What do you think allows some anglers to be more successful than others? Is it their boat or tackle? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s their physical prowess with their equipment; you know, great casters and such. These folks will likely catch a lot of fish, but when it comes down to it, the best casters are not always the best catchers. Perhaps it’s the home area because some anglers simply live in more fishy areas. Sure they catch a lot of fish then, but their success is a product of their environment, not a testament to their angling. After all, anyone can catch them good at certain times and places, but that doesn’t mean we are all on equal when the big picture is considered. No, what I really think separates the greatest anglers – or hunters for that matter – from the rest of us is their instincts. More specifically, their instincts combined with the confidence to act on them, is the secret to success afield.

So some mystical power is the driving force behind procuring game and fish. Just how, as an outdoorsman, am I supposed to improve that? Improving my casting is a matter of equipment; quality rods, lines, and reels can be bought and I can go practice in the same way a good golfer does. I can improve my ability to control my boat or use my electronics with practice too, and of course I can upgrade to better versions of both and up my odds of success. I can obtain the best lures or flies, view the water through high performance polarized fishing glasses, and even use sounds to attract fish or game to me. Seemingly better, I can read jillions of pages of angling literature or watch Youtube videos until my brain goes numb and still not catch fish or game as easy as some folks, and in many cases they do so with lesser quality equipment. What gives?

Again, instinct is what. Call it steely eyed woodsmanship, following your gut, a vibe, or whatever you want; success in the outdoors boils down to good decisions afield, and good decisions boil down to instinct. And while it seems nebulous, instinct along with the confidence to act on it, can be improved.

Improving your instinctive decision making starts with observation. In fact, when I started studying the habits of the most consistently successful outdoorsmen I know, I quickly realized that they are very observant. The best of them are constantly monitoring all aspects of the world immediately around them including but not limited to prevailing seasons and weather not only as it’s occurring, but also leading up to the time afield. They immediately notice wind changes, changes in the general activity level of the environment, and anything else that changes or seems out of place. They also operate with an open mind such that observations are taken at face value, not debated or compared to The Book. It does not matter what The Book says bass or deer should do when a certain condition arises, it matters what you are actually observing right in front of you.

I’ve observed folks with solid instincts but that lack the confidence to act on them. For instance, watching a bass fishing tournament the other day, a competitor repeatedly commented out loud that “I ought to go fish that deep grass line I saw,” but continued to beat the bank instead because in many cases it’s easier to catch fish there. At the end of the day, he was soundly beaten by a couple of competitors that fished the very grass lines he kept mentioning. His instinct was good, his confidence in decision making; well, not so much.

Let’s cut to the chase. How are we to improve our instincts? First, time afield. There is no substitute for time on the water or in the woods. Even more than just the time, it needs to be purposeful time laden with constant observation and consideration of how whatever you observe affects your quarry. Don’t just look around, look around purposefully. Watch for details and minute differences. Did you notice that the heron left its mid morning roost and landed on a shallow bank? Or how about the heard of beaded cows that started making a bunch of noise, then rose and started the march to food? Either might indicate a feeding period on the immediate horizon and likely a change in your approach to catching fish or game is in order. In short, be purposely observant of as many things as you can, and consider how they are affecting your success.

Learning to act on your instinct is a trial and error type process. You have to be willing to fail to improve. Get a vibe on some environmental change? Make an immediate change in your presentation. If it works in your favor, great. If not, no problem; you learned from it. Being hard headed or doing what the status quo says you should never allows you to learn. Be willing to make immediate decisions in the interest of learning from them. In the long run, more and more of those decisions will indeed work in your favor.

Focusing on your instincts and decision making is not as easy or obvious as upgrading your tackle or book smarts, but I promise it will pay bigger dividends in due time.