You may have the latest gear, the best guide, the best casting skills and technique, the hottest lure, the latest call, and have read volumes of books and articles on the fish and game you’re pursuing, but every hunter and angler knows, deep down, that there is something else that must be factored into success–luck.

In 1899, author Henry van Dyck wrote a whole treatise about luck entitled Fisherman’s Luck and Some Other Uncertain Things. The reason for such a book, he explained, was that “The attraction for angling for all the ages of man, from cradle to the grave, lies in uncertainty. ‘Tis an affair of luck.”

My father first introduced me to fisherman’s luck. When we were fishing on Lake Erie and not getting a bite, he would say, “Wind’s in the wrong direction.” When I asked what did that have to do with fish biting, he would quote Izaak Walton’s 1653 book The Compleat Angler, “Wind from the south, hook in the mouth. Wind from the east, bite the least. Wind from the north, further off. Wind from the west, fish bite the best.”

Actually, on the west end of Lake Erie where we were fishing, wind direction actually might have a little something to do with success, as east winds often are associated with storms and especially large waves generated as the winds sweep across the open waters make fishing more difficult and dangerous. West winds, in contrast, are normal, and associated with normal weather patterns. I don’t know about north and south winds. A strong south wind would blow you right off the lake, but then Walton was English.

The connection between good luck and tangible results interests me, for in addition to enjoying hunting and angling, for a decade I practiced as a psychologist, helping world-class athletes and entertainers perform more consistently at their peak. And I would note that Jack Nicklaus, also an outdoorsman, has often said that once you’ve got the basics down, performing at your best is at least 90 percent from the neck up.

So, what influences luck?

Superstitions

In the year 2000, one in four Americans admitted that they are “very” or “somewhat” superstitious. If the same poll was administered solely to outdoor sportsmen, I suspect the percentage would be much higher. Why else does it seem that 80 percent of the fish seem to be bagged by 10 percent of the fishermen and some people seem to be magnets for ducks and deer?

The notion that spitting on your bait brings good luck is a common fishing superstition. I am not sure about the attractive powers of saliva, but it would makes some sense if you chew anise, which is commonly used as an odor attractant for salmon and steelhead. A guide who I fish with on the Kenai River in Alaska religiously applies anise to the flatfish we troll, and he catches a lot of big king salmon.

On the San Francisco Bay, if you catch an undersized sturgeon, charter boat captains insist that if you kiss the juvenile sturgeon on the nose and then throw it back, the next fish you hook will be a keeper. Strange as it seemed, a couple times this has happened a couple times when I’ve been out after these huge aquatic vacuum-mouths.

Personally, I have a good luck duck decoy. It’s a goldeneye. The bright white sides on the decoy stand out in a marsh, getting attention that draws birds, but there is more. Part of the roots of my family tree connect to the Saami (Lapps) of northern Scandinavia, and according to the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala, the goldeneye duck helped bring the earth to life. I figure having that mythology on my side can’t hurt, because as the late mythologist Joseph Campbell said, “Myth is the portal to the gods.”

Taboos

Never let anyone step over your line, or it will bring you bad luck. Bring a woman or a suitcase on board and it will result in bad luck. There are many taboos in fishing, but perhaps the strongest is to never bring a banana on fishing boat.

“Absolutely, positively, no ifs, ands, or buts, do not bring bananas on board,” declares the website for the Kona Fishing Charters in Hawaii. In Florida, some skippers take the banana taboo even farther, banning Banana Boat sunscreen and strictly forbidding clothing from Banana Republic.

Apparently this taboo can be traced back to the 1700s, and in several parts of the world. One of the most practical explanations for the origin of the banana taboo is that bananas grown in the tropics spoil quickly when they are on sailing ships coming to the U.S. And if they spoil when stored below deck, they give off methane, which can cause an explosion or even poison crewmen who go below deck.

A taboo about bringing bananas on board a boat may seem ridiculous, but there may be somewhat legitimate reasons for the fear.

Another possible reason for fearing bananas on a boat is poisonous spiders can hide inside of bunches of bananas, popping out when the bananas are on board the boat.

In Hawaii, the significance of bananas goes back farther. According to historians at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, bananas were not mentioned in songs and it was considered bad luck to dream of bananas. Hawaiians believe that the banana tree is associated with the god Kanaloa, the Polynesian sea god. Perhaps sacrificing a banana to the sea before going fishing will bring good luck.

In contrast, Hindus see the banana tree as sacred. Leaves and fruits are made as offerings to gods at Hindu temples as the Hindus believe that the banana is a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

Charms

Rabbits’ feet, lucky lures, hats, poles, and vests are all good luck charms used by fishermen. In Norse folklore an acorn is said to be a good luck charm–remember the magic acorn in the feature film Willow. Bear claw necklaces are seen as good luck by various Native Americans.

