Success vs. Failure in the Field and on the Stream
Well, one is obviously sweeter, but don't shun the other. It's funnier, full of important lessons, and provides a bond that we all can share
Editor’s note: As hunters and anglers, we don’t agree on everything. We’ve even been known to argue on occasion. That’s why this week is all about figuring out who’s right and who’s just plain wrong. Every day we’ll be posting stories to declare a winner on hunting and fishing’s most important debates—like 870 vs. 500, 6.5 Creedmoor vs. .308 Winchester, and spin fishing vs. fly fishing. Welcome to Versus Week.
It surprises a lot of people to learn that I’ve interspersed more than a few successes in the long string of failures that constitutes my career as an outdoor communicator. I killed a bull elk in Colorado on my first hunt there, where the average success rate for bowhunters is just 5 percent. A good-size red stag dropped in its tracks to my suppressed .308 in the Scottish highlands. There was the 100-pound tarpon I boated in Nicaragua. That’s not huge as Nicaraguan tarpon go, but I’m not sure I could have dragged anything heavier over the transom.
Wait, I’m not done. I killed a Booner whitetail in Wisconsin at 35 yards on the last day of a bowhunt as it pawed the skim ice on the pond my stand overlooked. I connected on some very hefty bass on a lake in Cuba near Guantanamo Bay. Once, I managed to grapple a 50-pound catfish into the boat. So there’s at least a few entries in the success column.
While success is undeniably sweeter, it sometimes makes me feel self-conscious, as if I farted at a funeral. But I’ve learned how to deal with this—farting at a funeral, I mean. You just give the guy next to you a dirty look and shake your head slightly. If you for some reason are identified as the source of the flatulence, simply say, “Well, I guess old Charlie is already communicating from the beyond.”
Personally, I have always had more aptitude for failure. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Failure is a far more common and relatable human experience than success. No deer hunter in his right mind expects to succeed more often than he fails. Failure is also funnier. Nobody, after all, has ever compiled a video called “Most Epic Successes of 2021.” Succeeding at something is pretty straightforward. You try your hardest and come out on top. End of story. The feeling is wonderful but fleeting. This may be why we all have to post it on social media. It’s our way of trying to prolong the experience.
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Each failure, on the other hand, is unique. And often worthy of a good laugh. Once, when I faced the very real possibility of drowning in a pond inside a highway cloverleaf interchange, I realized that it would be the most ridiculous death possible. And that it might be a long time before my body was discovered. It was anything but funny at the time. But readers loved the story. Few things are as funny as somebody else’s dumb escapades.
One of my more spectacular failures involved journeying to Mongolia, where I fished for taimen for five days and never got a bite, much less a fish. At first, I fly fished. Nothing. I switched to spinning, casting lures. Still nothing. By the end, I was casting an entire waterlogged prairie dog into the river. Chucking a deceased waterlogged dog all day wears you out, by the way. But I kept at it. I really wanted a taiman. When the sun finally set on the final day, my British fishing guide was distraught. “This has never happened to me,” he said blankly, trying to put his professional world back together.
“Happens to me all the time,” I told him. “Don’t worry. You get used to it.”
“But I don’t want to get used to it,” he said. “I’m not interested in failing.”
“Yes, but failure is interested in you.”
Once, in Wyoming, I found myself hunkered down behind a rock with a guide urging me to take a 60-yard bow shot on a bedded antelope. “You can do this,” he said, trying to bolster my confidence. “You can totally do this.” Nothing makes me delaminate faster than a guide having confidence in me. I drew, took careful aim, shot, and watched my arrow sputter across the ground 10 yards away. The reason for this was that, seeking to steady my aim, I had rested the lower axle of the bow on the ground. My guide looked briefly up into the heavens, as if a skywriter were right then printing out an explanation of how somebody who makes his living in the outdoors industry could be so dumb.
At a camp of hardcore whitetail hunters in upstate New York, I once hiked 2 miles in the dark before I realized I wasn’t wearing pants. Actually, it was one of my hosts who pointed out my wardrobe malfunction. It was a cold morning, and I was wearing two or possibly three layers of long underwear. In the dark of the cabin, I’d neglected to put pants on over the other layers. You can’t go back to a camp after something like that happens. That bridge has been burned. I did hear through a third party that the phrase, “Pants—don’t go hunting without them,” has become a running joke there.
In the success vs. failure debate, success wins hands down. On the other hand, I’d say I’ve learned more from my failures. I no longer fish the pond in the cloverleaf, although I drive past it regularly. I no longer attempt bow shots I know good and well I shouldn’t. Most important, every time I go deer hunting, I check to make sure I’m wearing pants.
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