Creative Visualization For Anglers

12 comments / Posted on / by


Photo by Louis Cahill

Creative visualization is a tool used by the most successful athletes in the world and it offers powerful applications for fly anglers.

I was talking the other day with a friend who has had a life long career in amateur and professional sports. Now in his 50s, he has decided to take up Olympic Weightlifting. As you might imagine, that has come with a host of challenges, both physical and mental. He mentioned that creative visualization has been a powerful tool in reaching his goals.

I have used this kind of visualization since my 20s, when I was involved in martial arts. It has become an almost instinctive approach to any problem, for me. It occurs to me that I’ve heard very little about it in the fly fishing world, and I think a lot of anglers are missing out on a powerful tool.

As I step back and think about it, visualization could be the key that unlocks fly fishing for a great many anglers. As I coach anglers and fish with them, the issues I see holding them back are mostly mental, not physical. For that matter, I think my own issues, we all have them, are as well. The mental preparedness that comes from creative visualization frees your mind from the bonds that hold you back. Free your mind and the fish will follow.

Here’s a real world example. I was fishing, with a new friend, in the Bahamas last month. He’s a great angler. A life long fisherman and no stranger to saltwater fly fishing, but he was having trouble connecting to a fish. Each time I took the bow, it was pretty much one cast and fish on. It doesn’t always happen like that but this day it did.

“Man, you just get it done,” my buddy commented after I’d landed a handful of fish.

In truth, there was very little difference between what I was doing and what he was doing. If you had been watching, you might have wondered why I was getting all the fish. A hot fly? Nope. I can simply see the shot before it happens. I spend way more days fly fishing than most folks can afford. That means I have watched countless shots unfold, both successful and unsuccessful. That visual experience helps me develop a solid target picture, adjust my retrieve, and adapt to changing circumstances.

That visual input is incredibly valuable, but it does not have to come from the bow of a boat. You can get the same sensory input on your couch. Your brain doesn’t really draw a hard line between the real and the imagined. Research shows that imagining an event stimulates the same neural pathways as experiencing that same event. Have you ever woken from a bad dream with your heart racing? What happens in your head has a way of showing up in the world.

Top level athletes use the process of creative visualization to hone their physical performance as well as to prepare themselves mentally for the stress of competition.

If you watch Tiger Woods, you can see him do this briefly before every shot. He sees the shot unfold before ever swinging the club. That’s the kind of mental focus that makes success.

I remember my friend Whitney Gould telling a story about visualizing her spey cast while in line at the drugstore checkout. She suddenly became aware that she was pantomiming the action to an audience of bewildered shoppers. That is exactly the kind of thing that makes Whitney, Whitney. It’s also what makes her a six time world champion spey caster and holder of a world record.

Visualization is also a silent killer.

Since what you experience in your imagination effects your real world performance, you have to be careful what you imagine. Too many people replay the experience of failure over and over in their heads, reinforcing bad habits and bad choices. It takes some serious effort to turn off those negative tape loops in your head and focus on the positive. It doesn’t happen by telling yourself not to think bad thoughts, but by proactively visualizing the positive outcome.

If this all sounds a little airy-fairy to you, I’d encourage you to postpone your judgment until you’ve tried it. Whether it’s tuning up your cast by visualizing the stroke in slow motion, or preparing yourself for a shot at permit, creative visualization can help you perform better on the water and have a more enjoyable experience.

If you’re curious about creative visualization and want to give it a try, here’s a great article, from Sports Psychology Today, on how to get started. I’ve also included two videos where Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps talk about how they use creative visualization. Take some fishing days in your had and see if it doesn’t help your days on the water.

Have you used creative visualization to better your fly fishing? Tell us about it in the comments.

Want to ramp up your saltwater game? Join me in the Bahamas for the Bonefish School.


Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!

Follow Gink & Gasoline on Facebook:

12 thoughts on “Creative Visualization For Anglers

  1. Very interesting and unexpected article. I remember when my children were in high school, the school hired a new athletic director who had an excellent reputation as a basketball coach. I remember watching him teach/coach a large gym class with students of all skill levels. He demonstrated and explained the arm movement required to make consistently good shots with the basketball. He did the motion slowly, repeatedly with explanation. As I watched, I could picture myself making the shot. I even wanted to make the motion up in the bleachers. Then he had the students repeatedly make the motion with his coaching. I believe I began to see growing confidence in the faces of students that I knew were non-athletes. Lastly, he said that you have to train your muscles to make a new combination of movement that they are not familiar with.
    Good concept, good coach; even I benefited.
    Thank you for reminding me.

  2. One of the skills I am still struggling with is how to “read the water” before I make my first cast. Not quite the same as visualization, but similar I reckon. I’m trying to see what my line, leader, tippet and flies are going to do when I make (hopefully) an accurate cast, but that is after the whole mess hits the water, not before. I get it wrong way more than I get if “perfect” but if I can slow down and think about it for a minute, I have a better chance of catching.

    • “Reading” water is all about “visualization”.

      Trout are simple animals; they have only two hobbies: reproducing and eating (while resting in between). And of the two, feeding is really what they do the most. If you fish a reputable trout stream, be confident that it is filled with hungry trout that want to eat your flies. The currents in your stream are conveyor belts that deliver food (insects) to a waiting fish. Try to visualize where a trout would lie in wait in order to feed most efficiently. Those prime lies are the best conveyor belts – areas of current compression that funnel or force a higher concentration of drifting insects into their wheelhouse while providing protection from currents that are too strong. Look for the structures and water depths that make their number one hobby as easy as possible. Then visualize that trout, feeding effortlessly, while understanding that he has no desire to reject a properly presented fly. As Lefty Kreh famously remarked, “There is more BS in fly fishing than there is in a Kansas feedlot.” Fly fishing just isn’t that complex. Remember, your stream is filled with hungry trout – and reading the water is all about visualizing the location of those hungry fish. And always fish with the confidence that it is in their best interest (survival) to eat your fly.

  3. I’ve been preaching this to most fly fisherman I know for the last 20 years
    A great place to start is a golf book as noted:
    “Golf is not a game of Perfect” by Dr Bob Rotella

  4. Pingback: Tippets: America’s Favorite Flies, Creative Visualization for Anglers – Pesca y Bits

  5. I purchased this book many years ago. guess I need to dig it out and give it a reread.
    I experience negative visualization all the time, so I know this works. I tell myself I’m going to forget something and I do. I place an object on a table edge and tell my self, “that’s going to fall” and in short order, it does…………
    This book gets a bit deep but it’s a good read…….

  6. Creative Visualization…Great article, few fisherman use this technique…I thrive on it…No longer my secret….Thanks for the article…SAVED IT TO MY INBOX. Hesh
    New York

  7. We’ll thanks for this article, I’ve have done this since I was very young., with anything I’m passionate about. Until now I didn’t know that this wasn’t a normal human trait. Now I can fine tune to make it all positive.

  8. Very good food for thought. Visualization translates into focus in practical application on the stream, for sure. Both increase your chances exponentially. Tiger hasn’t been doing very well lately, no matter that he has superior skill in both those factors. You can do all on which you have expounded, but if the fish are not there, all the expert vis and focus won’t produce.

  9. Pingback: In Our Fly We Trust | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...