Psychology

Regardless of whether they invoke invisible forces or not, sometimes there is some validity to good luck charms, superstitions, and taboos. In performance sports, your attitude has a powerful influence on success. If you believe that you are going to be successful, you’re more likely to be so, in part because you’re more self-confident. Sportsmen of all types use performance rituals, like a batter touching his cap, touching the bat to the plate, and spitting tobacco just before the pitch is thrown to improve chances for getting a hit. Positive performance rituals are very important to improving success in all kinds of sports, and can be useful in conquering performance anxiety, including conquering “buck fever.”

Just as positive attitudes and visual imagery can improve sports performance, positive attitude and performance rituals can also be applied to other walks of life, like applying for a job. Acting coaches teach actors that before you go into an audition, recall a list of positive things, like parts you have had in the past and done well at, as a way to improve your performance in the audition interview.

Intuition

Okay, you left the bananas at home, you’re wearing your lucky hat, consulted the weather charts, and maybe you even tossed some food in the water to appease the gods. Something else is involved with the intangible element in success in the field–being at the right place at the right time.

To quote Albus Dumbledore, the wizard of the Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter books, “It’s our choices Harry that show who we really are–far more than our abilities.”

According to psychiatrist Carl Jung, each of us has four ways that we interact with the world: thinking, feeling, sensate-practical, and intuition. According to Jung, we all have all four, but we use them according to both our nature, and how we are taught. Intuition may be defined as direct knowing without conscious reasoning. And, what makes it even more spooky according to science, is intuition may include past, present and future events.

Yah, I know that some people insist that there is no such thing as intuition. When I was on the faculty at the University of Oregon, I well remember one day when a member of the faculty was delivering a passionate lecture on how intuition and psychic phenomena could not possibly exist. Simultaneously, on the lawn just outside the classroom, the grounds crew was using dowsing wands to find an underground sprinkler system. They were successful, incidentally.

Schools almost never teach about developing your intuition, but ask any good musician or athlete if intuition exists or is important to performance. Albert Einstein once said, “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Despite skeptics, a number of recent studies by open-minded researchers conclude that intuition is a very helpful tool in being successful in business.

Intuition involves direct knowing, as opposed to thinking; you know things by dreams, gut feelings, and emotions that defy rationality. Women are supposedly more intuitive than men, but research does not show that to be true. Women are not taught to hide their emotions, which means that they may be more aware of emotional and body sensations that are intuitive signals.

Everyone knows that Native American, Bushman, or Inuit guides are often the best at finding fish and game. Some of this certainly comes with knowing the land and the behavior of the wildlife, but native cultures also tend to be much more intuitive than modern people, because they are taught from birth to be aware of subtle feelings about nature. Research with native peoples finds that hunter-gatherers are much more intuitive than the average person who lives in a town.

One aspect of intuition is forecasting. In the backwoods of New England, folks quietly talk about predicting things according to omens, they call “forerunners,” like the width of a woolly bear caterpillar’s middle brown stripe. The most famous of the future predictors is the Pennsylvania groundhog, “Punxsutawney Phil,” who comes out of his burrow on Groundhog Day to see if he can see his shadow or not. If he does, it means six more weeks of winter weather.

Intuition works best when you relax and do not try to analyze things. Thinking too much, especially wishful thinking and worrying, can decrease your institutional ability. This is how “beginner’s luck” comes into being. A beginner does not have their head crammed with facts, worries, etc. They are just out there like kids playing, having some fun, and consequently their intuition is more likely to be working.

One way to develop your intuition is to keep a notebook. For a month, write down everything that you think is going to happen. Then, at the end of the month, go back and check your predictions. See what happened. Not only will this make you more aware of your intuitive abilities, but look for patterns where you consistently make mistakes. This should help you identify emotional issues that you need to work on, and help you trust and interpret your hunches more accurately.

In that notebook, also note how you perceive possible future events. Do you dream of them? Maybe you have a “gut reaction.” Do ideas about the future just pop into your mind? When you daydream do intuitive images come to mind?

When you are at the right place at the right time, something special may happen. Carl Jung called such experiences “meaningful coincidences,” or “synchronicities.” Jung studied this for many years, and came to the conclusion that a person is most likely to have meaningful coincidences if they are relaxed, open-minded, and in tune with nature.

Preparation and staying focused help, as does having the right gear, but approaching a situation with what martial artists call “beginner’s mind,” can help you to intuitively do the right thing that brings success. And, above all else, unless you are starving and desperately need food, relax and enjoy. Relaxation is the foundation for maximizing your intuitive abilities.

In Samoa there is a saying, “The fish seem to do the will of the master fisherman.” Yes, the chief fisherman knows the water, the lures and he watches where the birds are feeding, but also he must be aware of the moods of nature and how to respond to them. Develop your mental skills, as well as physical skills, and your success in the field will increase.

Good luck!

Banana image by James Swan, rabbit's foot charm by user Sobebunny on the Wikimedia Commons

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