me thinks I should just fish more, and really concentrate on setting the hook properly. The other part thinks that a new rod or sling pack will fix it.

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