An Outdoor View: On being skunked

Getting skunked is an all-too-frequent result of having participated in the activity known as “sport fishing.” Yet, being skunked is seldom talked about, and almost never put it into writing. It’s high time someone took on the subject.

The reason that being skunked is on my mind is that it happened to me just yesterday. My “guide” was one A.E. Poynor, who had claimed to know the how, when and where of catching halibut from the shore of Cook Inlet. Having fished with A.E. before, my expectations of actually catching a halibut were as low as they can go, so I wasn’t a bit disappointed when they were fully realized. We not only didn’t catch any halibut, but neither did any of the other fishermen who were fishing along the beach. I have to admit, it was impressing to see A.E. skunk the entire beach.

Writing about being skunked is challenging, which is why you see so little of it. Maybe you’ve noticed, other than how-to stuff, most fishing-related writing hinges on someone actually catching fish. Some stories are about having a good-sized fish on the line for a while before losing it. One of the greatest was about catching a big fish, and then losing most of it to sharks. But when you don’t even get a bite, and when the weather is sunny and warm, and when you don’t get your vehicle stuck in the sand near the waterline on an incoming tide, it’s difficult to excite anyone into reading about not catching fish.

In years past, when Alaska magazine occasionally published one of my fishing stories, it was about catching fish. I wrote eight or 10 of those, and not one was about being skunked, so I was amazed when another writer wrote a story about being skunked, and the magazine published it. I didn’t think much of the story, but couldn’t help but admire the writer for his audacity. Anyone can write about catching fish, but it takes skill and courage to write about not catching them.

Recalling being skunked is painful. Boredom and frustration are nearly always involved, and who likes to think about those? At best, you enjoyed some camaraderie with pleasant companions, meaning ones who hadn’t already heard all of your jokes and stories. If you’re lucky, you were warm and dry and safe, allowing you to let your mind drift to more pleasant places and times. But luck can be so undependable.

One of the worst skunked trips I ever experienced happened about 15 years ago. A buddy and I got up in the wee hours, launched my 14-foot skiff in the surf at Deep Creek, and trolled for king salmon for what seemed like a week but was at most two hours. The weather was cold, rainy and windy. The choppy water tossed my little boat around like a cork. Neither of us were wearing adequate rain gear. After a couple of hours, both of us were soaked to the skin and miserably cold. Worse, we not only had not had a bite, but hadn’t seen anyone fishing in nearby boats with a fish on. Then things took a turn for the worse. The wind picked up. Every wave wore a whitecap. The rain became torrential. I was waiting for him to say “uncle” first, but he didn’t even give me that small pleasure. I was the first to suggest that I had had enough fun for one day.

It’s sad when your best skunked-trip story is about the worst of times, but that’s the best I can do.

If you’re still reading this, you have the patience and perseverance of a fisherman, but don’t get cocky about it. Instead, you might want to prepare to be skunked.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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