An Outdoor View: Uncertainty

Uncertainty is the natural order of things. In fishing, it’s often the only thing you can count on.

You never know what will happen when you lower a hook and line into the water. Unless you’re fishing in a goldfish bowl, you can’t be certain what’s down there. Even if a fish is there, you can’t know if it will bite. If it does bite, will you hook it? If you do hook it, you still face the uncertainty about landing it. And even if you’ve pulled a fish onto a river bank, it can still escape, as several devious fish have demonstrated to me.

In a lifetime of fishing, I can recall only one time when I was certain that I was going to catch a fish. It happened in the mid-1970s, while a friend was helping me build a cabin in Sterling. We were getting hungry, so I told him I was going to go get a quick salmon for dinner. “I’ll be right back,” I told him. I could tell he didn’t think that was possible, and I can still see his surprised look when I came back a few minutes later with a silver salmon.

That year, the silver fishing was so good in the Sterling part of the Kenai River, it wasn’t unusual to have one grab your spinner on the first cast. I haven’t been that certain about anything since, which is just as well. That sure-thing fishing was fun, but it was too much of a good thing. It needed a little uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a funny thing. We spend our lives trying to make things more certain. We strive to eliminate possibilities for failure. We fear pitfalls and disasters, and sometimes resort to foolish acts to alleviate our uncertainty. We don’t like surprises.

Yet, we like to be pleasantly surprised. We don’t really want to know what’s in that present under the Christmas tree. We like the anticipation, the not knowing for sure, the hoping that it will be something exciting and wonderful.

I’ve always liked not knowing if any fish are in the water where I’m fishing. If the water clarity is so good that it’s plain to see that there are no fish, the outlook is certain, and hopelessness is not far behind. As long as I’m uncertain, there is hope. When all is uncertain, nothing is impossible.

Let’s say I give a charter-boat skipper $300 for a day of fishing on Cook Inlet. If I’m certain that I’ll catch my limit, odds are good that my high expectations will fall short. That’s why I’ve found that it’s best to be aggressively uncertain, right up front, and to keep my expectations low. That way, if I end up skunked, I’m not disappointed, and I have the satisfaction of having realized my expectations. If I catch my limit, I’m in for a pleasant surprise.

Uncertainty isn’t all good, of course, but neither is it all bad. When you’re fishing, not knowing what’s going to happen can be a good thing, especially when the fish simply aren’t there.

I’m not sure about this, but uncertainty just might be one of the best parts of fishing.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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